The camera doesn't lie

September 08, 2005

NEWS ORGANIZATIONS are usually uneasy about showing images of the dead, as a matter of both taste and respect. But it's a decision for individual newspapers and television stations to make. When the government attempts to play the deciding role -- as the Federal Emergency Management Agency did yesterday when it began trying to prevent photographing of the dead in New Orleans -- it smacks not of concern for the feelings of survivors or the sensibility of readers, but of a desire to cover up the bad news.

Is there an echo here? For more than a year, the Bush administration prevented the press from showing the return of soldiers' coffins from Iraq. They weren't part of the "reality" that the White House intended to portray. The storyline on Iraq was shock and awe followed by Pfc. Jessica Lynch followed by the big statue coming down followed by schools being repainted. Soon enough, of course, the press was reporting a different version, but the initial burst of image-making made a lasting impression, and until very recently, American officials were still going over to Baghdad and coming back with tales of a success in the making. In a strange way, the insurgency -- by making the practice of journalism so difficult in Iraq -- has enabled the administration to keep promoting its sunny tales, in the general absence of American eyewitnesses.

In the wake of Katrina, Washington trotted out the same strategy -- and was made to look foolish and devastatingly incompetent. As the floodwaters kept mounting, officials from the president on down persisted in delivering self-congratulatory pronouncements, when it was plainly obvious to anyone with a television set or a newspaper subscription that New Orleans and its remaining residents were in horrifying distress.

Reporters this time were embedded not with the still-idle National Guard units but with the crowds at the Superdome, and as hard as FEMA might now try to create a different construct of reality, it won't stand. Pushing the unfortunate dead out of view is not respectful but in fact the final indignity: Neglected and marginalized in life, they are to have no presence in death.

But Americans won't be so easily beguiled. From the Tigris to the Mississippi, this is an administration that has lost its grip on reality, for all the world to see.

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