The protester was knocked down. As he lay on the ground, one policeman handcuffed him, while another put his foot on the man’s forehead to hold him still.

This happened in Seattle last week. I know this not because I was there, but because I saw it on TV. The camera zoomed in on the policeman’s foot and held there for at least six seconds.

I was never told what the protester did to warrant such police behavior. I have no idea if the guy verbally abused the officers, threatened to kill them, maybe pulled a gun. All I saw was that foot on his forehead.

This image, while clearly disturbing, was one of only three pictures in a CNN report on the protests in Seattle. The other two images were 1) a single protester being gassed with pepper spray, and 2) a small group of people running through the street.

Never during the report was there any explanation of who these people were or what they had done. There was only generic talk of violence, unrest and curfew, which, when combined with the three images, made it seem like the whole city was on the verge dangerous destruction.

Dangerous? I’ll tell you what the biggest danger coming out of Seattle was last week.

Lack of information.

What were the real issues?

I am constantly haunted by a line from the dark comedy “To Die For,” in which Nicole Kidman, playing an overly ambitious TV weathergirl, says, “What’s the point of doing anything if it’s not on TV?”

Between Internet cameras in the bedroom and personal confessions now blasted over talk shows, we are quickly sliding into that weathergirl’s prophecy.

And Seattle was no exception. Let’s face it. Most Americans know more about the WWF than the WTO. And as if to underscore that point, when TV cameras descended upon Seattle, they focused not on the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters or the important trade issues at hand, but on the small group of lunatics who seemed bent on destroying whatever they could.

There were few interviews with the people who broke windows but plenty of pictures of them doing it. Naturally. Pictures are easy. Point the camera and shoot. Asking questions takes time. It requires knowledge. And it might be — heaven forbid — boring!

So instead of examining issues such as free trade, labor standards or environmental protection, we got a lot of reporter talk about curfews and pepper gas. Instead of asking the legitimate protesters who were handing out leaflets if the black-clad, so-called anarchists had anything to do with them, we got footage of damage and confrontations with police.

We got pictures.

And we let the pictures tell the story.

So you want to get on TV?

Now, this works both ways. Clearly many of the protesters — especially the more violent ones — knew exactly where the TV cameras were. I’m betting many of the protesters in Seattle, particularly the ones causing the damage, had less politics in mind than performance.

In fact, this is becoming commonplace at public gatherings. Protesters and picketers have grown adept at gathering a handful of people, putting on a huge show for the TV cameras, screaming, hollering, chanting like caffeine-crazed zealots, then going home as soon as the cameras click off.

You almost can’t blame them. They have learned how to play the game. In order to get their point across, they first have to provide a mini-movie.

The danger in all this is the same danger our parents used to warn us about when we took a book and went straight to the pictures.

“You won’t understand what the pictures mean,” they said, “unless you read the whole thing.”

But reading was boring; images were fun. And sometimes, despite their warnings, all we really did was look at the pictures.

Which is what happened last week in Seattle. Most of us missed President Clinton’s pressing for an international labor standard. Most of us have no clue how our air and water could be threatened by the globalization of business.

We did, however, catch that image of a policeman’s foot on a protester’s head, and we were appalled because, well, we were supposed to be appalled, right?

Every picture tells a story. It just doesn’t tell you the whole thing.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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