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When Images Drown Out The Words We Need To Hear
Published on Thursday, June 26, 2003 by the Seattle Times
When Images Drown Out The Words We Need To Hear
by Floyd J. McKay

AT what point in the long history of politics and journalism did we make the great shift, from power of the word to power of the image? Few would dispute that words have given way to images.

It began with John F. Kennedy and Camelot, and I would contend that perfection was Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" re-election campaign in 1984.

The Gipper was known for misstating facts, and CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl put together a piece showing Reagan making statements; then, as the pictures continued, she stated the true facts. Feeling good about setting the record straight, she got a call from Reagan's camp, thanking her for showing the pictures again, because people will remember them and forget the words.

A generation later, George W. Bush is banking on that.

We will remember soldiers pulling down the statue of Saddam, and Bush in his "Top Gun" outfit on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.

We will see those images hundreds no, thousands of times next year. We remember them already.

But words are quickly forgotten.

Remember Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations, solemn and commanding, listing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), down to the exact gallons and liters of killing agents?

The world watched and listened. Impressive data, very precise.

Those of us old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis wondered, perhaps, why there were no aerial photos, none of the spy stuff that technology could produce in 1963. Why not in 2003?

We went to war because the president convinced at least some of us that WMDs were there, maybe nukes as well. We were warned that Saddam would use WMDs on our troops. We were told of al-Qaida links, that Saddam had a hand in 9/11.

Skeptics got the usual brushoff: secret intelligence, national security, old chap. Sorry.

But words mean something if action results. Action resulted.

Now, nearly two months after the "battle" the new term for what was once called a "war" no WMDs have been found (a trailer that might be used for nasty stuff isn't a WMD; it's less lethal than a meth lab). American troops have looked mightily; they understand the necessity to find something.

Even if something is found, it's apparent that Powell was not telling the truth at the United Nations. All those liters and gallons and so forth if we really had such precise information, we would have found something by now.

I'm not accusing Powell of lying, only of making the speech he was told to make, using figures he was told were accurate. A good soldier, Gen. Powell.

Our intelligence on Iraq wasn't the best, but there was intelligence. The Bush administration discarded what it didn't want to hear, inflated what it wanted to hear and justified an invasion it had wanted from the day the administration took office, well before 9/11.

Now, after the deed is done, new voices are emerging and they counter the words that took us to war.

Intelligence agents don't like the way their information was misused, and they are talking to journalists. Congress, timid and trusting, is finally asking serious questions. The British Parliament is investigating its data, much of it produced by the United States.

The president himself has taken a new tack: See how nasty Saddam was, look at the mass graves, the torture rooms. We might not find WMDs, but we threw Saddam out, and it was worth it.

Certainly the world is well rid of a nasty dictator, but that wasn't the reason we were given for invading Iraq.

Our stated reasons were WMDs and terrorism. But we went before the world with "facts" built on fantasy and twisted interpretations of intelligence. Now there are thousands of dead and injured, Iraq is in chaos and we are stuck there for a very long time.

Does anyone care that our leaders lied to us, and if they are willing to lie to us on war and peace, what other subjects are fair game? Apparently, the books on global warming have been cooked. What else?

Never mind, just watch the picture show.

We'll have a parade, and honor 9/11 with pictures and music timed nicely for the 2004 Republican National Convention. The images will fill our television screens.

We love images.

As for the words... well, perhaps we misspoke, our plan was misstated, we were misunderstood, misquoted. What-ever.

And, of course, they were only words.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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