THE CASE OF THE 9-11 PHOTO

By Norman Solomon

"Genuine shock on Sept. 11 did nothing to displace the ongoing
processes of political calculation."

 "For a president
who'd finished second in popular votes, any hard-nosed calculus could
grasp that the Sept. 11 tragedy, while horrific, was a political
godsend."

"First
came a glut of patriotic imagery and simplistic presidential oratory,
all touted as wondrous expressions of sorrow, caring and human
solidarity. The star-spangled visual images and carefully crafted Bush
applause lines were soon affixed to missiles that shattered Afghan lives
as innocent and numerous as those lost at the World Trade Center." 

 

          Politicians are often eager to outdo their foes with media images
of greater patriotism or piety. But in recent days, Republican and
Democratic leaders have also vied to appear more offended than their
opponents.

     The catalyst was a GOP effort to boost campaign donations by
offering the faithful a Sept. 11 photo taken as President Bush spoke on
a phone aboard Air Force One. At the Democratic National Committee,
rainmaker-in-chief Terry McAuliffe called the move "grotesque" and
declared: "We know it's the Republicans' strategy to use the war for
political gain, but I would hope that even the most cynical partisan
operative would have cowered at the notion of exploiting the Sept. 11
tragedy in this way."

     A Republican spokesman quickly defended hawking the Sept. 11
picture, which is part of a "limited edition series" that includes a
pair of photos from Bush's inaugural and his speech to the joint session
of Congress soon after 9-11. "These pictures are of historic moments
from the president's first year and are living testimony of his courage
under fire, and leadership," said Carl Forti. "It is frankly offensive
that anyone would suggest otherwise."

     With both parties properly offended, a genuine media flap ensued.
The displays of tender sensibilities could hardly have been more
contrived, but the sniping was significant as an opening skirmish in a
protracted media battle ahead -- to define the boundaries of political
uses for 9-11 imagery in upcoming congressional races and the struggle
for the White House in 2004.

     Democrats yearn to set tight limits on the inevitable attempts to
cloak GOP candidates with hallowed Sept. 11 symbols. But Republicans are
determined to retain the valuable political finery.

     Genuine shock on Sept. 11 did nothing to displace the ongoing
processes of political calculation. That day's tragic events made it
possible to drastically reduce the number of Americans who were apt to
see George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as no more statesmanlike or
compassionate than Howdy Doody and Phineas T. Bluster. For a president
who'd finished second in popular votes, any hard-nosed calculus could
grasp that the Sept. 11 tragedy, while horrific, was a political
godsend.

     Predictably, month after month, the loyal opposition in Washington
largely confined itself to loyalty. Democratic Party tacticians abetted
Bush's key post-9-11 policies. Keep hundreds of people behind bars while
tossing the precious right of habeas corpus on the junk heap? No big
deal. Kill a few thousand Afghan civilians with Pentagon firepower in
the name of "the war on terrorism"? Not a problem. Support the Israeli
government as it mimics the apartheid-era South African regime with new
heights of deadly repression? Sure. Launch the biggest long-term upsurge
of U.S. military spending in decades? God bless America.

     But as the November elections draw near, top Democrats cannot stand
idly by and let the Bush administration play its political hand with
Sept. 11 imagery. "While most pictures are worth a thousand words," said
Al Gore, "a photo that seeks to capitalize on one of the most tragic
moments in our nation's history is worth only one -- disgraceful."

     Akin to condemning Al Capone for jaywalking, the controversy over
Bush's 9-11 photograph reflects the alignment of both major parties
within the wingspan of the establishment media. And vice versa.

     With few exceptions, political journalists don't perceive an issue
as worth covering unless there's a split within or between the two
parties. When such a split exists, then reporters devote appreciable
coverage to the matter, and pundits are pleased to choose up sides.

     Unhappy that the Republicans are marketing the set of 9-11 photos
for a minimal $150 contribution, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd
complained bitterly: "With all the class of a 1:30 a.m. infomercial for
an electronic ab stimulator, the GOP pitched donors, for a bargain
price, a pictorial triptych of W.'s 'defining moments.'"

     But much of the media backlash seems due to sentiment that
exploitation of Sept. 11 should be less tacky and more subtle. The photo
fund-raising gambit lacks the sort of propagandistic refinement that
graces numerous Bush speeches, which continue to gain Democratic nods
and media plaudits while invoking 9-11 to back up visions of an
ever-mightier Pentagon as a pivotal solution to the world's problems.

     A new stage is underway in a bait-and-switch process that began
more than eight months ago, with fervent praise from news media. First
came a glut of patriotic imagery and simplistic presidential oratory,
all touted as wondrous expressions of sorrow, caring and human
solidarity. The star-spangled visual images and carefully crafted Bush
applause lines were soon affixed to missiles that shattered Afghan lives
as innocent and numerous as those lost at the World Trade Center.

     Now, the bait-and-switch is turning into an election-year sales
pitch. To the extent that partisan strategists see any advantage, 9-11
imagery will be plastered onto campaign machinery. You may not like it,
but you'll probably get used to it.

 

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

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