April 14, 1999
TERENCE SMITH: Pictures from the front have long had the power to affect public opinion. Some images, decades old, are seared in America's collective memory.
SPOKESMAN: 500 Landing craft, in ten waves, advanced on 3,000 yards of beach.
TERENCE SMITH: In World War II, the images were almost always heroic, and indirectly, they helped reinforce popular support for the war and the ultimate victory. In Vietnam a quarter century later, battle lines were harder to define, but the images no less harrowing. This famous shot by photographer Eddie Adams of the Saigon police chief executing a Vietcong suspect during the Tet offensive helped convey the savagery of the war, then there was the young girl fleeing napalm on Highway 1. And CBS Correspondent Morley Safer's memorable footage of GI's destroying a village to save it.
MORLEY SAFER: This is what the war in Vietnam is all about.
TERENCE SMITH: As the antiwar protests escalated at home, Vice President Spiro Agnew was among many officials who blamed the media.
SPIRO AGNEW: Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the government in Washington, but in the studios of the networks in New York.
TERENCE SMITH: In Lebanon, pictures of the wreckage of the Marine barracks in Beirut preceded the eventual US pullout, and the sight of American diplomats held hostage in Teheran posed a public relations dilemma for the Jimmy Carter administration.
Desert Storm was a war perfectly packaged for television. The cameras were not only in downtown Baghdad, they were even transmitting from the bombs as they descended. In Somalia, a mission that was launched for humanitarian reasons ultimately foundered after Americans watched one of their own dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Today there are again American soldiers in jeopardy, poignantly represented by Andrew Ramirez, Christopher Stone, and Steven Gonzalez in captivity. And pictures of desperate refugees implicitly help policy makers frame the debate.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: How do we avoid indifference to human suffering? It is obvious to me that the support in the United States and Europe for our actions in Kosovo have increased because of what people see going on.
|Are pictures driving public opinion?|
TERENCE SMITH: With me now to discuss whether and how pictures affect policy are Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times. She is author of Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics? And NewsHour regular and Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss. Welcome to you both.
Johanna, as you heard in the discussion out of Denver, some of these images affect people. And they find them very powerful. But the question is do they affect public opinion and then drive policy?
JOHANNA NEUMAN, Los Angeles Times: Well, I think one of the most interesting things about the pictures from Kosovo, Terry, is that they put to lie certain assumptions that we all have been making about satellite television since it first flared on the scene in the early 90's.
TERENCE SMITH: Namely?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: Well, one of them is-- and this assumption was made not only by the White House by Milosevic in Belgrade, that if you captured Americans and put them on television, it would so galvanize public opinion against the war that it would undercut western efforts against him. That hasn't proven the case. And I think it's an example of how sometimes, you know, there's this old saying that generals are always fighting the last war. I think in this case maybe that's true for political leaders, too.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael, what's your observation on this? Do pictures like this that we're seeing, drive policy? Do they affect and even force policy makers' hands?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: They sometimes do, Terry. And the thing about all this is that it's really unpredictable. Johanna is absolutely right. These three POW's don't seem to have affected the way that Americans feel about what we're doing in Kosovo, but dial back to 1979 and 1980, the 50 American hostages that had been taken by Iranians, the government of Khomeini, Americans were absolutely focused on that for 444 days. It drove a lot of Americans to think that we should go to war with Iran to get those hostages out. Had the hostages not been there, had we not been so focused on that, I think we probably wouldn't have thought that way about American-Iran relations. I think the one rule that really does go through history is if Americans are ambivalent about a foreign policy or if they don't know very much, the pictures can help to fill the vacuum, can help to affect the way they think about the world. That's one reason why we always need a president explaining to Americans what he's trying to do and how we should think about something like Kosovo. I think one of the reasons why pictures have had a big influence the last few weeks has been that Bill Clinton has been so silent on this subject for many years.
TERENCE SMITH: Johanna, do you think this administration, in fact, needs pictures to make its point and build support for its argument?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: Well, you know, the flip side of that would be if this policy falters, will the pictures be to blame? And I think the answer is no. I think to underscore what Michael said, I believe that political power trumps media power, that political leaders can dictate, can help define the pictures, can give us the captions, if you will. There's a famous example from Tiananmen Square. You may recall the picture of that lone demonstrator standing with his white shirt billowing, standing up to tank. In the West, that picture was viewed as an example of one man willing to risk his life for liberty. In China, the same photo was put on exhibit with a caption that said "Chinese troops show great restraint in not mowing down their own." Now, that's an extreme example, but I do think our political leaders influence how the pictures are received.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael, we referred briefly in the setup to Somalia. But there was an example, I mean the old saying is "pictures got us in, pictures got us out."
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right. And I think the same thing was also the case. The Somalia operation was in late 1992. That was at the end of George Bush's last year in power. Bush for the first three years talked a lot about foreign affairs, told us, for instance, how we should wind down the Cold War. One of his great acts of leadership was to make the case for getting involved against Saddam Hussein. But, you know, Terry, it was that fourth year of Bush's presidency that Bush was very quiet about the world because his political advisors were saying you have to run for president, people aren't interested. So in this vacuum, those pictures of what was happening in Somalia, the famine, drove Americans to say, why aren't we Americans doing something? They helped encourage Bush to get in. And then, of course, ten months later you saw that corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu that we just saw a few minutes ago because President Clinton had not made the case to Americans why we're involved in Somalia and Americans turned quickly against that operation.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you buy that?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: Well, I think one should add that the mission had changed and the picture of that lone soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu was news to most viewers, who thought we went on a humanitarian mission. It had changed under Clinton into a manhunt for one leader; it had turned ugly and you could argue, I think, that the picture was just another way of convoying news to most people that the mission changed.
TERENCE SMITH: Then it was the policy, not the picture?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: The policy, not the picture.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was the policy, not the picture but also policy that wasn't very well explained. Let's say a couple weeks earlier Bill Clinton had given a speech on national television saying this is what we're trying to do in Somalia, I ask for your support. And if he had made the case, then American opinion would not have been so affected by that image.
TERENCE SMITH: Johanna, another example was -- and the picture were truly horrific, Rwanda, with the genocide there. And yet this country and most of the West chose not to get involved. What does that say?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: Well, I think that Rwanda haunts Kosovo, to tell you the truth. I think the specter that we didn't go in to intercede in genocide in Africa but we have gone in in Europe will haunt policy.
TERENCE SMITH: Haunts it and drives it?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: No. No, I don't think it drives it but I do think it's a cloud.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sudan, we were also not involved when we saw images of that famine, yet at the end of the Persian Gulf War we saw those starving Kurds, we felt responsible because to some extent that was the result of the six-week war that we had fought. There were a lot of demands on George Bush to do something about it. And that led to humanitarian aid.
JOHANNA NEUMAN: If I could just add one more point, I think that if you study the history of technology, if you go back and look at how society absorbed other media inventions like the telegraph and the television, you will find that there is a period of excitement about any new invention and then an absorption. I think we have passed through the shock of satellite television. People now sometimes talk about compassion fatigue, that pictures don't have the capacity to shock us as they once did because satellite television is no longer the new kid on the block, the Internet is. And we are accustomed now to getting our information in real time on television.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael, I think you have written in the past of examples where administrations withheld pictures or before television -- you've written about the Cuban Missile Crisis where television wasn't that same pressure.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, that's for sure. You know, take a look at the missile crisis, 1962, Kruschev put missiles into Cuba but the pictures did not exist publicly. Kennedy kept them secret for a week, so that the first thing that Americans discovered about missiles in Cuba was Kennedy telling them in an Oval Office speech and at that moment saying this is what I'm going to do about them. Think, Terry, if that happened in the atmosphere of 1999, that the first thing that Americans learned about missiles in Cuba were the scary pictures of the missiles there, they would have descended on Kennedy saying this is a terrible thing, you've let this happen, perhaps we should invade and bomb. We now know that could have led to World War III.
TERENCE SMITH: If presidents go to the effort of withholding pictures, they clearly think they have a power.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And I think the best lesson for presidents is if you don't want to get hemmed in by the power of pictures in foreign policy, make sure that you're talking to the American people all the time making the case for your foreign policy, then you won't be so vulnerable.
JOHANNA NEUMAN: Well, I think that's true. But I also think it also should be pointed out about the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's often discussed this terms of what a luxury President Kennedy had of time, that he had the time for due deliberation, he had many days from the time the CIA brought him those pictures to the time he first disclosed them to the public. And I think the fallacy is that we are all living at the turn of the century. None of us have the luxury of due deliberation, doctors have to think quickly on their feet, teachers do and journalists do and leaders do, too. And so the age requires people who can take in the pictures, absorb their meaning, think creatively about steps ahead and options to come and give best advice under those circumstances.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael, looking at the current situation coming back to Kosovo, do you see any evidence that the pictures are driving the polls that we are all reading?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think they probably were at the beginning because a few weeks ago most Americans knew virtually nothing about Kosovo and what they knew came largely through their eyes from television. Now we're beginning to learn about events through all sorts of sources, one of which is television and pictures but others are what our political leaders are telling us. So it's a little bit more of a balanced input. As that goes on, I think the pictures will have less influence.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you agree with that?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: I do agree with that. I think it's striking that this is one where the public has likely been ahead of public opinion. They've been the leader of it, rather than the follower.
TERENCE SMITH: Of the administration's position?
JOHANNA NEUMAN: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Thank you both very much.