Falling Man(kind)

Freedom of the Press — does it extend to personal lives? One of the most debated issues of the press since the beginning of journalism (and perhaps beyond that?), this issue seems to rise and fall in popularity, but undeniably this question is never forgotten in the world of the press.

I suspect most people would suggest there is a line that can be set as uncrossable when it comes to revealing personal information. However, despite the general agreement that the press’ invasion into personal lives is an undesired occurrence, the question remains: how far is too far? How much truth is acceptable, and how much is simply invasive?

We were shown the first portion of this in Cultural Studies today, up until the black-out with the title. To me, this clip seriously begs the question of how far is too far? Speculation on the identity of the Falling Man was very widespread initially, from what my professor said. One reporter even went so far as to name a potential identity, over which the family of the named person was outraged. To the family, the concept of their father/husband/brother/son committing suicide (and they were Catholics, apparently, multiplying the negative connotations behind this claim) rather than fighting it through until the end was scandalous, quite sensibly.



I have not watched the entire seventy minute clip. I would rather focus on the notion of the documentary, captured in the first portion of the clip. I may at a future date watch the whole thing, but for now, take note that my thoughts are just regarding the first bit. There may be more information contained therein that change the context of the information, I am not sure.

For those who watch the entire thing, note that it is one of three parts. The second portion can be found here and the third found here.

Our readings for this week demonstrated two sides to the argument about whether or not this was too strong an infiltration into the lives of those involved.

Susan Sontag, an American, touched on the subject a number of times in her writing career. Initially, she tended towards the mainstream notion that too many emotional instances in the news (particularly on television) was causing a sort of shield against emotional involvement in the average viewer. She writes:

“Many critics have suggested that the excruciations of war — thanks to television — have devolved into a night banality. Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb.”

Later in her career, however, she followed up this thought:

“But it is probably not true that people are responding less. That we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical value of an assault by images. It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images. Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by the established powers.”

In the first she seems to question the effectiveness of using stirring images en-masse, whereas in the second she withdraws even this sentiment. But what is apparent in her writing is that she personally believes that the use of such images is a required demonstration of truth; that, above all else, the importance should be placed on learning from the issues presented in the news.

In the contrary position, South African author J.M. Coetzee uses a novel character to convey an opinion concerning the issue. In this passage, the main character of the novel has been reading a novel concerning the Holocaust.

“That is what Paul West, novelist, had written about, page after page after page, leaving nothing out; And that is what she read, sick with spectacle, sick with herself, sick with a world in which such things took place, until at last she pushed the book away and sat with her head in her hands. Obscene! she wanted to cry but did not cry because she did not know at whom the word should be flung: At herself, at West, at the committee of angels that watch impassively over all that passes. Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world, if one wishes to save one’s sanity.”

And then he brings to us a definition of what the oft-repeated word “obscene” refers to in his passage:

Obscene, that is the word, a word of contested etymology, that she must hold on to as a talisman. She chooses to believe that obscene means off-stage. To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must remain off-stage.”

And finally:

“What was it inside her that rose in revolt against West and his book when she first read it? As an initial approximation, that he had brought Hitler and his thugs back to life, given them new purchase on the world… While she has less and less idea of what it could mean to believe in God, about the devil she has no doubt. The devil is everywhere under the skin of things, searching for a way into the light. Through Hitler’s hangman a devil entered Paul West and his book. West in turn has given that devil his freedom, turned him loose upon the world.”

The last portion of the second passage state his opinion the clearest, declaring the author’s opinion that, while the human spirit may revel in the horrors that go on in such situations (which is an aspect of the commercialization of the news, another ever-present issue in the world of media studies), it is necessary to deny that desire for the traumatic drama. The author argues that to revel in such brutality gives those who commit the acts a second chance at power over the world. In this passage, Hitler is allowed to captivate the minds of the author and the readers, in essence giving him the reign over the world he sought to conquer.

Which author is correct? Personally, I cannot see the justification in completely masking he horrific events of war and crime. To do so would be to ignore issues that are at a scale that cannot be ignored. However, the point that dwelling on the events overly long seems a valid thought, as well. To continue showing footage of said events years after their occurrence — is this not liable to simply perpetuate rather than to solve the problem? Josef Stalin is quoted as having commented that “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” But does this mean that focusing on the tragedy is necessary to right the wrongs previously committed? Should the statistic be enough? Or does the sensationalizing prevent any progression from occurring whatsoever if there is not a deeper emotional shock value than was previously acceptable?

How much freedom should be granted to the press?

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephen
    Feb 07, 2007 @ 21:22:00

    The Stalin quote gets it right: “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”

    The job of a reporter is to communicate the reality of what is happening in the world. Both the Holocaust and 9/11 are events so vast in their magnitude as to be incomprehensible. Hence the significance of the Stalin quote; likewise, the image of the falling man.

    How do you relate to the people trapped in the WTC on 9/11, unable to escape as the situation deteriorated until the buildings collapsed? Somehow the event has to be personalized. “3,000 dead” is a mere statistic.

    Phone messages to loved ones is one way to personalize it — but again, this brings us into a very private moment. The stories of survivors helps to bring it home. But the photo of the falling man is worth a thousand words — a hundred thousand words.

    If it is legitimate for reporters to cover events; legitimate for them to communicate the truth to us — then it is legitimate to publish the photo of the falling man. He didn’t choose to be swept up in a public event, but lots of things happen to us that we don’t bring upon ourselves. In the end, he represents every other victim who died that day, in the public’s imagination.

    But precisely because he’s a symbol, his personal identity is of secondary significance. The media shouldn’t have identified him without his family’s consent. That information wasn’t necessary to communicate the horror.

    Reply

  2. The mysterious wonder
    Feb 08, 2007 @ 04:42:00

    I disagree with you stephen, sorry, but the media needs to have boundaries, and where those boundaries are I am not one to make, but a majority say on whether or not the media can show such tragic footage right away, seeing the buildings get hit was alright for the world to see, but showing people dead, screaming, using masks to breathe… and showing numerus of individuals jumping off. How does that make a individual watching T.V feel, when they see a person jumping and splattering to the ground, the media feeds on fear. With out any fear, the media would not exist, they would have to talk about violence in cities only, or important news about celebs, or random lottery winners, even sports news… I would love to listen to that news. I like hearing what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I do not need to see footage of dead people, I understand that will happen, but showing it causes stress and feeds into the terrorist.

    That is what the media did with 9/11, they showed the scees of everything relating to this terroist attack so sudden that it caused more fear in teh world, and made the Taliban and Al-Quada more hyped on what happen… these people love and live of the fear of others, why do you think they bomb people in their own country, they think it is a game.

    The media is just playing the game with them, and that is where we need to take charge and say NO, this is unacceptable, because why encourage them even more to do another attack, when if we were not shown scared, these people may be more cautious on what they do..

    GOOD DAY SIR!!!

    Reply

  3. Stephen
    Feb 08, 2007 @ 21:40:00

    • Mysterious wonder:
    Showing people dead, screaming, using masks to breathe… and showing numerus of individuals jumping off. How does that make a individual watching T.V feel, when they see a person jumping and splattering to the ground?

    I once asked a friend of mine how he dealt with stress. He is a psychologist, which is a pretty stressful job (listening to people’s depressing histories all day long).

    His answer: “I exercise, and I never watch the news.”

    Watching the news can be stressful, no doubt about it.

    The falling man photo is a still, and it doesn’t show him hitting the ground and “splattering”. Arguably, the photo is inspiring, because the man seems so composed in the way he poses his body. One of the people in the documentary comments that it looks almost meditative.

    It goes without saying that this death was a tragedy, but the photo testifies to a triumph of the human spirit: of someone who chose the moment of his death and (if one can judge such a thing from a photo) achieved a state of composure even in his final moments.

    I think you’re suggesting that the photo is exploitative, though you don’t use that word. And yes, we disagree on that point. I don’t think the photo is exploitative: I think it captures a moment of profound human dignity.

    I hope to die so well, when my moment comes.

    Reply

  4. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Feb 09, 2007 @ 05:50:00

    Stephen:

    How do you relate to the people trapped in the WTC on 9/11, unable to escape as the situation deteriorated until the buildings collapsed? Somehow the event has to be personalized. “3,000 dead” is a mere statistic.

    Yes, it is certainly a mere statistic, and inhuman at that. However, the question I would like to raise is the old “chicken or the egg” issue. Is the statistic really impersonal, a block to our ability to identify with the situation? And do we truly need to relate to the situation on a personal level? My initial argument to both questions, based on today’s society, is yes. There is a distinct lack of attention given to anything that is not sensational in its nature, and there is a definite block for us as humans from contributing our efforts towards rectifying a situation if it appears to be either a) inhuman or b) so monumental that it is impossible to resolve.

    However, in reevaluating the situation, I question whether this is true because of the fact that it is human nature to require a sensational, gripping story that strikes us on a human level, or whether decades of abuse by the media have generated in our society this inability to recognize the significance of a statistic.

    The other thing that I wonder is whether the power the media has to evoke such emotions in the masses is truly theirs to wield. At its core, the notion of Press is fundamentally part of our world. To have coverage of local, national, and international events is undeniably key to our development as a culture. However, this brings us back to the issue of just who is pulling the strings, an issue I commented on briefly in my post on my post on the three major views of mass communications. Statistically, the vast majority of media outlets are owned by a very limited number of corporations. As I talked about in the third view, there is undeniably a goal behind the messages conveyed by the controllers of these outlets. Also, as I commented, there is a certain relevance to the first point of view, that being that the receivers of the messages are forced to absorb it in an almost sponge-like manner. This is seen in the way that images like the Falling Man can evoke such a response from the masses — exactly the response the corporations were likely seeking.

    This being said, it must be considered what exactly the motivating factors of these companies are. Since we are in a capitalist world, I would suggest that there is a certain validity to the notion that the media owners look primarily towards what news features will result in the most revenue. Perhaps this would be different, should there be more perspectives offered through smaller, more various news outlets, but as it is, the near-monopoly on the news seems to drain a lot of the press’ legitimacy, in my opinion. Give the power to stir up a reaction to people who are working to members of many different perspectives, and then I think there is more legitimacy in their claim to our emotions.

    But precisely because he’s a symbol, his personal identity is of secondary significance. The media shouldn’t have identified him without his family’s consent. That information wasn’t necessary to communicate the horror.

    This brings up two points, in my mind. The first is that, if he is simply a symbol, does that not strip a certain degree to the validity of the use of the photo, since the idea behind it is to connect us on a human level to the catastrophe? The use of a human as a universal symbol (of desperation, nobility of the human spirit, failure of the government, etc.) seems to transform him from being one of us to being a tool. This is simply speculation on my part — I don’t think it really has as much importance as the other point I have about this portion of your comment.

    The other notion you bring up is more relevant to my point in the article. The idea of censoring his name out of the news seems to me to be a given as a right that should not have been crossed in this example. I can accept that — it seems a clear instance of violation into personal affairs. What he does not convey as well is the issue of bringing up a name when there is a more legitimate reason for doing so, such as in the case of revealing the names of criminals. Once again, in the case of certain issues, such as the Pickton trial, are necessary to reveal the identity of the criminal. People capable of such acts do not deserve for their name to be protected. However, what about someone who committed a single murder? A theft? Vandalism? Where is the line drawn for protection of the name, versus protecting whatever society he is a part of? I think it is a lot more difficult to judge how much information is required in situations of this nature.

    Mysterious:

    As Stephen brings up, there is a certain amount of validity to the stress caused by the media… although as I mentioned above, I wonder at the motivation of those in control of this power.

    That is what the media did with 9/11, they showed the scees of everything relating to this terroist attack so sudden that it caused more fear in teh world, and made the Taliban and Al-Quada more hyped on what happen… these people love and live of the fear of others, why do you think they bomb people in their own country, they think it is a game.

    As for this point, I find it hard to justify the screening of the media to prevent this effect. What do you do, in this situation, if you don’t publicize the disastrous situation? How could you manage to contain it? And if you did contain it, there are far deeper issues in the fact that an attack as large of scale as 9/11 affects the entire nation. Indeed, it would be a far worse issue to not show the disaster at all then to show it in its full “glory.”

    Where the issue arises is more in how far down you bring the issue to the level of individuals. To see a single man leaping from a building in desperation (or in an attempt to control his own fate, perhaps, as Stephen suggests) is a lot more shocking than to show the devastated buildings, the corpses being piled up. There is identification that occurs with that one man… and I was considering how much validity the media has in entering that man’s personal life in order to demonstrate the horrors of the day.

    Reply

  5. Stephen
    Feb 09, 2007 @ 16:25:00

    In the case of certain issues, such as the Pickton trial, are necessary to reveal the identity of the criminal. People capable of such acts do not deserve for their name to be protected.

    I’m not comfortable with your use of the word “deserve” here. It’s a very emotive, loaded term — dividing the population into two classes, people who deserve certain legal protections and those who don’t.

    Which brings me to my second point. Publishing the name of someone like Picton is arguably done for Picton’s protection — and therefore I approve of it.

    Compare the prisoners held by the USA in Guantanamo Bay. One of the worst fates that can befall anyone is to be held secretly, with no right to a lawyer, no right to know what the charges against you are, no right to be tried in a reasonable amount of time, etc.

    Such people are completely at the mercy of the state — to be tortured, perhaps. You know the old saying, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Hence democracies abolished Star Chambers centuries ago.

    Inviting the press to a murder trial serves a dual purpose. It shows the public that justice is being done, that public interests are being protected. But it also protects the prisoner, by ensuring that the trial is conducted according to the standards we would want, if we were in the position of the accused. Because anyone can be accused of a crime!

    Reply

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