Every December, media organizations comb their archives for the iconic images of the past 12 months. They're used for the "year-enders'' that obsess us in the slow news period during the holidays.
As if anybody wants to relive 2003 and its almost relentlessly depressing headlines. Not that good news is ever real news, no matter how much the White House wishes it were so.
That's why the Pentagon is currently building what I call its own GNN — for Good News Network — to do an end run around the networks and beam directly from its press center in Iraq. Just in time for election year 2004, the satellite service will counteract all those terrible stories of bombings, shootings, killings and maiming from the, you know, war.
Instead, TV stations stateside that pick up its feeds will be able to telecast happy tales of school or clinic reopenings. (Not that journalists are allowed unfettered access to Iraqi hospitals but that's another matter.)
As Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Joe Yoswa told the New York Times yesterday: "It's to provide the full news story."
Meanwhile, some 40 million tax dollars are being invested in a TV studio complex in Virginia. This new Arab-language news and entertainment station, to be named Al Hurra (The Free One), will go head-to-head with the all-news Al Jazeera, only with greater resources and slicker production values.
And, of course, an American point of view. For example, as the Times reported, Al Hurra will refrain from pointing out that, when Israeli forces raid Palestinian refugee camps, they're flying American-made aircraft.
Which brings us back to the pictures of the year.
Throughout my life I can recall all kinds of indelible images: Lyndon Baines Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One while a shell-shocked Jackie Kennedy stood by in her bloodied pink suit; Neil Armstrong landing on the moon; Canadian soldiers in Montreal during the October Crisis; a naked 9-year-old Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack; Margaret Trudeau kicking up her heels at Studio 54; the brutalized corpse of that American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu ...
This year, there's plenty of competition for the picture of the year.
Will it be the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue by a small claque of Iraqis aided by U.S. tanks and troops? Will the winner be U.S. President George W. Bush doing his topside Top Gun "Mission Accomplished'' strut aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln?
Or his triumphant Thanksgiving Day turkey trot through that Baghdad mess hall where, by the way, only handpicked soldiers were allowed to gain entry?
So many more to choose from: The dramatic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, which turned out to be more drama than rescue?
The stitched-together corpses of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay, on display to show that they were really most sincerely dead. And on and on.
This week, we have a new contender to add to the short list: a grizzled Saddam looking like one of those evil drunken rapists of "squaws" that Clint Eastwood shoots in Sergio Leone westerns. Is there anybody who hasn't seen that brief video of Saddam getting his tonsils tickled replayed over and over? Even as I write this, I can see it again. And again. (Which makes me wonder: How come we haven't seen any more images of his capture because it's clear that plenty was shot?)
Memorable as all these photos may be, they all prove one thing: The camera does indeed lie. That's because all these images only tell one side of the story, the one that the White House wants you to see. And all are, in some sense, just as manufactured as the next.
Me, I'd prefer to see those images that nobody wanted to pose for: the U.S. and British troop casualties, in their coffins and their hospital beds; the Iraqi civilians whose homes, lives and limbs were demolished; the Americans who will suffer economic hardship to pay for it all.
A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.
Too bad one is false while the words are too often lies.
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