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David Zurawik: A week of media visuals: Images of honor, images of shame from Cummings to Trump

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) makes closing remarks after testimony from Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) makes closing remarks after testimony from Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

We in the media spend a great deal of time replaying, parsing and regularly decrying the reckless, transgressive words of Donald Trump and some of his surrogates, including personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr. And we should, because their words often have huge consequences, as they did this week for tens of thousands of Kurds who are now refugees in the wake of an unexpected pronouncement by Trump that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria.

But as we have focused more on the words in our media criticism the last three years, we have been paying less attention to images, even as we become more and more a visual culture from Instagram to YouTube. Images burn their way into our memory banks and unconscious minds in ways words rarely do.

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And so, in trying to find a new — or perhaps to remember an old — way of making sense of the wave of visual information that washes over us daily, I spent this week riding the tiger of cable news TV, mostly with the sound off and surfing the web on a wave of videos rather than the print stories that often accompany them. I also spent some time with still photographs and freeze frames to the point of meditating on a few of them to try to understand what, if any, truth they had to communicate.

What brought me specifically to this deep dive on imagery was a desire to find the one image of Congressman Elijah Cummings that I could lock in my memory and heart to remember him during a week of Baltimore and much of America saying goodbye to one of the most inspirational political figures of my lifetime.

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Think of the photographs we keep on the nightstands or mantles of friends, family members or loved ones after they are gone. I was trying for that kind of singular media image of Cummings. And I knew once I had it, I could say goodbye with some peace of mind rather than only a profound sense of loss.

I didn’t expect to find any hard patterns to the flood of images I would encounter in this era of tremendous media upheaval. When it was mainly television shaping our visual landscape, maybe. But with Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and all the other giant social media platforms pumping images into our lives second by second, such order seemed not so likely.

And yet, in broad strokes, that’s exactly what I did find starting on Monday with the striking images of Kurds throwing rocks at American troops as they left Syria in armored vehicles. I immediately flashed back to those shameful images from 1975 of our South Vietnamese allies on the roof and grounds of the American embassy in Saigon as the last U.S. rescue helicopter lifted off, leaving them behind at the mercy of the Vietcong.

As I watched the images from Syria play silently across the screen Monday, I couldn’t help but think of Trump’s promise that under him, America was going to be winning so much internationally that we wouldn’t be able to stand it.

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“So, this is what winning looks like for Trump,” I thought sadly. “I guess he was right: I can’t stand it."

A pattern that was starting to take shape: Images of dishonor in connection with Trump, images of honor in connection with Cummings.

Tuesday, cable news featured pictures of Giuliani and his two indicted Ukrainian associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were arrested at a D.C. airport two weeks ago on campaign finance charges.

The image flow included still photos of Giuliani and the two money men looking up at the camera while sitting at a table with drinks and food spread out before them. The photograph looked like a Hollywood depiction of gangsters doing business at a mob supper club, which seems to be pretty near to the truth of what was actually going on, if the charges against Parnas and Fruman are to be believed.

There were also images of Donald Trump and his son Don Jr. posed with the two men, who had come to America with bags of money to buy influence in our elections and had allegedly already paid Giuliani more than $500,000.

Wednesday, I watched with incredulity and then anger as Trump appeared onscreen while the cable news chyrons quoted him insisting the Kurds were now “safe” thanks to what he called a “permanent ceasefire” that he hailed himself for allegedly brokering. The other word used most often in the headlines at the bottom of the cable TV screens that day was “Orwellian,” as expert after expert used it to describe the feeling they had listening to Trump while the BBC and other news outlets showed images of artillery fire and frightened, homeless Kurds on the border of Syria and Iraq.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the image that dominated cable news was that of two dozen or so Republican members of Congress storming into what was supposed to be a secure room in the Capitol and then occupying it for hours in an attempt to delay witness testimony from Pentagon official Laura Cooper in connection with the impeachment investigation of Trump.

The group, which MSNBC anchor Brian Williams described as a “Republican flash mob,” was so white, male and belligerent as it forced its way into that room that you couldn’t help but recognize a lack self-awareness among it members about how they would look on millions of screens. It was yet another image of the acrimony, anger and dysfunction in our national political life.

One of the surprises of my viewing this week was the extent to which such dark, angry imagery connected to Trump had become embedded in the daily flow of visuals to which we are exposed. No wonder our popular culture these days is so filled with dystopian narratives.

If you think I am loading the dice, I defy you to find an image anywhere in the media ― right or left from this week ― that is connected to Trump and his administration that suggests honor, accomplishment, humility or selflessness.

Come on, I’m waiting.

On the other hand, the imagery connected to Cummings this week and, indeed, for the last few years has been dominated by just those qualities.

From the pictures and video of a color guard and members of the Morgan State ROTC escorting Cummings’ casket into the Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University Wednesday, to images of the chairman of the House Oversight Committee lying in state Thursday afternoon in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, it was impossible not to appreciate the accomplishment of Cummings’ life and the way he was righteously being honored for it both in his hometown and in the nation’s capital.

It reminded me of what a stark contrast there was between the imagery and rhetoric surrounding Trump versus that of Sen. John McCain as the senator from Arizona was being laid to rest in September 2018. Like Cummings, McCain’s imagery was also suffused in honor and respect from citizens, members of the media and the politicians on both sides of the aisle with whom he worked.

Thursday, the TV tributes started early on cable TV with Joe Scarborough, of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” bringing the New-York-based show he co-hosts with wife Mika Brzezinski, to Washington so the couple could pay their respects to Cummings, who officiated at their marriage in 2018. In a ceremony that started in the Capitol at 11 a.m., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer invoked Elijah the Prophet in eulogizing his friend.

“He saw wrongdoing and spent his life working to banish it from our land," Hoyer said of Cummings.

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The telecast of Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church service Friday was filled with powerful images and moments. It started early in the service with singer BeBe Winans in front of the glorious New Psalmist Choir bringing mourners to their feet with a soaring rendition of “Stand.” And it carried straight through to a brilliant, rock-the-room, closing eulogy delivered by Bishop Walter Scott Thomas in front of a huge image of Cummings.

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Just the visual of the procession of speakers who came to that podium and spoke of Cummings Friday told the story of the greatness the congressman from Baltimore achieved: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, former Congressman Kweisi Mfume, law professor Larry Gibson and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to name just a few. The visual of that grand church filled to the rafters with constituents from Baltimore, family, friends and many of the leaders of Maryland and national political life was itself inspirational.

But, for me, the two images that define Cummings at his best as a leader are ones from the archives: Cummings, bullhorn in hand, on the streets of Baltimore at night in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and Cummings rising up in his committee chairman’s seat at the end of the hearing in February with Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney.

For some, Cummings’ words at the end of the hearing are what they will remember: “We are better than this,” and, "When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?”

Memorable and resonant to be sure. But I will remember the moral authority burning so brightly in his face as he drew himself up in his chairman’s seat and denounced with all his strength the lies, crooked deals and payoffs that Cohen committed on behalf of and in league with Trump. That was the old Testament prophet breathing moral righteousness, reigning down holy hell and reminding us of our better selves at a time when sleaze and sin seemed to be the order of the day in national politics.

One of the cruelest things about old age is the way it robs some people of their nerve. Elijah Cummings held his nerve to the end and used it to fight for us. That’s what I will remember whenever that image flashes across my mind’s eye.

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