It's not hard to find the images of dead American soldiers that have, since they emerged Sunday, made American journalists very publicly squeamish. Go to ArabNews.com and there's the big boxed link: "Click here to see photos U.S. media won't show you." Arab News, an English-language newspaper based in Saudi Arabia, reports heavy traffic to the site. John R. Bradley, managing editor of the Jiddah-based news organization, says that of the more than 1 million hits on the Web site, 80 percent have come from North America.
For Arab News, the decision to post the photographs, which show the interrogation of American military men and women and the bodies of what appear to be dead soldiers, was a basic question of journalistic objectivity. The American media were hiding a truth of the war, and Arab News felt obliged to fill in a glaring gap.
For American news organizations, which have refrained from showing all but glimpses of the footage, it was far from simple. It was a matter of taste, ethics, professional standards and responsibility to a complex web of constituents: viewers, families of the soldiers, the government, and news organizations' often vaguely defined sense of journalistic mission and responsibility.
At issue, however, are several questions central to reporting and consuming news in the era of 24-hour television coverage and the burgeoning independent news media on the World Wide Web: Are images facts or illustrations? If a fact is ugly, should it be kept at a distance from readers and viewers? And what do news organizations do with the simple fact that there is both an eager appetite for, and a sincere disgust with, graphic images?
To Arab News, the editor says, the photographs were facts, and showing them wasn't a matter of taste but an obligation to give readers full and complete coverage.
"There is a very fine line between good and bad taste," says Bradley. "Good taste usually corresponds to what is palatable for the government, and bad taste to what is unpalatable. And it has nothing to do with morality."
Not only were the photographs necessary facts, in Arab News's view, but not showing them was also a fact; the "media won't show you" line was, in a sense, the caption to the photographs, the explanation for why they are meaningful. (Arab News, incidentally, did not use some of the most gruesome images, which could be found instead on Matt Drudge's Web site. The "caption" here was that the American media wouldn't show the full horror of Iraqi atrocity.)
To many U.S. news outlets, however, the images were more a matter of illustration, something supplemental and discretionary that wasn't necessary to fully cover the capture of American soldiers. The fact was the capture and possible execution of some POWs; the images were a graphic addendum. And so most American news organizations chose to keep viewers at one descriptive remove: They would tell viewers what was on the tape, but not show it.
Within mainstream television networks such as ABC, there was a relatively rare public debate about the standards that should govern use of war images. On Sunday morning, when the tape emerged, anchors Charlie Gibson and Ted Koppel exchanged differing views on the air.
"Anytime you show dead bodies, it is simply disrespectful, in my opinion," said Gibson, the host of "Good Morning America."
"I feel we do have an obligation to remind people in the most graphic way that war is a dreadful thing," said "Nightline's" Koppel.
It was more than an exchange of opinions. It was the morning guy, the personality journalist, talking to the late-night journalist's journalist. The morning guy put subjectivity first, using his own standard of taste to keep the viewer away from unpleasantness. The late-night guy articulated the question as a basic issue of facts: "The fact of the matter is young Americans are dying. Young Iraqis are dying. To turn our faces away from that is a mistake."
Koppel's response raises a question that has troubled photographers (and people who use photographs) since cameras were first taken into war zones. What they document isn't that young men (and now women) die in wars; that fact is too obvious to need photographic evidence. Nor is it that war is brutal, bloody and violent. That, too, is too obvious to need documentation.
But if those aren't the essential facts of a war photograph, what are?
For the U.S. government, which requested that news outlets not show the video (even though it was appearing on the Qatar-based network al-Jazeera), the basic facts of the images were the identities of the soldiers. The strongest argument against showing the tape, and one that dissuaded The Washington Post from using still images in Monday's editions, was that families would learn the most painful fact of wartime -- the death or capture of a loved one -- too soon, too publicly and without the comfort of direct human communication.
But what of those same images after the families are notified?
"Then it comes back to the nature of the images themselves," says ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. "Simply because images exist doesn't mean that they must be put on television. Simply because we have access to video does not demand that it be shown. I don't think our viewers lacked for any information about what happened in Iraq yesterday."
Unless, of course, the visceral unpleasantness of the image is part of its basic statement of fact.
"What we consider heinous, sensational, graphic, people in [other] societies say: This is our reality," says Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank and journalism school in Florida. "Americans have a very much more provincial view because the norms of war are so remote from American life experience."
Paul Fussell, author of "Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic" and other books on war and the sociology of war, also finds the coverage of this war lacking a basic sense of immediacy and truth.
"Nobody has photographed anything worth looking at," says Fussell. "There have been a few pictures of Marines hunkering down, but those pictures don't indicate the fear, the desire to run away."
Missing, says Fussell, is the essential "scandal" of wartime. While this war may be, as television viewers are frequently told, the most televised and best documented war in history, if viewers are kept at a distance from gore, they are not getting the whole story.
Many of these same questions surfaced last year, when the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was captured on videotape. Although most news organizations refused to show the tape, or used only non-graphic still images from it, the Boston Phoenix made it available on its Web site.
Peter Kadzis, editor of the Phoenix, says he falls into "the Ted Koppel" camp when it comes to graphic imagery.
"I think that war is and of itself full of brutal acts, but that nevertheless there are levels of brutality and callousness," says Kadzis. "Anything that helps those of us who are far removed from a conflict to understand the degree of force applied, or the degree of brutality enacted, anything that seriously contributes to that understanding, is valid."
Again, it's a question of distance. The farther one is from the conflict, the more necessary the graphic image becomes.
The Phoenix's decision, and the heavy traffic to the Pearl video, raised the troubling question of why people look. It's a cliche to compare war imagery to pornography, as evidence of an essential prurience in readers and viewers. But the Web traffic to ArabNews.com, and earlier to the Phoenix, does indeed suggest a strong desire to see images that people like Charlie Gibson don't want to see.
This fact is as troubling for news executives who want to protect the sensibilities of viewers as it is for those who believe that ugly facts are essential to full understanding. If a fact can be obscene in its violence yet mesmerizing in its appeal to many viewers, can it possibly convey a meaningful message about the ugliness of war?
If photographs are facts -- hard and necessary facts -- essential to getting the full reality of war (American reality, Iraqi reality, military reality, civilian reality), just like any other fact (casualty figures, for example), consider the following statement: We have some disturbing facts that we won't tell you. This places journalists "in the know" and viewers "in the dark," which is a basic violation of the trust in truth-telling.
But if photographs are illustrations, then it's a question of judgment, taste and propriety. And not showing the image endears the network anchor to the viewer.
The facts of war are hard, unpleasant and necessary; illustrations of war are something else, an appeal to a desire few people willingly acknowledge (to get closer to death and violence). The challenge, for the American media, especially, is to not vacillate between calling some images facts and others illustrations. It will be all too easy to document the fact of Iraqi death while declining to show -- based on the squishy logic of when and when not to illustrate -- the fact of American death.