What Is Media Reality?
Or: We got him!
What does media reality mean? It means that it is not
reality that is real, that not the real things determine what reality
is, but that things in media are real and that media are real. It is
characteristic for media reality that it is not the news value of a
given fact that determines our reality, but the way in which it is presented
and animated in the media. Too much abstraction? Here’s an illustration:
Paul Bremer, civil administrator of Iraq, addresses the assembled corps
of international journalists in an extraordinary press conference. He
approaches the stage, gives a formal greeting, then an artful pause
– extremely artful: And then he just quips that one short sentence,
“We got him!” Another pause. And for the moment, that is
all he has to say. Everyone knows the deal. As far as such media presentations
are concerned, the US prove themselves to be a true and unlimited superpower.
No-one could have done this better. An impressive scene. The whole production
is perfect. Of course: the fact disappears behind the images that are
supposed to depict it.
Now take a closer look: We see the hall for the press conference, alternated
in a close and a long shot. First the journalists, then back to Paul
Bremer, who gives them the news, then back to the journalists again.
And then we see two things, so widely separated that it is close to
impossible to relate them to each other, although they are taken from
the same context:
First, we see Arab journalists, as we are later told, who cannot help
but loudly express their wishes for ‘his’ death. It is difficult
to evaluate that display. Are they indeed taken by their own hatred?
Are they following a convention for which Western television is inadequate?
In any case, they are an inferior part of the show. We cannot distinguish
the Arab journalists that are shouting, they remain in the shadows in
the dim background of the picture. They take no part in the show that
is being staged for American television. In the most literal sense of
the word, they do not fit the picture. For this public demand for ‘his’
death belongs more to ‘his’ own arsenal of media presentations,
an arsenal far less subtle and less perfectly functional than the one
we are here at one of its highlights.
Which is why our eyes quickly move on to the next thing, and find something
that is virtually symptomatic: We see – item number two –
‘him’. But he is not present – and that makes all
the difference. We zoom closer to a video screen that is set up in the
hall, and that screen is where we see ‘him’. And in a perfect
mask, too. A long beard, white in parts, we are seeing an old man, ‘he’
is not quite up to the situation. A doctor, with proper plastic gloves
covering his hands, gazes into ‘his’ mouth. One hand is
holding a little wooden stick, the other points a light down ‘his’
The show is practically grotesque. Everyone knows, nor is anyone trying
to hide, that this is a piece of prey being exhibited. That a doctor
looks down a dictator’s throat has likely happened before, but
that these pictures go round the world – that’s new. On
the one hand, the demonstration showcases an exact adherence to human
rights conventions, but at the same time, this seems to be a violation.
Who takes a prisoner takes responsibility for the prisoner’s health.
But at the same time, these pictures prove that they now have the power
to look down ‘his’ throat. There’s something voyeuristic
about that. And indeed the picture is intended to please us, the audience.
Animal trainers often look down the lion’s throat just that way,
don’t they? Isn’t that part of the circus’ canonical
forms? Hitler, by the way, used that topos of the circus during his
last days in the bunker to justify his suicide. In fact, why is it the
throat in both cases? Perhaps because it is the only socially acceptable
orifice that can be shown to the audience in this manner. Later they
will shave off his beard so that he looks like he used to. But we never
see the barber. That’s somewhat disappointing.
It’s a strange combination: they show how they fulfil their responsibility,
and yet there are some who will question whether that show is not irresponsible
in itself. They look at his teeth, and do so by ‘his’ request,
as we hear, and leave him toothless – though only in a metaphorical
sense. Is that allowed, does it violate the Geneva Convention? Perhaps
that discussion is pointless as far as this man is concerned. And even
more so in the face of the logic of these images. We might also ask
whether it isn’t him who bears the responsibility, especially
now that he has lost control of the images.
But it is important for this grandly over-stated show that we don’t
stop at that. The doctor looks at ‘him’. And at the same
time, this is supposed to show ‘him’ to us. It’s a
visually presented proof: Look, we really have got him. No doubt about
it. But we don’t just see him, we also see how he is now seen.
Dictators are always grandiose self-exposers in grandiose self-presentations;
they are the masters of their own representation. What we have here
is the opposite. ‘He’ is an object of observation, of a
doctor’s examination, one that is being conducted perfectly correctly.
Though it is hardly sympathetic, it remains otherwise irreproachable.
Now here’s the sting. Perhaps it’s a technological necessity,
but it does become part of the show. We zoom in on the video shown in
the hall at the press conference: We don’t cut to the video, we
zoom into it, so that the picture almost, but only almost fills the
television screen. We don’t just see the video. We still also
see that we are seeing a video – namely the same video seen by
the journalists. We look at journalists looking at him as a doctor looks
at ‘him’. 'He’ is no more than the occasion of the
show. Perhaps that’s the worst punishment for this man right there.
For he isn’t coming off very well. Some people say that ‘he’
should have killed himself. They are the ones who still saw him as a
hero, a leader of the Arabic nations, as the one who should erase the
constant dishonour done to the Arabs. Other commentators point out that
this would have relieved the Americans from the burden of deciding what
is to happen to ‘him’. But there is another side to this:
These pictures destroy a legend, they do away with a martyr, and that
might be of more value to the Americans in the long run. It is rare
to see such a hypertrophic self-presentation (as ‘his’ was)
break down so pathetically. The destructive power of pictures like these
is unparalleled. But what that proves, once more, is that we only compare,
criticize, and evaluate the various staged shows. In the end, the show
that is staged with more intelligence and more complexity, the show
that functions better, can claim victory.
A moral evaluation would be a different problem. I believe that that
is an open question, and only want to propose that such an evaluation
cannot completely ignore the specifically pictorial logic that is at
work. It is true that the reports were extensively illustrated, and
to a large extent with pictures that ‘he’ had prompted himself.
The strategy, of course, is to show how far he has fallen. It’s
the old story: Look, this is how he saw himself, now see what he looks
like. The proverb that “pride goes before a fall” might
describe a law that is valid for, or even one that is only valid for,
pictorial logic. Before anyone condemns the pictures, they should take
‘his’ part in them into account.