"[This book] embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the
world more than anything written after the events of that day."
Robert Stone

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August 11, 2007


This week journalism and communications professors gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. I’m on a panel tomorrow called “Witnessing Atrocity: Legal and Ethical Aspects of Documenting Tragedy Through Visual Images.”

I’ve brought along a copy of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a way to flex the skull.* Some gems, as I re-visit the work:


-- “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds…”

-- “Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form of memorizing it….”

-- “[T]he old advertising slogan of Paris Match, founded in 1949…: ‘The weight of words, the shock of photos.’ The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value….How else to get attention for one’s product or one’s art? How else to make a dent when there is incessant exposure to images, and overexposure to a handful of images seen again and again?”

Yes, SHOCK has become one of the great objects of our Internet Trawls, thinking ourselves The Great Unshockables, with nothing but time and brain cells to kill. Our media comes so canned, we want the candid. Our lives are so insular, we want to ferret out the outrageous, the lewd, the violent, to blow open the door to see others living beyond the pale. And we want it all vicariously, voyeuristically, from a distance, without negative consequence. We don’t want to trouble ourselves with getting up from our keypads and actually walking on the wild side. We’d rather sidle up with our idle eyes. We want to be safe in our strapping American tanks as we tool around Baghdad, watching images of insurgents on our laptops. We love our remotes. And we want it all remotely.

THE CONFERENCE. At a panel on Citizen Journalism today, I was impressed with Lisa Williams, founder of Placeblogger.com and creator of a pretty amazing “place-blog” for the town of Watertown, Mass, called h2oTown.com. One sentiment she expressed, which I found endearing and enlightening, boiled down to this gist: Our lives are utterly transparent on the Web. We’ll get burned, but then we’ll get used to it, and it will make us stronger and better journalists or bloggers or communicators or...people. “Some day, we will elect a president,” Williams remarked, “who [wrote or did] something really dumb on MySpace when he was 16.”

Longtime television correspondent Marvin Kalb moderated a lively panel on the ethics of war reporting and I was surprised to learn that both Amit Paley (who has reported from Baghdad for The Washington Post) and Abderrahim Foukara, the Washington bureau chief of al-Jazeera TV, had both been accused of being mouthpieces for both the right and the left. Foukara claimed that certain audiences in the Arab world, upon seeing an occasional story with too much of a pro-American slant, accuse the network of being handmaidens of the C.I.A.

And I thought America had cornered the market on skeptics and conspiracy theorists!

* See pages 129-132 of Watching the World Change for a description of my discussion with Sontag about "graphic images" of September 11, which we had as she was in the early stages of writing her book.

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