NBC, the Military Industry Network owned by General Electric, at least unless or until it is sold to Comcast, was, along with most of the rest of the US corporate media, outraged when, last year, the Associated Press circulated, and some newspapers ran, a photo of an American marine, Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, dying after being shot in battle in Afghanistan.
There was all kinds of high-minded talk about the protecting the dignity of the dead, and about how it was not appropriate to show such images without the permission of the deceased’s close relatives.
But then how to explain the spectacle of poor Notar Kumaritashvili, the 21-year-old luge rider from the Georgian olympic team. Kumaritashvili had the misfortune of hitting the edge of the luge shute he was on during a training run in British Columbia, and, at a speed of 89 mph, he was thrown from his sled and over the safety wall into the air, where he hit a steel pole, which killed him.
NBC, which was taping the run, rushed to air the grisly death. No attempt was made to seek permission from Kumaritashvili’s family. Hey, this was good TV. Why risk ruining it by giving the family a veto over the tape?
Well, NBC, when criticized, claimed it was all in the interest of public safety. They had a legitimate need to show the public that riding a luge is dangerous, the network said. Never mind that almost nobody rides a luge, and that all of those who do are keenly aware that it is a life-risking sport.
The word for this kind of nonsense is hypocrisy. Another word is capitalism. Blood and gore sell, and this tape meant great ratings for NBC.
On the other hand, you’d think that showing what the war in Afghanistan, or the war in Iraq, look like would be good for ratings too. And shouldn’t there be a journalistic responsibility to show Americans what is going on in our name and with our tax dollars, in our country’s wars, not to mention that if it’s important for potential sledders to know how dangerous a luge shute is, shouldn’t potential military recruits be shown how dangerous wearing a uniform can be? Anyhow, we should be able to take the real ugliness and the blood: We Americans pay good money to see the fake gore of military slaughter–even of Americans–in movies like Avatar, or Saving Private Ryan, or Apocalypse Now.
But when it comes to war, politics intervenes. The military and its political handmaidens in Congress and the White House, don’t think that showing the authenic gore of American casualties that occur daily in the course of our bloody imperial adventures is a good idea. It might get Americans to thinking too hard about those wars, and about whether we ought to be fighting them. And so NBC, and most of the rest of the US media, politely keep those images safely abroad.
Seriously. They have the footage, and the photos. They just don’t let Americans see them. I was stunned, for example, when I lived in Taiwan in 2004 for five months, to see that CNN International, which is viewed all around the world, but not seen in the US, had plenty of film footage of dead American soldiers. They have to air that stuff if they want to compete commercially overseas with such other international news programs as the BBC and Al Jazzeera. But those scenes get censored out in Atlanta, so we don’t see them here.
We get to see dead Haitians. We get to see dead Sri-Lankans. We get to see dead Taliban fighters. We get to see dead Olympians–especially if they’re foreigners like poor Kumaritashvili. They don’t get shown any “respect for their dignity.”
But we don’t get to see dead or dying American soldiers. That would be a shameful thing to do.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org