July 14th, 2008 | Published in Reporting commentary
Richard Landes calls my attention to this post at Augean Stables by his colleague Lazar reporting on how a desperate Zimbabwean mother fooled the New York Times by faking injuries to her son and claiming that they were caused by Mugabe’s thugs. They put it on their front page top and center. The details of the deception are at Augean Stables.
(Photo from Augean Stables)
I have spent considerable time in Zimbabwe and have some feeling for the place. The woman involved is the wife of an opposition politician and clearly understands media and how it works. Still, I seriously doubt that she is a professional deceiver like the Pallywood cameramen or the media emirs of al Qaeda in Iraq. Essentially she is an amateur, and yet she made the front page of the NY Times by subterfuge. She even got them to take the fauxtograph. Part of why she could play the NY Times like a violin is because anyone who watches television regularly understands how the media works – and has some idea how to fool them. I put portable TV units in the hands of Australian primary school kids in the seventies and they immediately started to do stand up news reporting on events at their school without any coaching. Because kids see TV from infancy, an important part of the media dynamic is the dynamic of the playground. Everyone learns how to manipulate situations by claiming injury and injustice – as in ‘he’s picking on me’. Any parent or teacher quickly learns to be skeptical of such claims – why are reporters and their supposedly experienced editors and fact checkers such mugs?
I don’t think it is just incompetence, but part of a larger Western cultural pattern of putting political agendas ahead of objective observation and reporting. In my experience as an academic I noticed a closely related shift in professional culture. By the seventies having a social agenda was part of university teaching and the older emphasis on discovering truth had somehow slipped into the background. Indeed truth itself became decidedly unfashionable is some quarters, but that is another story. With the best will in the world, it is not always easy to tell when research slips into advocacy and ones’ own desire to support an argument obscures contradictory evidence. I recall in graduate school in the late sixties that a head of department let it be known that only research that produced positive results was acceptable. I think something similar has happened with journalism. Reporters are often people with an agenda in search of stories to support that agenda. In today’s climate, it is hard to imagine Western reporters going to Zimbabwe looking for stories to support Mugabe. But unlike news from Iran or Israel Zimbabwe is unlikely to seriously effect politics in the West. There is something else driving the apparent credulity of these particular reporters.
I think part of the problem is the appetite for emotionally compelling material. Even conservative print organizations like the NY Times must find such material to compete – particularly with television. On the one hand, it is television that schools entire populations in what is compelling viewing and on the other, pressures other media forms – even the staid NY Times – into finding ways to grab visceral attention. I don’t think this explanation is adequate to understand a Charles Enderlin who at the very least was too ready to accept the word of his Palestinian cameraman and go to air with the al Durah footage when he had to know it was explosive. But I do think modern journalists – even good ones – are easy marks for a story that fits into well established expectations and ideologies and has an strongly shocking element. In this case the deliberate abuse of an infant for purposes of political terrorism – is ready made to manipulate emotions and draw attention. So, sadly, the NY Times finds itself in the business of ‘hight minded’ tabloid journalism.
It should not be beyond the capacities of journalists to spot such fraud and even more experienced editors to demand verification when they sense something might be not as it seems. Most people can sense when they are being manipulated but not always. Instead of viewing the blogsophere as a problem because it is pretty good at spotting when the MSM has been taken for a ride, they should see it as a fact checking resource. I’m guilty as the next blogger of a bit of triumphalism when a blogger beats an established icon like the NY Times to the punch, but part of the new rules of the Internet media environment is that all sorts of real experts are watching and they are in a position to publish their observations. I noticed this phenomena again in connection with yesterday’s post on the photoshopped Iranian missile launch. A blogger with a different set of skills – that of a former intelligence officer – in this post at In From The Cold, raises all manner of questions about all the photos of the launch that came out of Iran. Without making any definitive claims he raises the possibility that all of the photos of the launch we have from Iran may have been manipulated in some way. In other words what initially looks like a single altered photo to cover up a missile that failed to fire, all the photos may have been doctored to mislead and obscure.
In another take Errol Morris of the NY Times argues in an opinion piece entitled Believing is Seeing about the Iranian fauxtographs makes the point that the Iranians have gained from all the attention and that the scary image is what will be remembered. True or false that is what will stick and I agree. He tries to further argue that all this contributes to what he sees as a phony build up to war with Iran by the Bush administration. I’ll take a pass on that one, but I will take him up on trying to imply that the Colin Powell used fauxtography in his famous UN speech about WMD leading up tht Iraq war.
Are we on the brink of another war? I remind myself that the war in Iraq started with bellicose posturing and photographs. At the United Nations, Colin Powell displayed several photographs of Iraqi sites showing incontrovertible evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Of course, we now know that this incontrovertible visual evidence was false. We don’t need advanced digital tools to mislead, to misdirect or to confuse. All we need is a willingness to uncritically believe.
Morris doesn’t state the claim explicitly – in a discussion of fauxtography he indirectly implies it in a way that I believe is intellectually dishonest. I have seen absolutely no evidence that the CIA or anyone else in the US government doctored photographs to make the case for war with Iraq. The problem was one of interpretation, not Photoshopped evidence. Morris’ drive by tactics seriously detract from what I believe is a valid point – that scary images even when proven phony – leave the public with the same primary emotional message. In a word terror.