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Rebuilding Iraq

Snap judgments

Did iconic images from Baghdad reveal more about the media than Iraq?

By Matthew Gilbert and Suzanne C. Ryan, Globe Staff, 4/10/2003

 Iraq 2003 AP

 Germany 1989 Globe Staff

 China 1989 AP

 Soviet Union 1991 Reuters

Dynamic images, present and past: (from top) A statue of Saddam Hussein is pulled down in the center of Baghdad; a jubilant crowd climbs the Berlin Wall before it's razed; a lone protester faces down an array of tanks in Tiananmen Square; workers jump off a dismantled statue of Lenin in Riga as Latvia cedes from the Soviet Union.

On the surface, there was no ambiguity about yesterday's statue takedown in Baghdad's Firdos Square. It was the first feel-good moment of the war in Iraq -- for Iraqi citizens, for Americans unsure there are Iraqis who welcome our intervention, and, of course, for TV news.

Indeed, it was an event made in TV-news heaven, and the networks spent yesterday obsessively replaying footage of ecstatic Iraqis noosing a statue of Saddam Hussein and forcing it to the ground. And that was after the networks waited with almost comic -- and no doubt ratings-generating -- patience for the statue to actually keel over.

In the days ahead we'll learn whether yesterday truly marked a turning point in the hostilities. There may be difficult, even bloody, times to come. Yet the toppling of the Saddam statue was irresistible for a media that remain hungry for iconic images -- moments that freeze time and eliminate shadows or complexity. Every detail of the toppling dripped with upbeat, telegenic symbolism: Marines draping an American flag on the statue, then replacing it with an Iraqi flag; the giant, avuncular-looking Hussein revealed to be hollow; Saddam taking a final bow as the statue fell; a gang pulling the statue's head chariot-like through Baghdad while its boots stood empty. It didn't hurt that, unlike most of the footage from the war so far, the scene in the center of Baghdad was bathed in warm, early-evening daylight. It was more like an impassioned afternoon sporting event than the grim, green video game we've grown accustomed to -- and much easier to watch.

This kind of ''liberation'' footage -- crowds cheering in the streets, hands waving in unison, the defacing of old symbols -- is almost a convention of TV war imagery. As newscasters, experts, and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted yesterday, scenes of the statue's fall recalled similarly high-profile moments after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were also visual vestiges of the mayhem in Tiananmen Square.

''It's classic for TV reporting to gravitate toward iconic images,'' says Barbie Zelizer, author of ''Journalism After September 11'' and professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania. ''Images are more appealing than an interview with a man on the street. When we hear words, we are skeptical and situate ourselves against them as we decide what we agree with and what we don't. Images are simple and memorable. They work in ways that don't engage the intellect. . . . We are able to come to the core of the event much more readily with images than we can with words.''

Indeed, a few miles away from yesterday's fallen statue, the message was more complex, and less happy. Gunfire still rang out elsewhere in Baghdad, a clear indication the statue revelers were only a part of the picture. And what media and government officials were calling ''jubilation'' in Firdos Square looked an awful lot like the looting taking place nearby. Footage of both activities showed gatherings verging on anarchy.

Yesterday's coverage of the ''jubilation'' also had a self-conscious and forced quality, as if the media were too eager to capture ''liberation'' for its daily news cycle. Whenever the cameras pulled back, they revealed a relatively small crowd at the statue. And yet many news anchors quickly shed their objectivity to celebrate the event. ''If you don't have goose bumps now,'' gushed Fox News anchor David Asman, ''you will never have them in your life.''

''It was the mother of all photo ops,'' says Norman Solomon, coauthor of ''Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You.'' Solomon saw yesterday's focus on the statue as an ''example of the tremendously subjective character of the media coverage in this war. . . . What was notable was how few Iraqis were there. It was almost like a lethargic pep rally. There was scarcely a pompom in evidence. Despite the best of efforts, it had a kind of low-budget staged quality as though a movie was being shot but they couldn't get any extras.''

If TV's emphasis on the statue takedown was riveting for international viewers, it must have been doubly powerful for those Iraqis who saw it. Still uncertain about whether Hussein will return to power and accustomed to one-sided coverage and propaganda, many of them must have interpreted the event as a promise that he was gone for good.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says the repetition of the footage yesterday reminded him of the power of images to show us what we want to see.

''When we repeat an image over and over again,'' he says, ''we're forgetting all the other places we could also be looking at at that moment. These images become justification, proof of what we want them to become. That's the nature of iconic images.''

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Suzanne Ryan can be reached at

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 4/10/2003.
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