Censorship by the Superstructure
Throughout American history, censorship of news media has come in different forms. Sometimes it exists within mass media itself. Other times it is a result of governmental or military pressures. Sometimes it has to do with dissemination technologies. According to Nicholas Garnham, the distribution of the culture industry depends on the relationship between the base and the superstructure (Garnham 2001). In the complex system of the visual war narrative, the base is the photojournalist and his or her camera, the superstructure is the government, mass media, and military, and the culture industry is war photographs. The relationship between the superstructure and the base are uneven with the superstructure holding the power of dissemination of the base's cultural products, namely, war photographs. In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Noam Chomsky says of this relationship,
The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda. (Chomsky 1988)
Through a series of obstacles, the superstructure edits the visual war story in order to maintain "the institutional structures of the larger society." From the Civil War to the current War on Terror, these obstacles have changed in form and strength in order to control the narrative of war.
During the Civil War, news reporting was virtually unrestrained. Reporters could slander public figures and spread rumors without repercussion. Union General Ambrose Burnside wanted to create accountability amongst reporters, and the byline was implemented. Reporters then had to attach their name to pieces they had written, setting up a culture of more truthful, albeit controlled, journalistic endeavor. In the South, there are few documented instances of censorship in war reporting and no official avenues of censorship were established. However, after writing a less than favorable portrait of the South, journalist William H. Russell was confronted by a “vigilance committee” that intimidated him into not publishing the story. In the case of war photographs, print technology had not become sophisticated enough to accommodate the nearly 3500 wet-plate photographs taken during the war. Only people who had the means to travel to Brady’s studios had access to the photographs. Techniques such as the implementation of the byline and intimidation coupled with the limits of print technologies made for a narrow dissemination of Civil War images (Manning and Wyatt Vol. I 2011).
In response to Brady’s exhibition “The Dead of Antietam,” the American government saw war photographs as potential ways to undermine war efforts. The written and visual press was highly censored by the Committee on Public Information by the time the United States entered World War I (Henry 2005). Few journalists were allowed on the front lines, and those journalists who were allowed access to battle were under tight control. Photographer Ernest Brooks was made an honorary second lieutenant in the British army and his photographs reflect this control. Many of his photographs were posed to tell an abbreviated story of the war, such as the photograph of the dignified silhouettes of soldiers. Brooks’ photographs stand in stark contrast to those candid shots taken by soldiers themselves. Because bringing a camera to the front was a court-martial offense, soldiers often carried small and easily concealable cameras like the Vest Pocket Kodak (Pritchard 2014). However, during the war, soldiers did not have access to means of publishing photographs that press members did. Troops' photographs went largely unseen during the war. It was not until the release of the Keystone stereographs after World War I that American civilians received an uncensored visual record of the war (Mendelson and Kitch 2011).
World War II photojournalists dealt with less publishing limitations than World War I photographers. Robert Capa’s photographs depicting the dangerous frenzy of D-Day made their way into LIFE magazine. However, it was not until the last six months of the war that any publication was allowed to publish photographs of war casualties—a restriction set by the government (Henry 2005). George Strock’s photograph of three American soldiers in the sand at Buna Beach in the Pacific was the first photograph of dead troops published in America. It took nearly a year for LIFE editors to convince war censors to allow the photograph to be published, appealing to the idea that the photograph would reignite patriotism. Although Strock’s photograph presented a newer, rawer subject, it was used as a means of propaganda within the war effort (Cosgrove 2014).
With the memory of the proven the ability of photographs from Vietnam to polarize the public, the Pentagon issued tight controls on the media during the Gulf War. These policies barred many journalists from direct conflict, making many dependent on the reports of U.S. military planners for information. An abridged narrative of the Gulf War was established in hopes of dodging mass criticism from the American public like during the Vietnam War (Henry 2005). Few photographs of fighting and direct military movement exist in the context of the Gulf War. Many are posed photographs, such as Peter Turnley’s photograph of an American troop leaning against a tank, or sweeping and valiant scenes like Gil Allen’s picture of American troops cheering on a fighter plane taxiing by. However, David C. Turnley’s photograph of a sergeant crying and Ken Jarecke’s photograph of a burned Iraqi soldier exist, although neither was published until after the declaration of a cease-fire. In fact, Jarecke’s photograph was so gruesome that it was not censored by the military, but by the American mass media. The refusal to publish the image was on ethical grounds. This surprised Jarecke, who said, “When you have an image that disproves that myth, then you think it’s going to be widely published” (Deghett 2014). The omission of photographs such as Jarecke’s may protect the reader, but it also creates an incomplete visual narrative of the war. Publications in the United Kingdom and France published the photograph, and it was not until several months later that Jarecke’s photograph appeared in American Photo magazine, too late to have any possible impact on the war (Deghett 2014). The combination of military and print media censorship led to scarce and misleading visual coverage of the Gulf War.
In today’s technological landscape, where anyone with a digital camera and an Internet connection can reach millions of viewers around the world, the ability to officially censor visual information has become increasingly more difficult. In the form of mass media, however, the reigns are not completely relinquished. The military has continued to keep a close eye on journalists. Out of concern for military families, President George W. Bush and his administration prohibited photojournalists from capturing and disseminating images of the dead. However, this can also be seen as a fear of picture power and their ability to undermine war support (Henry 2005). Photographs of President Bush in a flight suit or Luis Sinco’s “Marlboro Marine” reached the public eye, devoid of the story of explicit fighting and bloodshed.
News organizations also take part in censorship in the ongoing War on Terror. In a 2002 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 56% of 1,201 Americans agreed that news media “often report inaccurately.” In a follow-up survey the next year, 71% of the surveyed Americans thought that news reports are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations” (Henry 2005). Public perception notes the possibility of collusion between news organizations and government when covering war. However, independent of possible collusion stands the Internet’s form of self-censorship—“churnalism.” Award-winning journalist Nick Davies defines churnalism as the 88% of articles lifted directly from wire copy and press releases. Although churnalism existed before the dawn of the Internet as a means of mass news dissemination, the accessibility of the Internet has fortified churnalism’s place in new media—publications want more content faster. Coupled with dwindling budgets, less people are expected to produce more content, perpetuating the culture of repackaging stories, the tell-tale sign of churnalism (Taylor 2014).
Further, few publications hire full-time photojournalists and depend on the work of independent freelancers. Fewer well-equipped photographers are even able to travel to conflict zones, especially compared to the abundance of photographers during the Vietnam War, creating a media landscape where visual information is increasingly more abbreviated (Taylor 2014). Photographs such as the “Marlboro Marine” and those of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 have been reproduced over and over on different online publications. These photographs take a place of dominance because of the quantity of reproductions, pushing other photographs to the side. Although the affordability of professional cameras such as the Canon EOS would lead to photographs of publishing quality and the accessibility of the Internet would lead to more exposure, churnalism and the new online media landscape have stunted the amount of different images the American public sees while simultaneously creating the illusion that there is an abundance of information. To find photographs outside of the widely reproduced, the Internet user must travel to lesser-known corners of the Internet than CNN.com and TIME.com.
The Internet promises more information, more pictures to the user. However, users are simply presented the same images repeatedly with little new visual news to offer. Unless the audience invests more time to search beyond the typical news source, then it is only exposed to specific photographs. Nowadays, how much of the war the audience sees depends partly on how long its members are willing to research.
Censorship of war coverage comes in many different forms: intimidation, official government sanctions, military vigilance, dissemination limitations, and the viewer’s willingness to look. The superstructure evolves as the base does in order to create more barriers and edit the story within the complex system. Throughout time, these modes of censorship have worked with each other in different combinations in order to control the story of war that is presented to the American public. The story of war is created by a dynamic relationship between a number of factors: photographic technology, dissemination, censorship, and other subsets that exist within these components of the complex system.