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Fat Steve's Archives

| Sunday, July 31, 2005

appearance check


      Byron Calame has a misdiagnosis of a problem at The New York Times.
  • Calame caught The New York Times Magazine using staged photographs recently, without labeling them as staged.

  • His solution is to label them more clearly.

  • It won't happen, because a really clear label would have to state why the photos were staged or altered.

  • And that would require admitting that the Times is trying to manipulate its readers.

  • The Times lacks integrity.  By not saying that, Calame shows he lacks understanding and/or courage.

  • But while Calame is inadequate, he's much better than the typical Times reporter or editor.  Now that's frightening.
At Length:

      For the third in our series concerning the new “public editor” of The New York Times, we look at his column of July 3rd.

      In the first column, he set forth his view of the job.  In the second, he defended the paper's article revealing the details of a CIA undercover operation.

      The third column is — strange.  It concerns picture credits.

      The picture credit is not the caption (“Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today.”)  The picture credit tells who took the picture, and where it originated (“Ray Stubblebine/Reuters”).  Why did Calame think this was interesting?

      The answer Calame gives is that photography has changed.  The existence of digital editing tools, such as Photoshop™ makes it easy to alter pictures.  We used to believe a picture 'told the truth' about what was in front of the camera, if only because fakery was easy to spot.  Now, the fakery may be seamless.  So Calame thinks the credit lines need to explain whether the picture was altered.

      OK so far, but now it turns bizarre, as Calame gives examples of what concerns him:
      the New York Times Magazine, which regularly goes beyond using standard news pictures and portraits by using montages, digital manipulation and staged photographs to grab readers' attention or capture a mood that helps buttress an article.

      Now, a montage (“A single pictorial composition made by juxtaposing or superimposing many pictures or designs.”) is usually pretty obvious.  This one, for instance:

      It's obviously created by a photographer.  No sane person will mistake it for reality.

      Digital manipulation is harder to spot.  For instance, in this photo of the Golden Gate bridge, is anything manipulated?  If so, what?

      Answer: the lightning, which was added by the photographer, Dan Heller.  Photo source here.  Now as a source of artistic effect, this doesn't bother me, but why would an alleged non-fiction magazine publish a manipulated photo?  Calame says it's to “ grab readers' attention or capture a mood.”  That sounds a lot like a euphemism for 'manipulate the reader without his being aware of it.'

      The third kind of photo Calame is worried about is the “staged photograph.”  This is exactly what it sounds like.  The photograph is not something that happened in the course of the article under discussion, it's something the photographer invented.  “Staged” is an accurate term for this, but it doesn't go far enough.  “Lying with a camera” would be better.

      Calame's column was sparked by a June 12th story in The New York Times's Magazine, entitled “Interrogating Ourselves.”  It was supposed to be about the “ ‘lies, threats and highly coercive force’ being used to pry information out of detainees held in military custody”.

      First off, of course, the title shows bias and hostility to the military and the war effort.  Calame doesn't comment on that.  Frankly, I don't think he noticed.  But he is bothered by the pictures.  The cover photo “of a person with a sandbag hood,” a picture inside showing “a mid-torso view from the rear of a person with wrists handcuffed,” in which “below the . . . handcuffs, a red stain ran down from one wrist across the soiled palm onto the fingers,” and a full-page photograph of “water torture” accompanied the article.  All were staged.

      Why was the Times Magazine using staged photos?  Calame talked with Kathleen Ryan, the magazine's photo editor, who told him:
The initial idea was to photograph the implements of torture for the cover article.

      Stop right there.  The big controversy over the treatment of detainees has revolved around the charge that the military treats its prisoners in ways we wouldn't allow civilians under arrest.  Yet, every cop in the U.S. has a pair of handcuffs on his belt, and they're used on the most routine of arrests.  If handcuffing someone in custody is ‘torture,’ then torture is practiced regularly in the U.S.  Do you think Ms. Ryan would care to defend the position that no one should ever be handcuffed when arrested or imprisoned?  Do you think she'd like to explain an alternative way of controlling criminal suspects and convicted lawbreakers?  No, you probably think she's an idiot who uses the word “torture,” to demonstrate her political opposition to the war.  I agree.

      Getting back to the column:
      The initial idea was to photograph the implements of torture for the cover article, Ms. Ryan recalled.  But there was concern that readers wouldn't understand the “still life” photographs of handcuffs, for instance. “We decided the cuffs had to go on a hand,” she said.  It was decided that the hood needed to go on the head of a real person, she said, and a special effort was made to get the kind of sandbag actually used in interrogation.  The pose for the water torture picture was based on a Vietnam-era news photograph, according to Ms. Ryan.

      Here, we face a mystery.  Is Ms. Ryan really such a cretin that she thinks the readers wouldn't understand what a photograph of handcuffs and a sandbag are?  Or is she just lying to Calame?  Since Calame doesn't pursue this, I guess we'll never know.  Note that “water torture picture” is “based” on something that someone, we don't know who or why, did over thirty years ago, on another continent, in a different war — assuming, of course, that that picture wasn't a fake too.

      So we can translate Ms. Ryan's remarks into English as: ‘We wanted to horrify the reader, but we realized that we didn't have any photographs showing actual physical abuse of prisoners, with the controversial exception of people transported with hoods over the faces.  Worse, the hooded prisoner photos are old.  To counter this lack, we faked it.  We could have said “Staged photographs of a model wearing phony handcuffs and a sandbag on his head, to show that we want him free to kill more people”, but that would have undercut our purpose.’

      Now, the Times has a book of standards, grandly titled “Guidelines on Our Integrity,” (don't snicker; well, not too much), and Calame paraphrases them as stating that:
      any image that doesn't depict reality should be explained, “ if the slightest doubt is possible.“

      So, since a doubt was possible, everyone involved in creating these photos was immediately fired for damaging the Times's reputation for honesty, right?  Sorry, I couldn't resist.  They weren't fired.  The Times Magazine didn't apologize and promise not to do it again.  The people responsible were not disciplined for violating the Times's official standards.  That's because no one but Calame saw anything wrong with the photos.  Instead, the magazine editors dismissed the photos as “so over the top” that no one would think they were real.

      So, why not include a demon with fangs, horns, and hooves sticking a detainee with a pitchfork too?  Because the editors are lying.  If they included the obviously unreal, they'd have undercut the emotional impact they were going for.  The real idea, again, was to manipulate the readers.  Gerald Marzorati, editor of the Times Magazine, told Calame that “I didn't think someone would say this is a real photograph”.  The technical term for such statements is “horseshit”.

      It's to Calame's credit that he recognizes there's a problem, but his solution is to adopt a standard set of photo credits indicating that the picture has been staged or manipulated.  Does he really think the Times is going to label photographs like the ones he objects to ‘staged photograph conceived by John Doe, photographed by Mary Roe, model in photograph Joe Blow; modeled on photograph from thirty years ago that might or might not have been real; staged photograph used because we don't have any photographs of real prisoners really having this done to them’?  Calame has missed the real issue — the Times is no longer trying to report news, it's trying to be a political player while pretending to report news.  The standards manual may be titled “Guidelines on Our Integrity”, but real integrity is lacking.  And the fact that Calame doesn't say this plainly shows either lack of understanding, dishonesty, or cowardice on his part.

      In Up the Organization, Robert Townsend asked the reader to imagine what a CEO who really had the public interest at heart would do.  He then asked (quote approximate) ‘Does it scare you to realize that your industry doesn't have a singel CEO who has the public's interest at heart?  It scares me.’  In contemplating the pitiful performance of Calame in trying to hold the Times to account, persistently missing the most important issues, the really scary thing is that his insight and standards are much higher than the reporters and editors of the Times.  When someone can be described, simultaneously and honestly, as “vastly better than average” and “pitifully inadequate”, you know that typical reporters are utterly worthless.



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