Reuters' Image Problem
It’s been a good week for Los Angeles’ most controversial political Web site, Little Green Footballs, widely reviled by some because it takes global Islamist terrorism more seriously than, say, a Dick Cheney hunting accident.
On August 5, Little Green Footballs (LGF) provided convincing visual evidence that a Reuters photograph of the aftermath of an Israeli bombing of Beirut was a poorly Photoshopped fake. The black clouds of smoke and duplicated buildings shown in the photograph were so obviously “cloned,” in Photoshop-speak, that it seemed surprising they could escape notice on one of the world’s most prestigious news desks. But escape it they did, and the image went ’round the world, one more victory in Hezbollah’s propaganda war against Israel and the U.S.
But then, it has long been the contention of LGF’s webmaster, 53-year-old Charles Johnson, who is the cofounder of Pajamas Media, that an awful lot of dodgy news items seem to slip past the news desks of Reuters, the Associated Press, and other major media organizations and newspapers. Two years ago, Johnson was the blogger responsible for exposing CBS anchorman Dan Rather’s use of forged memos about George W. Bush’s military service in an attempt to influence the 2004 presidential election. The memos were such obvious forgeries that Johnson was able to reveal them as such in a matter of minutes, posting the results online. But Dan Rather, the heir to Walter Cronkite and figurehead for CBS News, bought into them wholesale.
The photograph that first came to Johnson’s attention on LGF was taken by Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese stringer. Reuters, which has employed Hajj since 1993, has officially admitted that the photograph was indeed “doctored.” (Hajj was promptly fired.) In the meantime, bloggers looking through the stringer’s extensive Reuters portfolio soon came up with other photographs that appear to have been either digitally manipulated or “staged.” As a result, Reuters has conceded that a second Hajj photo, claiming to show an F-16 jet firing three missiles, was in reality the image of an Israeli jet dropping a single anti-SAM flare that Hajj cloned twice, turning it into three “missiles.”
Two more Reuters photos by Hajj, one dated July 24 and the other August 5, display an area of Beirut bombed by Israeli aircraft. The caption accompanying each photo states that the destruction had taken place the day before. A cursory examination of the two pictures makes it clear, however, that the site was bombed once, on July 24, and then photographed again 11 days later as if the ruination had just occurred. Either that, or Hajj simply took both photos on July 24, offering one to Reuters, and then offered the second almost two weeks later with a caption suggesting that it had just been taken.
Contacted by phone, Johnson says he would like to see Reuters become more accountable in cases like this, but doubts that it will happen. “They’ve fired the guy [Hajj], but it goes beyond him, and people are starting to go over all those photos from Lebanon with a fine-tooth comb. It’s not always a question of fakery but also of propaganda, manipulation, whatever you want to call it.
“The issue is, if they’re using local stringers for reporting from these areas, they have to take more care that they’re reputable and not connected to groups like Hezbollah. I’m not saying they are connected, but Hezbollah has a media-relations department, they know very well what the power of the media is, and I’m not confident that news agencies like Reuters are ensuring it doesn’t happen. I think this scandal proves it doesn’t happen adequately . . . I really believe that Hezbollah is managing a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Lebanon.”
The real thrust of Johnson’s critique, in other words, is to raise the delicate question of who exactly we are entrusting our “news gathering” to. Johnson and other bloggers have been criticized for claiming that the deaths of 28 civilians following an Israeli bombing of a house in the Lebanese village of Qana were deliberately staged by Hezbollah. But photos by the ubiquitous Hajj played a prominent role in the coverage, as Reuters has conceded. Bloggers claim many of them look, if not staged, then extremely posed. Particularly notorious was the number of photographs featuring a mysterious, green-helmeted Lebanese aid worker who, among other duties, seemed willing to hold up dead babies for hours on end for anyone with a working camera.
Johnson disputes the notion that he has tried to pretend no one died in Qana or that the death of children isn’t unequivocally horrifying. “None of the points I was making were intended to minimize the deaths in Qana, which did happen,” he says. “But because images like that have such a powerful hold over human nature — they invoke the strongest emotions we have, to see children dead — if someone is manipulating those effects for propaganda purposes, it’s vital they be exposed, because it’s loathsome. But yes, no one wants the children to be dead, and I don’t minimize that at all. But to dance on their corpses in this ghoulish propaganda display is almost worse.”
Dancing on corpses? Ghoulish propaganda display? A leaked interoffice memo from the Associated Press, or AP, congratulating its Qana photographers on “a stunning series of images . . . that beat the competition and scored huge play overnight,” suggests that such phrases, as well as some of Johnson’s other charges, may not be entirely hyperbolic.
“Nasser’s most haunting image,” reads one section of the memo, referring to a picture by AP photographer Nasser Nasser, “showed a man emerging from the rubble carrying the lifeless and dust-covered body of a child. Calm, morning light shone down on man and child, highlighting them against an almost monochrome background of pure rubble.” Monochrome background. Calm, morning light. Pure rubble (as opposed to that hideous rubbly kind of rubble). How nice. How poetic. How aesthetic. AP sounds less like a news organization than an ad agency.
In exposing Hajj’s manipulations, Johnson has raised the lid on a potential Pandora’s box. Namely, how our leading news agencies and newspapers increasingly rely on stringers from hostile nations to tell us how we, or our allies, behave in wartime. Since you’d be hard-pressed to find Muslims in the U.S., let alone Europe, who aren’t strongly anti-Israel and opposed to any American presence in the Middle East whatsoever, why on earth would you expect to find neutral Arab reporters in Baghdad or Beirut? This is the kind of question newspaper editors should be asking themselves (and their stringers). If the implications of this are followed through, or if more photographers like Adnan “Photoshop” Hajj are discovered, the ramifications are likely to be significant. In helping bring Hajj’s smoke-and-mirrors game to light, Johnson has performed a great service.
But don’t expect himto get much thanks for it in his hometown. Though he has a few vocal supporters here, such as L.A.-based journalist Cathy Seipp, who calls Johnson a “righteous gentile” and points out for slow learners that being an anti-anti-Semite does not equate to racism, Johnson’s chances of being invited to a party at Arianna Huffington’s mansion are about as good as Osama bin Laden’s. (Okay, worse.)
Last February, in an article about Pajamas Media, Los Angeles magazine’s media critic, R.J. Smith, characterized Johnson’s site as “constitutionally protected hate speech.” He described LGF, which averages well over 100,000 unique hits a day, as an online hangout for “haters” who think “all Muslims are terrorists until proven innocent.” The fact that LGF provides an incredibly useful guide to global Islamist encroachment appears not to have entered his head at all.
As an example of bien pensant groupthink, Smith’s article could hardly be bettered. Smith was supposed to be a professional media “critic” writing about a hapless blogger. In reality, he was just a member of the media, as loyal to clan as a potbellied Irish cop, writing about a real media critic. Johnson caught Dan Rather trying to swing a presidential election, and now he’s blown a giant hole in the credibility of the world’s largest news service. As a result of his work, Reuters has been forced to delete all 920 Hajj photographs from its database, tighten its filing drills and institute a new policy whereby all Middle East photographs will be checked by the editor-in-charge on the Global Pictures Desk before release. Johnson achieved all this in, oh, about 48 hours. Which does lead one to ask: What have you done lately, R.J.?
In the meantime, Johnson is modest about the short-term outcome of his efforts. “In the sense that living organisms always adapt and evolve to meet challenges,” he notes wryly, “one immediate effect of the scandal is that people will be more careful when they fake photographs.”
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