Bestselling author and our featured nonfiction faculty David Shields argues in his new book, War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict (Power House Books), that The New York Times glamorized acts of war by using images that softened the terror of battle. The book grew out of Shields’ concern with the paper’s compelling front-page war photos. To better understand how the Times portrayed war, he analyzed thousands of front-page photographs, and particularly full-color photos since 2001 of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. David Shields discusses this process and topic in the following excerpt of his interview with History News Network Features Editor Robin Lindley.
David Shields will teach during our Summer in Barcelona & South of France Writing Retreat (July 18 – 26, 2016) and during our Summer in Granada Writing Retreat (July 28 – August 5, 2016). To apply, visit cww.submittable.com by March 15, 2016.
Robin Lindley: You make a case that The New York Times is complicit with power, particularly with the wars in the Middle East. You compare some of the photos you feature to recruiting posters. How is the Times’ relationship with power revealed in its history?
David Shields: That’s a complicated argument, but I ask what is the Times doing here, and what is the context of that? A good book about the history of the Times is called The Trust, and I quote the coauthors throughout the book.
The Times was founded in 1851 by a German-Jewish family. Anti-Semitism in the U.S., which was much more virulent than it is now, was visited against The New York Times, and it was accused of being “too Jewish” a newspaper.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Times during the Holocaust, under this German-Jewish family, deliberately underreported the full extent of the atrocities. Afterward, the Times was properly criticized for underreporting those crimes against humanity.
My argument is that the Times has wildly overcorrected. The Times always wants to be at the dead center of American culture—to be complicit with American power and American government and to be always at the center of the conversation. That’s the Times’ brand.
With only a very few exceptions, the Times has rather aggressively supported every American military misadventure since World War II, to the point of having their editorial columnists like James Reston advising John F. Kennedy and at the same time editorializing in favor of the man who he was advising. This continued with Thomas Friedman who still advises Obama. And there was William Safire who advised Bush and editorialized in favor of Bush and Reagan.
So the point is that the Times underreported the Holocaust and was widely criticized for hugely failing in that coverage. Over the last 70 years, the Times has taken a rather bellicose, American masculine, militaristic posture toward war. It supported the Korean War, to a large extent the Vietnam War, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. LBJ said, “I can’t win this war without the support of The New York Times.” Only very late in the Vietnam War did the Times join people like Walter Cronkite and express some skepticism.
That provides a socio-historical contextfor why the Times, founded by German Jews and being the victim of a lot of anti-Semitism from say 1850 to 1950, then overcorrected after World War II, and ever since has made sure it does not stray from a complicit bargain with the powers that be. For example,they’ll bury an article on page 27 that may have a slightly negative information about the war, but that front page, A1 photo, has huge power and sets the entire argument that the war is a sacrifice worth making, that the war is noble and dignified, and in a way a beautiful cultural enterprise.
I don’t know how conscious all of this is, but it seems almost a willful visual gesture that sends an unmistakable message to the powers that be and the culture as a whole that the war is a worthy sacrifice.
Robin Lindley: Stephen Colbert called the press, like Times’ reporter Judith Miller, “stenographers” for Bush and Cheney at a White House gala.
David Shields: That’s a point I try to make in the book. The reporting of [Times’ reporter] John F. Burns was disastrously credulous on the Iraq invasion, and with Judith Miller, he carried water for Bush-Cheney. These pictures are the visual equivalent.
My beef is less with the photographers and far more with the photo editors and page A1 editor. Photographers have told me off-the-record that they’re sending hundreds if not thousands of photos every week to the Times and every other institution. These pictures are criticized often for being “too violent,” of all things. Most people know that war is violent. Or pictures may be seen as “in bad taste.” But, as Picasso said, “the enemy of great art is good taste.” What I try to point out is how ludicrously tasteful these pictures are. It’s as if they’re covering war through a thick film of Vaseline—there’s very little war here.
I think some of the photographers are struck by how predictable it is that their less revelatory pictures and their more blandly compositionally beautiful pictures are the photos that get chosen, rather than the photos that more faithfully document the actual horror of war. It seems the Times is looking for pictures that aestheticize war rather that those that show what war is like.
Robin Lindley: I’ve interviewed some combat photojournalists, such as Michael Kamber, who edited an anthology of Iraq War photos called Photojournalists on War, and Peter van Agtmael on Disco Night 9/11, his book of photos on the Middle East wars abroad and at home. They both noted that photographers were frustrated by censorship at both ends—by the military abroad and by editors at home who seem to want to shield readers from the human reality of modern war.
David Shields: Exactly. I’ve been doing readings of the book around the country, and quite a few veterans and photographers come up to me and express gratitude for the book, and say the idea that these pictures say anything about war is so ludicrous, and it’s important to point out what an absolute horror storm war is. Some of them show me photos on their phones or physical photographs.
General Sherman said, “War is Hell,” and it would be good if these pictures pointed that out. The underlying message of the photos that the Times ran is that war is a very pretty and very distant event. There’s no hell here; just a mild heck. That seems to me worth pointing out because who knows when the next run up to the next war is, and who knows what country the U.S. will invade.
It would be good if we knew by what process we get sold the next war. One of the many ways war gets sold is in prominent magazines and newspapers. The New York Times disseminates a certain image and it really matters—unlike USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, or Fox News—because the Times is understood as being in the center or center-left, and the Times carries important cultural symbolism so it seems an important task to pull out these images from the so-called “Paper of Record” that is sending out unmistakably flag-waving, cheer-leading, pro-war messages through these pictures.
You mentioned censorship. A crucial part of the censorship and self-censorship is the military’s brilliant, Machiavellian move to embed and keep journalists and photojournalists from direct battle and to get the agreement of the media to, for example, not show pictures of caskets coming back from war.
These [policies] have created censorship as well as self-censorship for journalists and photojournalists sending material back home. They don’t have access to stories or situations that are terribly revelatory.
Robin Lindley: The Times seemed particularly reluctant to show images of wounded or dead American troops, whereas such images of Iraqis or Afghanis have been run. That reluctance may be an issue in every war. In World War II, Life magazine didn’t show images of dead Americans until 1943, with a photo of dead soldiers on a beach in New Guinea. And more recently, a Seattle photographer was officially reprimanded for photographing flag-draped coffins of American dead from Iraq.
David Shields: It’s a military policy I guess not to allow the media to show caskets coming back from war. And you have the embedding of journalists and photojournalists, and then you get the censorship. And then the Times is working overtime to access the highest levels of government and to deepen its brand as a quasi-Paper of Record.
Adding up all of these things, there’s almost nothing left. There’s no war there. There’s no attempt to document reality. It’s basically the war as screen saver, as wallpaper—a very distant aesthetic experience. Certainly, part of that is not to show the American dead except in a posture of composed relief. It seems the grief is kept out of frame in any true sense of agony or viscera or blood.
Some people criticize media outlets for showing gruesome images, and then there’s the Times at the other end in which there is a highly aestheticized and “dignified” war that is fought. It’s not that I have it all figured out or have found a newspaper or magazine that has embodied a perfect duration of these photographs. Certainly, after the Paris attacks, the BBC website and the Daily Telegraph of the U.K. showed more direct images. A Danish blogger also showed strikingly more revealing images than the Times with its self-periodically and comically glamorizing photos of Paris post-bombing.
In the book, the last few images are of a dead Iraqi soldiers left behind.
I think what’s so insidious is that it’s not as if the Times is overtly disseminating the most obvious propaganda by only showing dead soldiers of the enemy. The Times is much more subtle, and that bears mentioning. These pictures are not overt propaganda, as you might have seen in World War II, but I argue they are a not too oblique propaganda with the beautifying, sanctifying photographs.
Robin Lindley: Do you believe your book may prompt a change in how the Times and other publications decide on the images of war to carry—photos that capture the human consequences of war?
David Shields: That would be interesting. I saw the book as a long letter to the editor. I don’t read the Times anymore. I had read it for more than 40 years.
I ask that the Times think about the kind of power it has. It’s not what it had 30 or 40 years ago, or even ten years ago, but it has a certain power. So on some level this is an attempt to urge the Times to rethink its role, and to urge other similar newspapers and magazines to rethink their roles. I urge them also to depend less on complicit institutional journalism and more on independent thinkers and journalists and authors who are not beholden to institutional powers.
Read the full interview on History News Network here.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: email@example.com.
David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), and Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Forthcoming from Knopf in February 2017 is Other People: Takes & Mistakes. The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages. He is teaching at the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Summer in Barcelona and South of France (July 18-26, 2016) and Summer in Granada (July 28 – August 5, 2016) Writing Retreats.