Iconic images not always accurate

Every historic moment has its iconic image. Vietnam had Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong on the street; the Oklahoma City bombing had a fireman holding a dying child in his arms; Abu Ghraib had the hooded torture victim standing on a box.

And today, the Israeli-Hezbollah war has Qana – the Lebanese village where Israeli rockets killed civilians, including 16 children (down from the initially reported 27).

Or did they?

The blogosphere has been buzzing the past several days about doctored photographs, faked footage and even the possibility that Qana was manipulated, if not orchestrated, by Hezbollah.

True or false? That seems increasingly to be a question for news consumers, who have to be detectives as they digest the day’s headlines and cutlines.

In the past week, for instance, at least two photos shot in Lebanon and distributed by Reuters were determined to have been doctored. Best known of the two is an image showing black smoke plumes allegedly caused by an Israeli strike on south Beirut.

The photo, snapped and enhanced by freelance photographer Adnan Hajj, was altered to make damage from the strike seem much worse than it was, as revealed by blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs.

Subsequently, Reuters ended its relationship with Hajj and shut down his photo archive of more than 900 images. The news agency acknowledged that at least one other Hajj photo had been doctored to show three flares dropping from an Israeli jet instead of just one.

These distortions may not rise to the level of wholesale deceit, but they are intentionally misleading and prejudicial toward Israel at a time when the stakes are lethal.

Yet another Hajj photo series under close scrutiny from bloggers concerns a bombed-out bridge in southern Lebanon, though it’s hard to tell exactly where. Two clearly different bridges are both labeled Qasmiya Bridge near Tyre, an honest-enough mistake. In several frames taken at one of the bridges, however, an overturned car appears to have been perhaps digitally moved to produce a more compelling image.

These photos can be viewed at Power Line (powerlineblog.com), where three attorneys keep close tabs on the various war fronts. These are the same fellows responsible for sizing up the fonts on the “inaccurate-but-true” documents Dan Rather presented as detailing President Bush’s military history.

Power Line’s treatment of the bridge photos is fair and open-minded – they’re asking rather than asserting whether something might not be quite right in Tyre. Meanwhile, others are questioning whether the Qana tragedy might have been staged by Hezbollah based on various perceived inconsistencies.

Thus are conspiracy theories born. When the media fail to carefully police their own, others will. And in that dead space between a forged document – or a faked photograph – and the “gotcha” reflex among bloggers are lost trust and moral confusion.

How can citizens make honest judgments about events – whether the war on terror, the war in Iraq or Israel’s response to Hezbollah – if they can’t rely on news from the front?

Equally troubling is the fact that these iconic images have the power to sway public opinion and to alter the course of history. After pictures of the Qana children were flashed around the world, for instance, public outrage was directed at Israel, prompting Israeli officials to declare a 48-hour cease-fire. The emotional power of imagery can’t be underestimated, nor can its manipulative power be ignored.

In yet another series of photographs being closely reviewed for staging, British blogger Dr. Richard North of EU Referendum has raised questions about Qana based on photos and frames captured from video.

He identifies two men – “Mr. White Tee-Shirt” and “Mr. Green Helmet” – who seem to be calculating their actions, and their emotions, for the cameras. Away from cameras, they’re dispassionate, even bored-looking bystanders to the rubble and death. Closer to photographers, they seem to emote as if on cue.

It’s by no means conclusive that the men’s emotions are necessarily manufactured, but as presented by North, they can be viewed as false. Does that make the pictures inaccurate? Unfair? Misleading? North, at least, seems to conclude that the men are more likely Hezbollah apparatchiks than mere civilians wracked by grief.

These few examples remind us that the digital media age is both a curse and a blessing. We have access to more information than imaginable even a decade ago, and yet we seem to have less reliable truth than ever.

The iconic image for these times may well be the humble Underwood typewriter – symbol of simpler times when a thousand words could paint a good enough picture.