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May 12, 2011

The camera may never lie, but Photoshop can tell some outrageous porkies. This week Di Tzeitung, a Brooklyn-based ultra-orthodox Jewish weekly newspaper, digitally removed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason from an official photograph taken in the White House’s situation room during the Osama bin Laden mission.

Posting the original image on its Flickr account, the White House had explicitly specified: “The photograph may not be manipulated in any way.”

The original Situation Room photograph (Source: Pete Souza/The White House)

However, Di Tzeitung’s editorial policy, overseen by a rabbinical board, is never to publish photographs of women because of religious laws governing modesty. This left the paper open to accusations, notably from the UK Daily Mail, of expressing an “ideological objection to women holding positions in power” in the most absurdly literal way — by actually removing them from historical moments.

The photograph as displayed in Di Tzeitung (Source: Failed Messiah)

Di Tzeitung begs to differ. “The readership of the Tzeitung believe that women should be appreciated for who they are and what they do, not for what they look like, and the Jewish laws of modesty are an expression of respect for women, not the opposite,” said the newspaper in a statement, which went on to insist that the Orthodox Jewish community supported Clinton while she was a senator representing New York State.

Maybe the paper is onto something. In May 2006, Katie Couric’s employer, CBS, clearly felt Couric wouldn’t be a credible broadcasting voice unless she was slimmed down in Photoshop.

However, Di Tzeitung editor Albert Friedman admitted to the Washington Post that his photo editor, “carried away with the fog of victory”, was wrong to have ignored White House instructions.

Thus, Friedman neatly shifted the terrain from an ideological issue to a procedural issue — that is, a news organisation’s ethical obligation not to alter images.

From time to time, journalists and news organisations do long to spice up pictures that just aren’t exciting enough. In 2006, Lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj felt his picture of Beirut burning following Israeli bombing needed a little more billowing smoke … so he broke out the rubber stamp tool. It fooled Reuters!

Meanwhile, Swiss tabloid Blick illustrated the 1997 slaying of 58 tourists in Luxor, Egypt, by digitally recolouring a stream of water so it looked as if a torrent of blood were flowing from the Temple of Hatshepsut.

However, it’s harder to dismiss the ideological undercurrent of digital photo manipulation when a second Orthodox Jewish publication, the glossy weekly news magazine De Voch, also airbrushed Clinton and Tomason out — this time leaving a ghostly smudge where Clinton had been.

The photograph as displayed in De Voch (Source: Failed Messiah)

It’s important to distinguish between different ideological motivations for Photoshopping news images. These are the face-saving requirements of governments, versus socially expressed ideas surrounding race, s-x and morality.

In September last year, US President Obama met with Middle Eastern leaders at the White House, where a striking picture was taken showing the politicians striding down a red carpet like something from Reservoir Dogs. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was trailing behind the group, but the state-run Egyptian paper Al Ahram doctored the pic to show Mubarak in the lead, ahead of even Obama.

Likewise, Benito Mussolini airbrushed out the horse handler who prevented his portrait from looking suitably heroic.

Meanwhile, the Commies were fond of Orwellian “memory hole” techniques that removed politically inconvenient people from the public record.  Stalin and Castro airbrushed people from pictures after they disagreed with the regime.

It’s also interesting the way that magazines feel they have to literalise evil; remember the way the Australian media evilled up the eyes on Port Arthur mass-murderer Martin Bryant?

A similar impulse got Time magazine into trouble in 1994. The June 27 covers of Newsweek and Time featured OJ Simpson’s mug shot, but Time had played with Photoshop filters to make Simpson seem more menacing. The magazine claimed it had used creative licence to represent the “dark shadows” on the accused murderer’s reputation; illustrator Matt Mahurin said he’d “wanted to make it more artful, more compelling”.

But as outraged African-American lobby groups pointed out, the Photoshop represented a dangerous slippage between “more evil” and “darker-skinned”. Under pressure, Time pulled the cover and replaced it with another image of Simpson.

Much more childishly, Fox News retaliated to a 2008 New York Times story about the network’s declining ratings by broadcasting unflatteringly altered pictures of reporter Jacques Steinberg and editor Steven Reddicliffe.

Steinberg’s teeth were yellowed, his nose and chin cartoonishly enlarged and his ears made to stick out. Reddicliffe’s teeth were also yellowed, dark shadows were added under his eyes, and — hilariously — his hairline was moved back on his head.

The intent was purely to ridicule and demean — not even to deceive. If altering historical records and falsifying evidence of news events is the pointy end of Photoshopping the news, Fox News is definitely the wobbly end.

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3 thoughts on “Photoshopping the news … send in the clones

  1. klewso

    And we can point to “Afghanistan” and that war, for what “we’ve done for their women”, as a justification …..?

  2. Douglas Gration

    Less serious, but there’s a much better manipulation of the photograph here

  3. AR

    Di Tzeitung begs to differ. “The readership of the Tzeitung believe that women should be appreciated for who they are and what they do, not for what they look like, and the Jewish laws of modesty are an expression of respect for women, not the opposite,” said the newspaper in a statement,. This is precisely the same wording used by Islamists, stating hot is cold and water flows uphill.
    As has often been pointed out the Koran is simply the Torah edited for the Arab mind.