Saturday, July 10, 2004

Real News, Real Dead
A Pew Research study says half of Americans surveyed object to the availability of graphic war images online. This isn't the broadcast of images we're talking about, where you're sitting there channel-surfing with the remote in one hand and Fritos in the other when suddenly you're confronted with the charred body of a soldier or a child with a limb blown off. It's making the choice to go and find an image, click on it, and look at it--and then, after having done so, objecting to the fact that somebody put it up for you to go and find and click and look.

The director of the study gets at the nut by saying that although people will say that more information is better, "once they encounter real-life applications of that principle, in many cases, they are unhappy." In other words, real life isn't like what we are used to seeing on TV. Real death is one of our culture's ultimate taboos. We're a long way from holding wakes for our loved ones in our living rooms--we hide the messy physicality of death from ourselves at all costs. (When was the last time you saw, with your own eyes, a dead body that wasn't laid out in a funeral home? Have you ever seen one? My point.) At the same time, we're surrounded by sanitized cinematic death--so I suppose it's no wonder we are shocked by the fact that real dead is not like NYPD Blue dead. Or, for that matter, even 10:00 news dead, where the people are real but the images are discreetly edited.

But our collective distaste for these images also seems related to our never-far-from-the-surface Puritan desire to police what other people see and do: "This is OK for me to see [now that I've seen it], but I don't think it's right that the general run of people should be able to see something like this." News outlets have made these sorts of decisions for a long time, of course--on almost every major story, journalists know stuff they would never report. But the Internet is supposed to be more democratic--they report, we decide. It makes reporters out of all of us--we go to the sources to get the news that matters to us, and we sort things out for ourselves. Some of what we see is going to be hard to look at (literally and figuratively). But if you find something hard to look at, the right response is not to look at it if it offends your sensibilities. The wrong response is to suggest that--for their own good, of course--no one should be able to look.

Recommended Reading: Earlier this spring, the Kerry campaign dropped its website link to the Daily Kos after Kos made some controversial comments about the death of four military contractors in Fallujah. At Wired News this week, Adam Penenberg wondered: does a link to a website constitutes an endorsement of what readers will find at that site? Nobody who understands how the web works would say "yes"--but you can make a plausible argument that the same reasons that drove the Kerry campaign to bag Kos would require them to delink dozens of other sites, too.

I don't worry about what's on the sites I link to. I figure we're all grownups here, and it's up to you to click what you want and deal with what you find there. (I report, you decide.) I can't control what other people put on their sites. Hell, I can't even control what's on my own. The other day, the Google ads at the top were both pro-Bush.

Also from Wired: A couple of weeks ago, when I felt like I'd lost my blogger's mojo, who knew I would be starting a trend? First, Billmon closed the Whiskey Bar. Yesterday, Wired News posted a story called "Bloggers Suffer Burnout." I am not just on the cutting edge--I am the cutting edge, baby.

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