History’s rough first draft – and the story of a “pseudo-event”

John Naughton’s column in The Observer yesterday mentioned something I’d missed in by Peter Maas in the New Yorker: a superb dissection of the now-notorious “statue-toppling” image captured as American troops rolled into Baghdad in 2003. This meticulous reconstruction should be read by anyone tempted to opine about media literacy, news, pseudo-events, spin and related topics.

By paying close attention to cause and effect, Maas underlines and confirms a complaint which started circulating on the day that pictures of Saddam’s statue being hauled down by American marines: that the event did not symbolise any kind of popular feeling by Iraqis. There were very few of them there.

But Maas also shows something which will disappoint those for whom this episode confirms every worst fear about the manipulation of international public opinion by the US government. No one organised or orchestrated the statue’s destruction. It just happened in the heady buzz of the unexpectedly – and as it turned out, misleadingly – easy victory won by the Americans.

But it made a neat, easy-to-grasp image which captured a lot of unrealistic hopes in one image. It zipped round the world and began creating myths on its own. The picture acquired a power no one had tried to give it.

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