Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hyman Photoshops the Truth

Sometimes the universe is generous.

I was already loaded for bear as I sat down to draft a response to Mark Hyman’s recent editorial charging the “liberal media” with doctoring pictures to “mislead the public” when I came across the news that the Republican National Committee has been busted for
Photoshopping a Hitler-esque moustache onto the face of Howard Dean on the RNC’s official website.

Subtle, guys. Real subtle.

Not that creative manipulation of photos is anything new for the right.
Several conservative news outlets (including Fox News) posted a doctored photo that juxtaposed John Kerry and Jane Fonda speaking at an anti-war rally. During the 2004 election, the Bush campaign digitally altered a photo of a crowd shot in a political ad. In 2005, the RNC manipulated a photo of troops watching television in Iraq to make it appear they were watching Democratic politicians criticizing the Bush administration. They were actually watching a cartoon. And as recently as last month, Republican senatorial candidate Mike DeWine was caught using faked images of the World Trade Center on 9/11 in an ad that attacked his opponent’s commitment to national security.

So conservatives and conservative media have a track record of creating and using doctored photos to serve their political purposes. So that means “a pox on both your houses,” right?

Not quite. Hyman’s idea of the “liberal media” is bit broad (USA Today is liberal?!). Moreover, two of the cases of “doctored” photos Hyman describes can hardly be said to be overtly political. Perhaps one can say that the Reuters photo of Beirut after a bombing that included some extra smoke added could be construed to be anti-Israel, and therefore vaguely anti-Bush, but what of the photo Hyman cites of soldiers and Iraqi civilians? Apparently the
photo was altered to improve its visual composition. That’s a no-no, but hardly a partisan political act. Hyman makes no attempt to explain how this aesthetic change is evidence of an anti-Bush conspiracy perpetrated by a cabal of left-wing photographers. (By the way, the L.A. Times fired the photographer in question; I wonder if the RNC will do the same to the staff members responsible for turning Howard Dean into Der Fuhrer.)

USA Today photo of Condi Rice also apparently has a benign explanation: in trying to sharpen the photo for reproduction in the newspaper, Rice’s eyes ended up looking a bit spooky. Again, it’s something that shouldn’t have happened, but hardly an overtly political act.

The only example that could conceivably support Hyman’s thesis is the Boston Globe publication of photos allegedly showing U.S. soldiers sexually assaulting Iraqi civilians. But in this case, the photos weren’t altered,
but accepted as possibly genuine when they had in fact been taken off the web. The photos certainly should have been vetted more carefully (and even if they had been genuine, such pictures probably shouldn’t be posted in a daily newspaper), but there’s no evidence that the Globe consciously chose these fake photographs and attempted to pass them off as real (which is what Hyman carefully implies in his editorial).

So, while Hyman collects some examples of journalistic blunders, he doesn’t make a persuasive case that such photos were conscious manipulations done for political motivations.

But there’s a still larger issue here. Hyman’s complaint is ultimately that these journalistic enterprises presented a distorted view of reality in order to make a political point. But isn’t this what Hyman does on a regular basis, only with words rather than pixels?

Let’s take this very editorial as an example:

In Hyman’s discussion of the Reuters photograph, he creatively “crops” the fact that the photo was taken by a freelance journalist and that it was the photographer, not Reuters, who altered the Beirut photo.

He “enhances” his narrative by saying Reuters, not the freelance photographer, “has been caught doctoring” the photo.

He “Photoshops out” the fact that Reuters terminated its relationship with the photographer and purged its files of every single photo taken by him, including those that are certainly genuine.

He creatively “frames” the piece by saying Reuters is “the latest liberal news organization” to use doctored photos, not offering a single bit of evidence the Reuters is “liberal” in its news coverage.

He adds his own “shading” to suggest the photo somehow had the intention of promoting a liberal agenda without offering any evidence (or even a plausible hypothesis) of how the photo was doing that. The facts on the ground, not a slightly altered photograph, attest to the damage on the ground in Beirut; digitally enhanced smoke is hardly necessary.

He “blurs” the facts by quoting an abusive email sent by a Reuters employee to a blog that publicized the use of the photo, but not mentioning that Reuters immediately suspended the employee. By intentionally creating this artificial haze, Hyman tries to get his viewers to see Reuters as an organization that condones the sentiments expressed by this one employee.

You get the idea. And you obviously can see how the same photographic metaphor applies to virtually all of Hyman’s editorials. As we’ve pointed out here time and again, Hyman doesn’t simply offer arguments from a conservative perspective, but actively engages in willful distortions of facts to score political points (say, for example, misattributing quotations and taking them out of context in order to smear someone who publicly disagrees with him).

Perhaps it’s a symptom of our culture’s fetishization of the visual over the verbal that Hyman gets apoplectic about rather benign examples of photo manipulation, but sees nothing wrong with manipulating the facts verbally in order to make his argument.

Or perhaps Hyman is simply a hypocrite.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 7.83


At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


An enjoyable and entertaining post on your part.

As usual, you help clear up the muck that Hyman spreads across our nation.

Have you ever considered teaching a course on "the media and propaganda"?

At 12:34 AM, Anonymous Herbert Birdsfoot said...

This is a pretty common tactic from the right. Anytime a media outlet does something a little flaky, they use it to attack liberalism, or at least a strawman version of liberalism.

The fact that the right is guilty of doctoring photos is icing on the cake. I love the one with cloned soldiers at the Bush rally!

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think that the general public has any feel for how poorly the public is served by our media system? Or how far it has plummetted to presenting news (think Cronkite) to titillation, meanness, and endless shouting (pick any of the right wing networks or shows).

I suspect not, with the polls showing alarming ignorance (or brainwashing) regarding everything from the Big Lie about Iraq WMD, Iraq in general, the Death Tax Spin, global-warming denial, etc., etc.

I might refer Tedophiles to this cartoon:

I ferverently hope that there is some positive way out of all of this. The troubling thing is the lack of across-generational memory. Young folks think that the endless, mindless, factless, mudslinging on Fox, Sinclair Stations, etc., etc., is the norm. Incredibly dysfunctional.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Ted Remington said...

Yeah, I'm beginning to think an intensive course in recognizing propaganda in the media should be part of the core curriculum at any college (heck, any junior high or high school, for that matter).

Identifying logical fallacies has always been a component of basic courses in rhetoric and composition, such as those that I've taught, but perhaps a course focusing solely on the broader use of propagandistic techniques in the media is in order.

Perhaps such a course has always been needed, but it seems even more essential in our culture today, saturated as it is by media, so little of which is devoted to pursuing "the truth" in any form most of us would recognize.

Thanks for the comments!



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