I'm too lazy to make too much of a critique right now, but I read an interesting piece on GetReligion yesterday. It was prompted by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post noting that the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal didn't take wing until some photos came along. Terry Mattingly ties this to what he calls "Media America" and its need for image:
The bottom line is that mere words on a printed page were not enough to cause action. No, Media America needed pictures. Americans needed something that directly tapped into emotions and caused a hyper-news meltdown. Nothing is real until we feel that it is real. Facts just won't cut it.
I'm far from disagreeing. But the last two statements are disingenuous in their suggestion about the need for emotion and confirmation of the facts to prompt action. Images in general, and especially in our photographic era, are the paramount evidence of truth. To see is to believe. A writer's eloquent self-defense notwithstanding, images move people much much more than the naked word of a page. It's because vision is an immediate, primary sense, tied directly to cognition, emotions, and ultimately survival. Reading and writing, the visual word as it were, is a secondary sense, a compound of linguistic inclination with visual ability. Simply put, writing is learned, whereas one need only the education common to all social societies to understand what you see.
(Parenthetical caveat: I've lived with people who could not process image - show them a photograph and they only understood color, not picture. Here though, I'm treating image as something much more basic - the sense of sight and its manipulation for communication, which is not the same as transferance. A photo is visual, communicative, and transferable through time and space; a mime or a play, for instance, is visual and communicative, but remains fixed in a particular time and place.)
The "facts just won't cut it" because until they're confirmed they aren't taken to be facts. This is called science or evidence or reasonable doubt. For the public or even the journalists to approach simple written reports with a request for visual substantiation is merely being human, rather than a programatic machine. We can fault reporters for failing to follow up on some of the early reports, but what they lacked was a reliable witness. "Blessed are those who have not seen and believe" - yes, and they believe because they're told by someone believable. And frankly, until the public learns just how easy it is to fake photographs, a picture will be a much more trustworthy witness than the written word.
Mattingly goes on to mention the sexual enjeu of the mess:
And let me add that finding a powerful sexual hook didn't hurt this story either. As we all know, this is what makes for major news play -- even on the God beat. Sex and pictures. I cannot tell you how many journalists have told me (especially television journalists) that one of the main reasons they have trouble selling religion stories to their bosses is that the art is not strong enough. You know, all of those people standing around in robes and gray suits. Ugh. You need something that sizzles.
Frankly, I see this as a symptom of comtemporary focus on fundamentalist Protestantism and Islam, two of the least visually appealing religions out there. You want picutres? Who has seen photos from that most religiously saturated subcontinent, India? Try a consecration in the Vatican, the destruction of rather colorful churches in Kosovo, a garish Buddhist temple. Even Islam isn't all that bland - check out the self-flagellating Shia, the whirling Sufis, the bright blood of goats slaughtered for Tabaski. Funny, too, how if gray suits are so boring, Congress gets plenty of coverage.
Religion and sex is a whole 'nother issue I won't bother with in this already rather overwrought piece. Let me end with this - Mattingly is Orthodox, and a damn fine commentator. When he goes to church he should notice that, unlike our Protestant cousins, we don't just read the Word. We surround it with image after image. Orthodoxy, like most religions with historic roots, has a richly visual tradition - precisely because it is for humanity, who are the people of the image; a people who need image.