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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)

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