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The power of television pictures
by Ignacio Ramonet
February 20, 2002 - In the great industrial scheme of things as conceived by the captains of the leisure industry, it is clear to everyone that the pictures which appear on television or in the press are regarded above all as a good, and that this characteristic far transcends what ought to be the media's fundamental mission: to reflect reality in such a way as to enrich democratic debate.

The media are subject to increasingly fierce competition, as commercial pressures intensify. Many top media executives today come from the corporate world, and no longer from the ranks of journalists. They are less sensitive to the quality and truthfulness of pictures. In their eyes, the market for information, the news business, is first and foremost a means of making profits.

After the Gulf War (1991), which marked the triumph and indeed the climax of a television industry founded on the power of representation, the newspaper industry sought to take its revenge. It found it by discovering new territories of information: the private lives of public figures, and scandals revolving around corruption and the mixing of business and politics. This was what one might call revelatory (as opposed to investigative) journalism. To expose affairs of this kind, the decisive element is the ability to produce compromising documents which, being generally written rather than pictorial, television cannot exploit. On a battleground like this, the newspaper industry was once again able to seize the initiative. Which is why in many countries most of the corruption scandals of the last ten years have been revealed by newspapers rather than television.

In the famous Clinton-Lewinsky affair, because there were no pictures - the protagonists were holed up in their homes - TV stations and CNN had to resign themselves to organizing debates in which one newspaper journalist spoke after the other. Michael Isikoff, author of the delayed Newsweek article, and the only American journalist at the time to have heard any of the famous recordings of Monica Lewinsky's telephone confidences, hurried to and fro between CBS, NBC and ABC. It was however the lone public TV channel PBS that offered the first really interesting pictures of this affair, the blockbusting interview of Mr. Clinton by its star presenter Jim Lehrer.

In this event, even if TV finally seemed to be out of the game - the revelations had become known through leaks, and those who leaked them refused to be filmed to remain anonymous - TV nevertheless persisted in over-covering the event, at the same time neglecting all other international news. Overflowing with rumours, deprived of pictures, the networks faced a simple dilemma: how could they to speak about presidential sexuality without descending into trash TV? Television brought to the investigation no new element, no fundamental pictures of the investigation, although the cameramen never stopped running after newspaper reporters. Once again, the TV networks demonstrated the paradox that on television, generally, there are no pictures. The TV networks ended up finding their salvation in CNN's archive footage, with the famous photograph of Mr. Clinton embracing Monica Lewinsky at a party in the White House gardens, broadcast over and over again and instantly dissected by self-improvised semiologists and experts in body language: "Monica's loving look", "the complicit little tap on the shoulder". Using this footage provided after-the-fact confirmation that the TV networks had not been able to produce a single meaningful picture since the beginning of the whole affair.

In the autumn of 1998, nine months after the beginning of the affair, the TV networks realized that they had still not been able to show their viewers a single interview with Miss Monica Lewinsky. At the time the Starr report was published, Americans realized they had even never heard her voice!

In this era of virtual information, two parameters exert a determining influence on information: me-tooism and hyperemotion.

Me-tooism is the fever which suddenly comes over all types of media and impels them to rush to cover an event (whatever it may be) in absolute urgency, under the pretext that other media - and in particular the media of record - attach great importance to it. This half-crazed imitation, taken to excess, causes a snowball effect and works as a kind of self-intoxication: the more the media talk about a subject, the more they become collectively convinced that the subject is essential, central, pivotal, and that it needs to be covered even more by devoting yet more time, resources and journalists to it. The media thus overstimulate and overexcite each other, try to "out-scoop" each other and allow themselves to be carried along in a kind of dizzy, intoxicating spiral which leads to information overload ad nauseam.

Hyperemotion - that other characteristic of information overload - has always existed in the media, but it has always been the speciality of those newspapers of the popular press, those which enjoy playing up the sensational, the spectacular and the emotional. On the other hand, the so-called media of record placed their faith in their rigour and conceptual coolness, as far as possible refusing pathos, and instead sticking strictly to facts, data and events. All that has gradually changed under the influence of the now dominant information media which is television. TV news shows, with their fascination for "spectacular news", has deconceptualized news and mired it progressively in a swamp of pathos. Insidiously, they have set up a kind of new equation for news, which can be summed up like this: "if the emotion you feel by looking at the pictures on TV news programmes is true, then the news is true".

That gave credence to the idea that information - any information - can always be simplified, reduced, converted into mass pictures, and decomposed into a certain number of emotion-segments. All this being based on the very fashionable idea that there exists such a thing as "emotional intelligence".

"Emotional intelligence", if it exists, would be the justification for always allowing any news material - the situation in the Middle East, the crisis in South-East Asia, debates about globalization, social upheavals, ecological reports, etc - to be condensed, simplified, boiled down to a few pictures. To the real detriment of actual analysis, which allegedly bores the audience.

We are at a turning point in the history of information. Among all the media, since the Gulf War, in 1991, it is television that has seized power. For today, TV it is not only the main medium of entertainment, it is also henceforth the principal news medium. It is now television that sets the tone, that determines the importance of this or that news, that decides what is or is not news. Only a short time ago, evening TV news programmes were organized on the basis of what news had appeared that day in the newspapers. TV news imitated, followed the newspaper industry. News was classified according to the same architecture, the same hierarchy.

Now, the reverse is true: TV dictates the standard, imposes its own order on the news, and compels the other media, in particular newspapers, to follow suit. At the time of the affair of the mass grave of Timisoara in December 1989, newspaper editors admitted publicly that they were so impressed by the pictures they had seen on television that they had rewritten the reports from their correspondents on the spot that did not mention "mass graves".

That day marked a new stage in the evolution of news. One central medium - television - produces such a strong impact in the mind of the public that the other media feel obliged to move with this impact, to sustain and prolong it.

How has television achieved this supremacy? Not only because it offers pictures and a spectacle, but because it became a means of propagating information faster than the other media, and since the end of the eighties and the digital revolution, it has been technologically capable of transmitting pictures instantaneously, at the speed of light, by means of satellite relays.

By taking over the leadership of the media hierarchy, television imposes its own perversions on the other information media, beginning with its fascination with pictures. And the basic idea that only what is visible deserves to be news. What is not visible, or cannot be seen in pictures, is not good television, and therefore does not exist.

Events which produce strong pictures - violence, natural disasters, suffering - consequently go to the top of the news hierarchy: they impose their own precedence over other subjects even if, in the absolute, their importance is secondary. The emotional shocks that these pictures produce - especially those of sorrow, suffering and death - is altogether on a different scale from that which the other media can bring about, even photography (bear in mind the decline of photo-journalism, increasingly supplanted by "people" stories i.e. adventures in the lives of celebrities).

Forced to follow suit, newspapers believe they can recreate the emotion felt by the TV viewers with written copy (reports, eye-witness accounts, confessions), which, like pictures, plays on the emotional and sentimental register, addressing the heart rather than reason. So even those media considered as serious have been known to neglect serious crises, because there were no pictures to enable them to exist.

Pictures, so it goes, are king. A picture is worth a thousand words. This basic law of modern communication has not been overlooked by political leaders, who make every effort to turn it to their advantage. Thus, they are very careful to ensure that no picture can circulate which might illuminate any delicate or compromising question. This is neither more nor less than a form of censorship. Written accounts and eye-witness testimonies can be issued if necessary, because these will never produce the same effect. The weight of words cannot rival the shock of pictures: as communication experts tell us, pictures obliterate sound, and the eye prevails over the ear. So certain pictures are now very carefully monitored, or, to be more precise, certain real situations are strictly prohibited from being pictured, which is the most effective way of covering them up. No picture, no reality.

This is something army staffs have understood since the Vietnam war. And no war, not even those wars waged by democratic states, has ever known transparency of information. Tricks, lies and silence have become the norm, as could be seen at the time of the Falklands War in 1982, the invasion of Grenada in 1983 or Panama in 1989, the Gulf War in 1991, the war in Bosnia between 1993 and 1996, or finally the war in Kosovo in 1999.

The military are not alone in having understood this. Most public and private organizations, equally lucidly, have equipped themselves massively with press attachés and communications directors, whose function is none other than to practise the modern, "democratic" version of censorship of pictures.

The concept of censorship has always been assimilated to the exercise of authority, and is one of the latter's major components. It means abolition, prohibition, suppressing and/or withholding information, precisely because the authority in question believes that an important element of its power consists in controlling the expression and the communication of all those under its supervision. This is the way dictators, despots and judges of the Inquisition operate.

To live in a free country is to live under a political régime which does not practise this form of censorship and which, on the contrary, respects rights of expression, publication, opinion, debate and discussion.

Today, we experience this tolerance so much as a miracle which we fail to perceive, that an insidious new form of censorship has set in, which one might call "democratic censorship". This, in opposition to autocratic censure, is no longer based on prohibition or cuts, but on the accumulation, saturation, excess and overabundance of information.

Journalists are literally asphyxiated. They are collapsing under an avalanche of data, reports, files - of more or less interest - which mobilize them, occupy them, soak up their time and, like a delusion, distract them from the essential. Moreover, it encourages them to be lazy, since they do not have to look for information any more. Information comes at them of itself.

Two logics are facing each other off: the "all-picture" logic of TV, and the "zero picture" logic defended by political power. The first leads to increasingly frequent abuses: the imperative need for pictures can lead to the production of forgeries, or to a very rough and ready use of archive material (as when a Breton cormorant was presented as a gull from the Gulf which had fallen victim to an oil slick), or to reconstituting real events using actors or synthesized pictures, or to using pictures from amateur video cameramen who filmed "live", "on the spot" footage of events of no importance, etc.

As for the other logic, the "zero picture" logic, is this really censorship in the classical sense of the term? One cannot really claim that it is. In states where the rule of law prevails, the reason why the taking of pictures is regulated - one cannot simply just film anything one likes, authorizations are necessary before one may take cameras into hospitals, prisons, barracks, police stations, asylums etc. - is simply respect for human dignity.

On the other hand, the attitude of the military, with their desire to extend this reasoning to other areas of engagements is a different matter. What is at stake here is not the same, because wars, all wars, are the product of politics, and thus directly concern all citizens, who have a duty to receive information and the right to be informed. Were journalists in the Gulf, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Kosovo right to accept the logic of the military? Surely this inevitably made them accessory to lying.

Thus the confrontation of these two contradictory logics occurs at a time when television, because of a major technological leap, is able instantaneously to present live pictures from any place on the planet. Henceforth, television can follow an event - be it a brief filler or an international crisis - throughout its duration. Also, as the American channel CNN regularly does thanks to satellite transmission, multiplexing and Internet connections, it can transform an event into the central business of the planet, as it did with the Iraq crisis in the spring of 1998, the Clinton-Lewinski affair in autumn 1998, the war in Kosovo in 1999, the Middle East in 2000, prompting the principal world leaders and other prominent personalities to react, and forcing other media to follow and amplify the importance of the event, thus confirming its importance and assigning absolute priority to solving the problem.

Who can escape this worldwide tom-tom? Tiananmen, Berlin, Rumania, the Gulf, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Diana, Clinton-Lewinski, Kosovo, the Middle East declaim the rhythm of 'what is news' with such force that all other information becomes blurred, muffled and dissipated. To the extent that major events can be hidden behind a screen of forceful pictures, to the point of escaping the world's attention.

Those in power have understood this. They benefit from the way the planetary village, busy passionately following some great news "drama", enriched with sensational pictures, is distracted while they undertake some reprehensible act or other. This is called the "screening effect", whereby one event can be used to hide another. Information is a cover-up for information.

Thus, the United States benefited from the emotion engendered by the Rumanian "revolution" in December 1989 to invade Panama at the same time; Moscow used the Gulf War to try to settle its problems in the Baltic states and to spirit away Mr. Eric Honecker from Germany; the Israeli government exploited the spectacular Scud attacks by Iraq in 1991 to repress even more radically the Palestinian civilian populations of the West Bank and Gaza; Mr. Clinton tried to divert the attention of the media away from his personal affairs with Monica Lewinski by artificially rekindling military tensions in the Gulf area in spring 1998.

None of these dangers prevents TV news from indulging itself in the 'high' of live broadcasting, so much so that TV seems today to be possessed by a furious need to 'connect', to bring together, to tie in… the Gulf War carried this new fever to its climax, since it was on that occasion that television - and particularly CNN - literally made an exhibition of its modern technological capabilities and its (not always perfect) mastery of connections: live pictures from Washington, Amman, Jerusalem, Dahran, Baghdad, Cairo, giddily followed one another on to the screen in a kind of dizzying, intoxicating, irresistible self-induced zapping. Since then, the other TV networks have all imitated CNN, and the slightest event, whether local (royal wedding) or international (the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney), gives rise to connection hysteria, a demented desire to 'connect' with vast networks of special correspondents.

And that is actually in itself the main news: this ability to hear from the other side of the world. For anything else, the videophone sounds hollow. Moreover, the current obsession with multiplying connections forces correspondents to stay close to their mobile antennae, preventing them from going out to gather fresh pictures and news, which ought to be their mission. In addition, constant demands from the central studios forces reporters to keep in contact with other media, thus feeding a variety of rumours, insignificant declarations and unchecked facts into the news machine in a kind of loop. The point is to demonstrate that the system works, that the machine "is communicating", not that it is providing information.

One consequence of this new situation, this obsession with direct, live, real-time coverage is that the representative model of TV news is changing. TV news has always functioned on the Hollywood drama model, a spectacle structured like a piece of fiction. It is a dramatic account in which sudden reversals of fortune and changes of tone follow one another in a mixture of genres around three central registers: love, death and humour - and which are mainly supported by the attractiveness of a single star, the presenter.

For cinemagoers, what is interesting is not necessarily the story itself, of (for example) Camille or Madame Bovary, which everybody knows, but rather the way Greta Garbo or Isabelle Huppert plays these characters. Similarly, with television news, the main information is not what happened, but how the presenter tells us it happened.

However, recently, this model has been replaced by another, that of sporting journalism. Life is regarded as a sports match, nothing counts more than the pictures of the event about which, as in the case of a real match, there is not actually much to say. Commentary then becomes minimal, and the role of the presenter discrete. The journalist restricts himself to adding a minimum of information - for the force of the picture must override all - so that, just as in a football or hockey match, one can practically follow the events shown on TV news with the sound turned off.

At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989, TV news presenters who had actually travelled to Berlin looked straight at the camera and said, while behind them the crowds from the East were running towards the riches of West Berlin: "what you are seeing is history being made before your very eyes."

Television is not a machine to produce information, but to reproduce events. The objective is not to help us understand a situation, but to make us be present at an event.

This is what television believes today: that it has the power to enable people to see "history being made", and that showing the people its pictures at the same time automatically helps them understand. Admittedly, it is enough to follow the ball to watch a match, but policy is not a match, the rules of the game are not codified like those of a sport. To inform is not the same as commentating on a match. Any journalist who accepts that puts an end to his own existence, by admitting that his function is practically useless and that from now on what is essential is to show, as if everything else were just idle chatter. The upheavals induced by these new forms of journalism go further still, and explain why TV viewers remain disconcerted and disorientated. For what is at risk is the very authority and credibility of the TV news system.

Why do people believe the news pictures they see at the cinema or on television? What makes them legitimate? Throughout the history of the audiovisual media so far, there have been two ways of making pictures credible. Initially, there were the cinema newsreels: each week, cinemas presented an outline of the national and world news in pictures and sound. The credibility of these newsreels was based on the off-screen commentary. It told you what you were supposed to see, and gave meaning to the pictures; it made their meaning acceptable and obvious.

(In 1961, Chris Marker definitively showed in his Letter from Siberia the semantic importance of commentary over pictures: he presented three sequences with identical pictures, accompanied by three different commentaries, positive, negative and neutral, thus revealing that it was the commentary that imposed the meaning that the viewer gave to the pictures.)

The voice of the commentator remained anonymous, unidentified (for it was not mentioned in the credits). It was an abstraction of a voice, an allegory: the allegory of information. A voice which spoke almost theologically to viewers in the black silence of the room. And they had to believe it.

The second model, that of TV news of the Hollywood type, established itself on the United States at the beginning of the 1970s on CBS, with the advent of presenter Walter Cronkite, and was based on quite different elements. The voice was no longer anonymous. It had a face and a name; it was perfectly identified, it was that of the presenter who spoke to the viewer eye-to-eye (thanks to the electronic prompter which enabled him to read his text); it was the voice that spoke to the viewer every evening, and was received into his/her home. Thus there came into being a relationship of confidence, of knowledge - virtually, at least - between presenter and viewer, which lent credibility to the information the viewer received, according to the idea that a familiar person who looks you straight in the eye cannot be lying to you.

Under the present arrangements which constitute the third model, the figure of the presenter grows blurred. Initially, "live, real-time", round-the-clock information of the CNN type, cannot rest on a single presenter, who would rapidly be exhausted by it. Next, the sequences broadcast from the central studio are fleeting, the centre functioning henceforth almost as a sorting centre, like a crossroads. In the last analysis, nothing is more important than the network, the web of correspondents, the multiplicity of connections, in short, the permanent flashing on and off of the system which now occupies the central position. It is an electronic stimulation device which shows itself, exhibits itself, works, "communicates", which seems to be saying to us: "The pictures I am showing you are true, because they are brought to you by technology". And we believe it because we are impressed, because it dazzles us and persuades us that a system capable of such technological achievements cannot lie.

Given this mechanism, TV viewers for the moment do not yet have references to help them establish the relationship of confidence essential to the credibility of what TV tells us. What is certain is that there is nothing any more that resembles either the abstract voice of the news, nor the smiling presence of the presenter. Vis-à-vis the citizen, TV connects, TV links, TV speaks to us across its networks, in short, it "communicates". But confusedly, the citizen no longer feels part of it.


Ignacio Ramonet is Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, and Professor of the Theory of Communication at the Université Denis-Diderot (Paris-VII, France)


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