Editing to Mislead

     I used to subscribe to The Economist, but I got tired of its single-mold sculpture of the news into a half-elitist, half-libertarian form. The controversy over the magazine’s manipulation of a picture of Obama standing by the Gulf of Mexico fits in with its overall warp of the news.
     The original Reuters photo showed Obama looking downward with two people standing next to him, their backs to the camera. The gulf lies in front of them, with an oil derrick in the distance.
     One of the two people with Obama is Charlotte Randolph, a local parish president, and she appears from the backward tilt of her head to be talking to Obama.
     The Economist edited the two other people out of the shot, leaving Obama to appear pensive and alone, staring down at the ground. That edit of that photo strongly and clearly changed the import, as clearly as altering quotes in a news story.
     I grew up with a professional photographer as a father and spent many hours in the darkroom, helping out my dad. It made me comfortable operating in the dark, for example, with nothing but a sense of touch to guide myself.
     That old alchemy of has basically died. An article called “Requiem for Print Photography” in Salon last week noted the last frames of Kodachrome rolling through a commercial lab.
     The subtle art of making a great print in the darkroom has been replaced by the harder-edged and flatter form of digital photography.
     But a photo told a story, I learned. And that is just as true in the digital age as it was in the time of the darkroom.
     The alteration by the Economist changes the story of the original photograph. What was a shot of Obama in fairly typical, thoughtful stance, listening to others, was altered to become a portrait of an isolated and downcast President, staring at the ground. The accompanying headline says, “BP vs. Obama.”
     In the resulting commentary on the Internet, the Economist’s deputy editor defended the alteration, saying, “We don’t edit photos to mislead.”
      But the hack job on the photo does mislead. And to the magazine’s tattered credit, it posted comments critical of the edited photo, including one that said, “This is just blatant alteration and falsification.”
     The Economist is, in the end, soft-core right-wingerism. No one person or political persuasion has a monopoly on accuracy and the truth, which has, a bit like print photography, a range of subtle and very much human-crafted shadings.
     But the more hard-core conservative purveyors at Fox News seem to get caught most regularly in altering imagery to suit a political position.
     Most recently, a speech by USDA official Shirley Sherrod about her evolution on racial views was shamelessly edited by a right-wing blogger to make her appear as a bigot. And to the similar shame of the rest of the press, they ran with the story without looking at the context.
     Which was that her father had been murdered by a white farmer and yet she had learned to look beyond race.
     It’s a lot like cutting people out of a photo to change its story. Here, the accompanying portions of the videotaped speech were cut out, to give a false impression.
     The first one to run with the edited video was, naturally, Fox News.
     But a local CBS affiliate in New York then picked it up, as well as a pretty good newspaper, the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Before the blogosphere went crazy.
     The changes in print media also bear comparison to the changes in print photography. To make a print in the darkroom, you had to first develop negatives, transferring them in pitch black darkness, then cast that image onto a piece of photographic paper with shadings and filters, then rock the prints in a developer tray, transfer them to a fixer tray, then put them through a dryer.
     But now you take a photo and see the resulting image immediately.
     Electronic journalism has similarly reduced the level of care taken in writing a news story and shortened the time it takes to publish.
     That need for speed may give greater room for error, but it does not excuse the alteration of the record events, in any medium.
     In the wake of the Sherrod debacle, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said it pretty well: “I think we live in a culture that things whip around, people want fast responses, we want to give fast responses, and I don’t think there’s any doubt is if we all look at this, I think one of the great lessons you take away from this is to ask all the questions first, and come to that greater understanding.”

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