Bodies strewn along the muddy street. A dead man, hands tied behind his back, shot in the head, the bullet casing sitting there. Three dead bodies, partially covered, on the ground on a roadside, two of them women, naked, the third a man, and all three bodies ineffectively burned. Under the steely skies, the camera moves along, taking in these scenes.
There’s a warning first. On CNN, Jim Acosta said, “We want to warn you, these pictures we’re showing are painful and incredibly graphic.” Are they ever. Acosta ended by saying that, recently, he and his team had tried to end their program with “a measure of hope, perhaps a child singing, or a band playing in a public square in Ukraine. But not tonight.”
The weekend saw a major shift in TV coverage of the war in Ukraine, as cameras moved into the town of Bucha, north of Kyiv, after Russian troops retreated from the area, a tangled chaos of destroyed equipment in their wake. And, along with the murdered and the raped left dead in the streets, there are the mass graves, one with a dead hand poking from the clay. “Let those images sink in,” Acosta said.
Russia knows it, too. The tipping point into pure evil has been reached, it’s there on TV. On Russian state TV on Sunday night, anchor Vladimir Solovyov said (if I understand the translation correctly), “The war against Russia entered a new phase today. Very soon they’ll accuse us of genocide. To all appearances this whole provocation was plotted by the British.”
The question is, referencing Jim Acosta, do the images sink in? We are, as a witnessing audience, conditioned to turn away from the horror of war when the narrative turns sickeningly ugly and repetitive. For a month, the narrative has been this – plucky Ukraine, against all odds, beating back Russian advances. The women, children and the elderly fled in the millions. The world sympathized, countries opened their hearts and offered a home.
Now, the issue for Ukraine, and for anyone watching who truly has a heart, is fatigue with this war. As the atrocities mount, so does our discomfort. All of us who are adults and have memories of other conflicts can anticipate the next step: a drawn-out war in a distant place that loses its urgency as news because it just goes on and on. The raped and mutilated dead become ghoulish figures who feature on the nightly news somewhere in the middle of the newscast, or near the end.
We turn away instinctively from someone else’s precise hell and then the impact of the ripples of war weakens, the farther and the longer they try to resonate. This is not television’s fault, it is ours.
The warnings about graphic images precede the grim coverage for a reason. Because some people will turn away. On a Sunday night, do they want to see joy, dance and absurd fashion crimes at the Grammy Awards, or do they want to see a dead, pale hand protruding from a mass grave in a distant town where despair envelops everything?
In this circumstance, what President Volodymyr Zelensky does is vital. A skilled performer, his appearances and posts have energized Ukraine itself and validated its very existence. He has shaped the story, his presence and words have cut through all the analysis, debate and hand-wringing about what the world should do. He has forged a storyline about survival. He has won what they call the “information war.”
And yet, his enemy now is not merely Russia and its murderous, marauding troops, or their imprecise bombs that turn buildings and small homes into rubble. It’s the challenge of finding a new story with a new arc that bends toward a victory for all of us, not just the indomitable spirit of Ukraine. It is impossible to be indomitable on your knees with a gun to your head.
What was revealed as barbaric in Russia’s occupation of just one town should shake us all to our moral core. We don’t even know yet precisely what has happened in the besieged city of Mariupol, and its horrors. What we know is what passed for normal in Bucha, and that this will likely be a long war with that barbarism normalized.
How we the audience assess the conflict is vitally important for Zelensky, Ukraine and for us. We can note the warning about graphic images and turn away. Or we can have the courage to watch, to ensure the coverage does not fade to the middle or end of the newscast. Fatigue isn’t an option, any more than it is in Ukraine. We can’t turn away when the tipping point teeters into evil.
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