Mr. Kalsbeek is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: March 15, 2007, p. 273.

“And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.”

I Chronicles 12:32

We used to say power comes from the barrel of a gun. Now it comes from the lens of the video camera.”¹ We also used to say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Now in many instances it would be more accurate to say, “A picture is worth a thousand deceptions.”

At least when using written news media reports, the discerning Christian has something concrete to consider and even evaluate (using the “essential eight” as discussed in our last two articles) if necessary. With the television news media however, it is an entirely different situation, one that puts the observer at a distinct disadvantage. The rapidity with which the images are presented leaves the viewer in a daze and with little or no time for thoughtful evaluation. Not only that, the fact that “I saw it with my own eyes!” leaves a lasting “seeing-is-believing” impression. Furthermore, television’s potential for deception is so great that if it is one’s only source for news, he might very well be better off news-less. This article will demonstrate why the undersigned believes this to be the case.

“If it Bleeds, it Leads”

The time-worn cliché, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is more truth than fiction, and it illustrates a significant problem with television news. Television is a visual medium. Therefore what will catch the attention of the eye is of utmost importance to the producers, and will often govern what events make the evening news and what do not. For example, if a new polar bear exhibit is brought to the local zoo on the same day the city commission votes on a city tax increase, very likely the polar bear exhibit will get the primary television news coverage that evening, while the more important tax issue will not. It’s all about pictures and which ones will generate the interest of the most viewers.

The result is a distortion concerning what is important, and sometimes a lack of balance in what is presented in the news. The current happenings in Iraq certainly demonstrate this. Bombs, smoke, fires, and blood attract viewer attention. It ought not be surprising, then, to find events featuring these dominating the news. Complaints are often heard, “Violence isn’t the only story in Iraq, but if we are to prevail, we will have to begin presenting a more compelling picture of the progress being made there.”² But who in our entertainment-crazy country wants to see pictures of schools being built and potable water systems being installed? And then there are the ratings. NBC will not compete with CBS by showing Iraqi citizens living a peaceful life while CBS is showing images of Sadaam Hussein being brought to the gallows. The problem here isn’t necessarily a bias (although that may be the case), the problem is with the medium. The medium itself is not conducive to balanced and in-depth reporting.

A Medium Conducive to Propaganda

While television as a medium often hinders balanced reporting, it also easily can be used for propaganda purposes. Let’s see how this is done by means of a few examples.

Example #1: Three days after the pictures of American soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were shown on “60 Minutes,” the Daily Mirror in London published some photos of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi prisoner. These pictures, in concert with those of Abu Ghraib, enflamed the Arab world and were an effective recruiting poster for al Qaeda. “But, as it turns out, the British photographs had been staged. The pictures weren’t taken in Iraq but in Great Britain, where they were presumably contrived to foment outrage at Britain’s involvement in Iraq.”³

Example #2: On May 12, 2004 the Boston Globe published some graphic photographs of what were supposed to be American soldiers sexually abusing Iraqi women. These pictures appeared on numerous Islamic websites and served as a useful propaganda tool for Islamic extremists. It was later discovered that the photographs were lifted from some pornographic websites in the United States and Hungry.4

Example #3: Video coverage of an alleged Israeli-Palestinian incident in the Gaza Strip portrays a Palestinian child shot and dying in his father’s arms. Soon after the TV coverage of this supposed event, violence erupted throughout the world justified by the claim that it was revenge for the boy’s death. Osama bin Laden even warned President Bush in a public message not to forget Mohammed al-Dura (the boy who died). However, there are numerous facts in the case that indicate that the scene was staged and that the boy did not even die. “The local hospital did not report that a dead boy was brought in at 1 P.M. that day . . . the father’s T-shirt remains white . . . after he was supposedly shot in the arm and hand and after his son, shot in the belly, fell stomach down in his lap. Additionally, video taken shortly after the shooting shows no blood at all at the site, but the next day bright red blood suddenly appeared there. Tapes of the scene raise even more doubts: A voice cries out more than once, ‘The boy is dead!’ before the child has even been hit.”5

Example #4: In 2006 numerous photographs were shown on TV that had been taken by Reuter’s photographer, Adnan Hajj. These pictures included dead children killed in an Israeli bombing in Lebanon, others of some smoke from supposed Israeli bombs, and still others of a grieving father carrying his dead daughter to the hospital. All of which later were proved to be made-up stuff, in fact it was later discovered that the dead girl had been killed in a swing set accident. Concerning these fraudulent pictures syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin remarked, “Reuters can kill a few pictures, but it does not kill persistent doubts about the American media’s ability to cover this war through anything but a distorted lens.”6

No doubt civilians do get hurt and even die in the process of conflicts such as this. Nevertheless it ought to be obvious how easy it can be with today’s technology to “doctor-up” these events for television news broadcasts to serve propaganda purposes.

Words of Concern about Television News from Those in the Know

An old television “insider,” Malcolm Muggeridge, who worked for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) when television was still in its infancy, had some interesting things to say about television news and its vulnerability to abuse. In his book Christ and the Media, published in 1977, he wrote about television in general: “Working in television, as I have, over a long period of time, I’ve seen it grow, I’ve watched how it’s operated, and the effect it has on people; on their values, how they look at life, and I see it as a great danger.”7 About TV news specifically Muggeridge writes, “It’s very nearly impossible to tell the truth in television . . . . If you set up a camera and take a film, that is not considered to be anybody’s views; that is reality, and of course, it is much more fantasy than the words.”8

Another old television “insider,” this one of a more secular bent, Edward R. Murrow, had this to say in a 1958 speech:

Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians…they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live . . . . I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything . . . . I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers . . . . We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information . . . . This instrument (television) can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.9

Things have changed very little since 1958. The television news media continue to strive for the largest audience, sometimes at the expense of accurate and balanced reporting. The “built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information” certainly is no less potent today than it was back then. Murrow’s hope for television news to teach and illuminate has largely gone unfulfilled. It is more likely to be used as a propaganda tool. And it would appear that today’s terrorists benefit the most.

(They) . . . understand how images amplify their message. They know that horror and drama are magnets for media attention, so they manufacture moments of horror and drama. Instead of simply killing their victims in cold blood, they behead them on camera and post the video on a friendly website. A handful of depraved men with video cameras, perhaps better than anyone, can make leaders with the strongest armies in the world back off. Osama bin Laden’s terrorists understand this. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was explicit in his message to the former al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi: In the war against the West, media are half the battle.10

The Cost of Freedom? 

The West needs to realize that there is a price to pay for the freedom of the press that we enjoy, and this is one of them. But the price is high. According to Dennis Prager, who writes inThe Schwarz Report, the television news is one reason world opinion “. . . is constantly upset with America and Israel, two of the most decent countries on earth, yet silent about the world’s cruelest countries.” Prager explains:

It is difficult to overstate the damage done to the world by television news. Even when not driven by political bias—an exceedingly rare occurrence globally—television news presents a thoroughly distorted picture of the world. Because it is almost entirely dependent upon pictures, TV news is only capable of showing human suffering in, or caused by, free countries. So even if the BBC or CNN were interested in showing the suffering of millions of Sudanese blacks or North Koreans—and they are not interested in so doing—they cannot do it because reporters cannot visit Sudan or North Korea and video freely. Likewise, China’s decimation and annexation of Tibet, one of the oldest ongoing civilizations, never made it to television.11

Yes indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words, but does it tell the truth? And if it does, does it tell the whole truth? Because the power for deception is so great, modern-day Issachar would do well to consider questions such as these when viewing television news.

¹ Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “The Tyranny of Imagery,” U.S. News & World Report 30 October, 2006:96.

² Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “Why TV Holds Us Hostage,” U.S. News & World Report 28 February, 2005:76.

³ Vicki Goldberg, “Seeing Isn’t Believing,” Reader’s Digest September, 2004:143.

4. Goldberg, 144.

5. Goldberg, 145-146.

6. Michelle Malkin, “The Reuterization of War Journalism,” The Washington Times 21 August, 2006.

7. Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1977) 96.

8. Muggeridge, 106.

9. Raymond Blanton, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Christian Renewal 22 November, 2006:18.

10. Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “The Tyranny of Imagery,” U.S. News & World Report 30 October, 2006:96.

11. Dennis Prager, “World Opinion and Evil,” The Schwarz Report September, 2006:1-2.