Within 48 hours of the 9/11 attacks, the major news networks and leading newspapers were settling on a policy to stop showing images of victims leaping to their death from the World Trade Center. NBC ran one clip of a man plunging to his death, and then admitted it was a mistake. An NBC News V.P. told The New York Times, "Once it was on, we decided not to use it again. It's stunning photography, I understand that, but we felt the image was disturbing."
In fact, post-9/11 coverage illuminates an interesting cultural cleavage in the media. When shocking images might stir Americans to favor war, the Serious Journalists show great restraint. When those images have the opposite effect, the Ted Koppels let it fly.
In 2002, Salon.com - the leftwing Web magazine - ran a finger-wagging story full of condescending quotes and observations about how America was too obsessed with 9/11. The author, Michelle Goldberg (no relation), wrote that the appetite for documentaries about the attacks "suggests a voyeuristic impulse cloaked in patriotic piety."
Maybe what stoked America's appetite wasn't pious voyeurism but the decision of the networks to withhold the footage in the first place?
Regardless, now Salon magazine asks another question. The lead story by Eric Boehlert on May 6 asks: "The media are finally showing the war in its full horror. What took them so long?"
That's a fair, if slightly creepy, question. But it underscores my point: The media decide which images are too disturbing, too sensational, too dangerous all of the time. Ms. Goldberg, for example, spoke for the establishment media when she declared that the Danny Pearl murder-video was "too sickening to broadcast even once."
So the question is, What was gained by releasing these images now? CBS could have reported the story without the pictures. They could have still beaten their competition to the punch.
But these pictures are so inflammatory, so offensive to Muslim and American sensibilities, whatever news value they have is far, far outweighed by the damage they are doing. "Context" - the supposed holy grail of responsible journalism - is lost in the hysteria and political grandstanding.
Of course, CBS had every right to do what it did. But that's irrelevant. Nobody's suggesting the government should have stopped them. I'm suggesting that CBS should have stopped itself. Now we'll all have to live with the consequences - and some of us will die from them.