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March 3, 2005

She Who Laughs Last Looks Best?

Martha Last Laugh

It's not too often that my blogging and my day job cross.  So it was strange when the new issue of Newsweek showed up at my office, and it caused me to think twice about whether it belonged in a shrink's waiting room.  (And that was before I figured out the cover was doctored.)

I suppose I could go on for awhile about the moral implications of the cover– the way Newsweek colludes with Martha in laughing off her prison conviction, treating it as the perfect career move.  …But I won't, because it's not my beat. 

If you've been following the BAG, you know how concerned I am about the growing sophistication of media and advocacy images, and how ill-equipped you and I are to keep up with them. 

To the extent "standard" images are touched up or punched up these days, I tend to chock it up to standard operating practice.  In my mind, however, those kinds of adjustments are categorically different from what we might call "editorial manipulation" — when the composition or alteration of an image involves the act of perceptual deceit.  As readers, we place a certain trust in the fact that what we are shown has a particular integrity — unless otherwise advised.  It might seem like a small thing, but I believe Newsweek's "Last Laugh" cover maligns that contract and forsakes the viewer's trust. 

In "damage control" interviews over the past 24 hours, Lynn Staley, assistant managing editor of Newsweek, says she thought it was obvious this image was not a photograph.  She backs herself up by referring to the small print "cover credit" on the bottom of  the Table of Contents page.  (If you can find it, it obliquely cites one credit for a "cover illustration," and another for a "head shot.") 

After all this nonsense, however, it's still hard to tell what is going on with this cover.  If I finally understand, it's a photo of Stewart's head (retouched, I assume), on top of a model's body (unless the body is actually an illustration, too) holding open a pair of curtains which are illustrated to a photorealistic likeness.  (As to the curtains behind the Martha composite, I still don't know if they are real or not.)

Marthashead-2

Maybe, I have to look at this development as a mixed blessing.  On one hand, it further shakes my faith in publishers, and causes me to become more distrustful of the news images I see.  On the other hand, I guess it gives the BAG more reason for being, and expands the scope of my beat. 

Overall though, what this incident might really do is force "image tampering" out into the open.  For some time now, publishers have been slipping the line and getting away with it.  Now, however, it's seems there's not that innocence left to lose. Personally, it frees me up to reconsider posts I've done where some form of doctoring crossed my radar.  I can think of three in particular.

The most recent example was a post I did checking in on Arnold Schwarzenegger's PR efforts ("Getting the Business" – link).  In the process, I showed a poster, produced for Team Schwarzenegger, that appeared in a NYTimes article.  In the process, I happened to mention that Arnold's image on the poster didn't look right.  Dan, a BAG reader, drove home the point, commenting that Arnold's head and neck were too small for his body, and were at the wrong angle. 

Another post I did also took Newsweek to task.  My critique, in that case, involved a cover story on the stem cell controversy ("A Real Cell Job" – link).  My critique had to do with how the magazine was sensationalizing the manipulation of life (both biologically, through cloning, as well as digitally, through computer graphics).  In the course of making a case that was probably a little too broad, what I suggested, but never came out and said, was that the cover portrait of Christopher Reeve (see link), published right after the actor had died, was most likely also manipulated to make him look like a waxy freak of science.

The most egregious doctoring example, however, involved a commercial that the Bush campaign created in the closing days of the presidential race.  The ad showed an audience of soldiers attending a Bush speech.  Examining the shot closely, you could see that many of the same soldiers had been cut-and-paste multiple times.  As soon as some blogs noticed it out, the Bush campaign quietly admitted guilt and pulled the spot.

In reporting this tampering, however, none of the blogs really speculated as to why.  In examining the questionable scene, it seemed to me ("Bush's Doctored Ad: A Case of Racial Pandering?" – link) the soldiers were added to increase the number of black faces in the audience.  But it apparently didn't stop there.  Examining the rest of the ad, I found still another segment that appeared to be retouched.  In that scene, George Bush was superimposed over a cheering crowd.  Although the shot was brief, if you examined the still frame, you could see that most of the faces in the crowd were black, although they seemed to be in different scales and facing different directions.

The ad appeared right after the Bush campaign had made a strategic shift.  Whereas the strategy to that point had been on "securing the base," Bush suddenly began stumping for Democratic votes.  He made visits to predominantly Democratic precincts in swing states, such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Surprisingly, the campaign even scheduled a few stops in Detroit, even though Michigan had been written off for sometime,  During this stretch, there were also comments coming out of the campaign about attracting a larger percentage of the African-American vote.

Although this "Martha cover" seems to definitely lower the bar when it comes to "image integrity," it also makes me think specifically about Newsweek.  Just as someone might retain an enduring positive association to CBS because they liked Walter Cronkite, I've had a connection to Newsweek because I grew up with it, and it contributed to my political awareness. 

That being said, I can't remember how long ago it became so superficial that I couldn't read it anymore.

(image: Newsweek)

  • Jerry Holtaway

    One day soon we will wake up not trusting anyone or anything, because nothing is what it really is and no one presents the truth. But what can we do? As the technology of visual manipulation (and attitudes toward the practice) evolve, every ‘trusted institution” will violate our trust in this way. Why? Money. News is no longer news. It is reve-news!

  • pjr

    Words cannot express how deeply I truly loathe this embodiment of the corporate Stepford syndroming of America. The idea that anyone, from those working two jobs to welfare moms could improve their lives by placing little paper booties on chicken drumsticks, or by purchasing endless amounts of Martha labelled linens is beyond my comprehension. Yes, she’s a fucking marketing and business genius, and yes she committed a series of crimes, to which she was tried and convicted. Having served her time, she is now the poster child for prisoner rehabilitation, as demonstrated by her lucrative new tv deal. I can’t wait for the Scott Peterson show, where we can all tune in daily for a dose of fashion tips from the likes of Matthew Hale and Ernst Zundel. Fuck.

  • BM

    I’m glad I have the Bag because otherwise I would just tune this out as One More Thing that is trying to get my money, without attempting to critique it. I want to just turn away, but that is the easy way out isn’t it. At this point, I sort of automatically assume every photograph has been manipulated in some way. Pick up any magazine and you will not see a single advertisement that is not perfect.. Newsweek is the same thing. They are trying to sell you something.

  • Just Some Liberal Cynic

    Just a little devilish advocacy here but, in the spirit of Sigmund’s “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”…could this not just be a bit of a splashy paean (regardless of how one feels about Martha Herself) to the idea that once one’s “debt to society” is paid, there’s at least the possibility of a new, fresh beginning that can be made? JSLC

  • http://www.slyfelinos.com/slyblog/ jillian

    I, too, am troubled by this. I am very familiar with the Martha Stewart story and I didn’t know it was a photoillustration. I just knew that there was something not right with the photo.
    The NYTimes has a article on this today. The scariest part has to be:
    Ms. Castro recalled a weeklong online discussion at Time magazine, where she used to work, after it ran a photo of O. J. Simpson that had been darkened. “It was really a very exciting journalism experiment,” she said.
    http://nytimes.com/2005/03/03/business/media/03mag.html
    If they think that the OJ photogate was an exciting journalism experiment, do they think that this is as well? An experiement as opposed to actual journalism?
    I’m curious as to the legal ramifications. Martha Stewarts image (face, body) represents the BRAND MARTHA STEWART. Did newsweek have permission to doctor her photo as they would have been dinking with BRAND MARTHA STEWART. It would be akin to modifying a logo or putting out an inaccurate representation of her business.
    I hope Martha sues their a**es off, really.
    Now…if they could only print a photo of Ken Lay in leg chains going to jail…

  • http://www.animeraiders.com Chris Reed

    Unfortunately, the uproar (such as it is) over this will not change anything. Newsweek has been doing this for YEARS and YEARS. Remember the photo of O.J. Simpson just after his arrest? The picture of Oprah Winfrey on a model’s body? The “correction” of the teeth of Mrs. McCaughey (mother of septuplets)?
    Yes? No?
    News is editorial these days….

  • joe

    Wow, Newsweek has become Spy!

  • MonsieurGonzo

    why should we be surprised at the perversion of still photography (?) when, day after day ~ we see MainStreamMedia splicing together disparate pieces of video photography to “illustrate” whatever news de jour happens to be in the loop.
    apparently it will take some great outrage before television networks are REQUIRED to show DATE:TIMESTAMPS on their “illustrative” video clips.
    didja dig that WIDE shot our BagNews man did of Arnold’s press conference -cum- event the other day? wasn’t that FABULOUS??
    i kinda like those rare snippets of, say ~ CNN anchors when they pull the camera up and away, and you’re looking at two people sitting at a “desk”, revelaing some hitherto unseen camera or cue-card guy wearing typical American 3rd World sweatshop cotton or “gym clothes” outfit, crouching between the talking heads and the business end of TeeVee.
    i like those pictures of The Press, too. Most of the photographers (especially the Americans) have no idea how shabby they look, especially in contrast to those objects being photographed.
    but i digress.
    F64 ? fuggeddaboutit
    our conceit was thinking, “it WAS real, before.”
    “We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube. You eat like the tube. You even think like the tube. In God’s name, you people are the real thing; WE are the illusion.”

  • findemundo

    To me, this cover signals to us that the “hatefest” against Martha Stewart will continue. Perhaps some of us were feeling sorry for her being in jail and all…..but look, she’s somehow “getting away with murder” again. Add to this the endless mentioning of how her house arrest will take place at her palatial estate etc.,including mention of acreage, number of buildings etc. It’s as if she can never be punished enough to satisfy the public…..Fight on Martha!

  • Jon

    Baby boomer media… if guys get Viagra, dolls deserve the airbrush.
    I swear, each day we’re one step closer to Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’.

  • pt

    On this same topic:
    Check this out!
    Front page story on today’s NYT:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/04/international/middleeast/04syria.html
    Click on “enlarge this picture” above the picture of Bashar al-Asad and Crown Prince Abdullah.
    Something’s fishy about that picture.
    For starters, whoever p-shopped Bashar into the photo forgot to give him a shadow. And the whole picture somehow looks funny. Any comments?

  • cb

    I think you miss the point entirely. This is just Newsweek’s way of riding the Martha cash cow – Martha-haters will say “hurray – doesn’t she look good!” and Martha-haters will say “damn b**** – doesn’t she look good?” You forget that Newsweek’s bottom line is to make $$. Newsweek knows it’s audience, and Newsweek believes people are more interested in the fact that Martha is thinner, than the fact that 1500 troops have died in Iraq. Whether you agree or disagree that Newsweek should be using photo illustrations (a friend of mine sold a cover illustration to them several years ago and made a mint) Newsweek did this correctly by not hiding the fact that it was a photo illustration, giving everyone involved a credit line (unlike Bush’s troop photo doctoring). I’m a professional photographer and this sort of “photo illustration” goes on all the time. What I find interesting is that her head cuts across the Newsweek banner, giving us “New eek”. 1500 troops dead, and Martha’s on the cover? At least it wasn’t Michael Jackson.

  • seize

    I don’t know about you guys, but when was the last time you say a cover of a magazine that DIDN’T have some sort of editorial position. The sheer action of placing an image on a cover says “This is important.” True, you could add to that sentence to say something like “…. to sell more copies.” But it’s still important, at least from the position of Newsweek. Think back to the covers of Esquire back in the 60s/70s, when the images SAID something. (http://www.esquire.com/img/cover/1968/1968_4.jpg)
    (And hatefest on Martha? Please. This cover glorifies her. She has the last laugh. She’s the one who is bouncing back when everyone said she wouldn’t. She’s the one back on TV with a new show. She’s the one who wins. A conviction was supposed to ruin her. What happened to that? Gone. And who emerges on stage? The “bad” police who are trying to “keep her down”? No. Martha. If anything the double-edged-ness of this image is more important: what the heck does someone have to do before the public won’t invite them back into their living rooms? Murder, nay. Child molestation, nay. Stock fraud, nay.)
    (And about Martha The Brand.™: MS Omnimedia is probably loving the cover. People who hate Martha already are a lost cause. Their plan is about re-introducing herself to America, and what better way than saying “she’s got more money, she’s looks better and she’s gonna back on your TV.”)
    I’m not defending the image, per se, because as a photo illustration, it doesn’t look like one. It looks like they sprung her from jail for a photoshoot. And I think there are other ways that that concept (because that’s what this type of art has behind it). I am a newspaper designer, and we have to make these decisions all the time. I personally would have opted-out and rethought it. The obvious limitation of not having Martha ready to pose would be kept in mind.
    But to say that this type of stuff is off-limits is silly. Where is the crime in this particular image? Whose sensibilities are distraught? Whose life has been wrecked? No one’s. It’s editorial art that could be misconstrued as news. And that’s that.

  • aethorian

    The camera doesn’t lie, but the eye of the beholder, that’s another story (Oh, it’s Martha all right, after a little makeover).
    Is it not a strange thing to see films in which the actors are dead, yet their screen characters are alive (“This Gun For Hire“, for example). That’s what images like the Newsweek cover can accomplish: virtual resurrection. Back from the dead, forever young, forever vigorous, forever marketable.

  • http://dearauntnettie.com/museum dancinfool

    Is it me or is the body (whoever’s it is) missing everything from the waist down and stuck on a post?
    Weird. And really ugly.

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