When seeing isn't seeing


Ever since the tragic pictures of Kosovo began appearing in the media, the analogy between these atrocities and the earlier ones of World War II keeps popping up.

On the one hand, we applaud a world that has finally seen fit to respond in a way it did not during the Nazi atrocities, and we laud the media's role in showing the world what atrocity looks like.

Yet the celebration of a readiness to intervene in the Balkans rests on a misreading of the effect of the Holocaust's coverage. Could greater media coverage of Nazi atrocity have affected the unfolding of those atrocities?

The assumption has long been that it could have.

In like fashion, today's coverage has been presumed capable of stifling and possibly preventing contemporary atrocity.

A false expectation

But we need to look more closely at what history shows us.

Not only did the coverage of Nazi atrocities receive attention, but it was roundly disbelieved for quite some time.

The response to that disbelief, in Dwight Eisenhower's words, was to "make the world see," and he made good on that promise once numerous concentration camps were liberated by the Allies in April and May of 1945. For over a three-week period nearly every newspaper and journal in this country featured pictorial spreads and scores of pictures of Nazi atrocities.

Although hard and probing questions were raised about photographic authenticity, the photos' immediate effect was widespread: A world promised that never again would it stand silent in the face of mass extermination.

The notion emerged that if only the world had seen evidence of Nazi atrocity, it never would have happened. And from this came our expectation that the media could and should document atrocity to provoke response to contemporary atrocities.

Yet have the media functioned according to our expectations?

Recent atrocities in Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia have received thin and sometimes nonexistent coverage.

Even now that we are finally seeing atrocity images of Kosovo, we remain as ambivalent about the image itself and about what the image can and should do as we were in earlier days.

Photos and skepticism

Two weeks ago we heard discussion of a doll that mysteriously turned up in the footage of different events, prompting skepticism over whether the coverage was staged. Last week's press featured a picture of a human corpse in a crater, with both Time and Newsweek running it as their lead image. This week The New York Times, however, took a different tack and ran it under the headline "Pictures Can Lie, After All." Its discussion centered on the corpse's intact state and on how the press inevitably runs images that it knows are inauthentic.

We see the pictures, then, and we continue to doubt what we see.

So has media coverage facilitated our capacity to stop contemporary atrocity? Not exactly.

Ironically, our response to Holocaust imagery seems to have diminished our ability to recognize more recent atrocities, because the past requires us to act when action might not be convenient. So we blind ourselves to what we are seeing.

In other words, the primary thing that has changed is a political imperative to act on the imagery's shoulders - an uncertain basis for public action.

But political action ends up having numerous origins, many having little to do with atrocity. And ultimately, that may be a far more frightening notion that the initial concern of not seeing atrocity at all.

Barbie Zelizer, associate professor of communication at the Annenberg School, has just published "Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera's Eye" (Chicago). Zelizer, who writes media criticism for The Nation and "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," had the name Barbie before the doll usurped it.

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Originally published on May 13, 1999