Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
April 12, 2017

United: When the Corporate Abuse is Visible

Screenshot of United Airlines passenger David Dao being removed from a plane by force after the airline overbooked the flight. Screenshot: Jayce David/Twitter.

Monday’s manhandling and forced removal of a United Airlines passenger has drawn national attention as a moral and ethical offense. The reason it had everyone’s attention, though, is because we saw it with our own eyes. It is not like corporations don’t pummel citizens everyday, inflicting damage that is far more devastating and enduring. The difference is that there are no pictures.

A passenger getting pummeled is certainly egregious. The fact that this wasn’t someone getting fleeced in the mortgage crisis or an employee denied overtime or a consumer sold a condo on a methane field, however, raises just as important perceptual issues about the opacity of corporate America. And the issue is even more pressing today as President Trump, along with his corporate cabinet — Trump, himself, having been the most shabby corporate governor — slashes business rules, regulations and consumer protections with a vengeance.

I wouldn’t be writing this, however, if not for the way I visually experienced the United story between Monday and Tuesday.

On Monday night, I watched the story on both CNN and MSNBC, suffering the networks playing the same video of the incident over and over. The clip I saw was shot from the cockpit end of the cabin. From that view, I could see the security guys but not that long and not that well. I did see them rip David Dao out of his seat, but what was more noticeable was his horrible shrieking. More focused of the passenger, I watched Dao’s body dragging down the aisle, his glasses askew, his shirt hiked up so his belly stuck out.

This was the version I saw:

The next day, of course, the media had acquired other passenger videos, and was circulating different screenshots. Because of the version I’d had in my head overnight though, the new imagery was startling. What grabbed me this time, superseding the vision of the dragging belly, was this:

A United Airlines passenger is forcibly removed from an oversold flight in April, 2017. Screenshot via video by Audra Bridges.

The way we experience events from particular scenes, the imagery Monday left me with a vivid perception of Dao as a victim. Here, perhaps because Dao isn’t pictured, I could better visualize him as a random target. More specifically though, I could see the viciousness of the act, and clearly see the corporation as the bully.

If I had only seen the Monday video, I know I would have still have been appalled by Dao’s treatment. But people are victimized or abused by corporations all the time and those organizations, by their nature, remain virtually anonymous, the account of their acts typically reduced to a news account illustrated by a logo or the photo of a product or a building. In this instance, and in the Tuesday screenshot especially, we encounter something rare. We see real people, in the name of the organization, meting out punishment.

As a comparison, take the other corporate fiasco in the media this week. Wells Fargo was fined $185 million for a staggering perpetration of consumer abuse. Dating back to 2011, 5,300 Wells Fargo employees were involved in secretly issuing credit cards to customers using fake email accounts solely for the purpose of generating fees. The practice involved 1.5 million bank accounts and over half-a-million credit cards.

But how much of that abuse did any of us see?

Screenshot of New York Times story headline and photo. The story is about Wells Fargo bilking customers with fraudulent accounts.

Again, we’re left with a building and a logo.

In the big picture, there is nothing all-that-unique unique about what happened on that airplane Monday. Except that we actually saw it.

— Michael Shaw

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