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January 18, 2007

Take The Quiz, Brothers And Sisters, Take The Quiz!


by Chris Maynard

And today, it’s time for a spot quiz.

Attendance will not be taken. Answers will not be graded. Researching the image (a.k.a. cheating) will be overlooked. It is the Internet, after all, where, as a New Yorker cartoon caption once pointed out, no one knows you’re a dog. And, if it’s at all possible, no peeking at early postings: the last thing needed is a results column that looks like an ad  for Diebold.

Recently The BAG posted a shot of Representative Pelosi surrounded by children on the occasion of her being sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House. The issue, simplified here, was whether the national press was reflexively emphasizing her gender, and by extension forcing her into the traditional role as child-bearer with little regard to her capabilities as a political leader.

This AP shot, which ran in the New York Times on Tuesday, accompanied an article headlined “Democrats Seek the Middle on Social Issues” which dealt with the Democratic Party’s attempt to approach topics such as abortion, gay rights and embryonic stem cell research, which their opponents have turned into hot-button issues as an efficient way of polarizing the country,  as everyday, middle of the road beliefs rather than earth-shattering decisions designed to get everyone’s heads down in the trenches.

Speaker Pelosi and Representative James E. Clyburn, the new majority whip, besides appearing in the photo, were also mentioned in the text. Ms. Pelosi:

“highlighted her (religion) in her first week in office, with two high-profile church services in Washington. There have been occasional protests from religious conservatives, challenging the rights of Democrats like Mrs. Pelosi to present themselves as both good Christians and supporters of abortion rights.” Meanwhile, the Democratic whip, according to the article, “has led a ‘faith working group’ in the House in an effort…to get members ‘more comfortable with these issues and more connected with values voters.’”

The quiz, however, is not about their beliefs, their supporters or their detractors.

What we’re looking at is a news photograph with no context of its own. We know it’s Pelosi and Clyburn, but we know nothing else. Therefore: What’s the event in which they’re taking part?  Why are their arms up in the air?  Where, exactly, or even approximately, are they?  How long ago was the picture taken?  And how does the picture fit in with THIS story?

As quizmasters who know the answers to these questions, we’re not looking to assign blame for anything, but merely for a way to figure out how much any medium can tint the truth of a photo by placement or with a simple caption or even by running a shot with no caption at all. At the turn of the year, when large shots of Jerry Ford and Saddam Hussein hit page one, no one needed a caption, or even a headline, to know they were dead. It’s not always that simple.

Look at an old American custom, the parade of the guilty. In the old days it was pretty easy: black hats and white hats. Then other kinds of bad guys popped up, but they were still easy to spot, usually slightly seedy, frequently bruised and circled by barrel chested cops. It all changed in the 80s, when Wall Street became a crime scene and the sight of a guy in a suit carrying a raincoat on a sunny day was always good for a chuckle.

Now we have a land in which being clean as driven snow has become such a relative concept that it’s beside the point. Run a search and find 20,000 reasons why Jack is right, and Jill will come back with 20,000 reasons why she is right. The audience wants hints of what to think, and it wants them to be easy.

Life becomes a process of getting up every morning and shaving the dice. Which, really, is what captionless photos do. It’s usually easier, and always faster, to just check the spelling and plunk down whatever picture fits, especially if it fits the concept on which the news article was sold. Editors of the newest sort can even do away with understanding the concept.

So, if you’ve got a spare minute, take the test. At best, you’ll read captions with a newly raised eyebrow; at worst…well, there is no worst. As we said before, no one’s counting.

  • demit

    That’s Dennis Hastert in the background, and Pelosi looks to be wearing her purple suit from the day she was elected Speaker. Could they be voting and/or hailing the vote count for a colleague that day? Other people are clapping and smiling, even if Hastert looks a little rueful doing it. (They are in the same space as the audience…although maybe it is their own election, and their arms are raised in triumph at the announcement of the vote count.) So it is a political scenario.
    Juxtaposed with a story about religion, however, the photo (at a quick glance, the quick look a reader gives a visual before going on to read the story) takes on a different tone. It is suggestive of a revival meeting, or a Baptist Sunday service, in which the congregation routinely calls out, and testifies (I think, anyway. I’m Catholic.) The caption nails it the implication home—the NYT wants to imply that Pelosi and Clyburn are being “noisy” and ostentatious about their faith, and the oh-so-clever NYT has caught them at it.

  • ummabdulla

    Nancy just got BINGO, and Clyburn is helping her get the attention of the caller to let him know?
    No, really – I’d guess that there’s someone on stage who’s referring to Pelosi, or waving to her or something… As for the location, maybe she’s making her way down the aisle on the floor of the House. The floor seems to be on an incline.
    But with the caption, I assume that we’re supposed to think of an evangelical church service. That little piece of wood in the lower left corner helps, by giving the idea of a church pew.

  • PTate in FR

    Well, obviously, Alleluia! Amen! Our sister has seen the light! If the fundamentalists cut her liberal policies some slack because of this picture, it would be okay by me.
    As for what was really happening, let me guess…George Bush stopped by Congress dressed up as Santa Claus, and he just called out, “Where’s little Nancy, the new speaker of the House??”

  • PTate in FR

    btw, BAG, clever frame.

  • Bob

    Redskins make TD/win game/intercept a pass/etc.

  • chsbob

    Someone in the cheap seats in the House chamber…..probably an old/young; overcame some life experience and recovered, etc, type person.

  • amm

    This pic with its caption puzzled me even before I read Chris Maynard’s comment because the caption suggests that it is an image of religious expression — yet Pelosi is Catholic and this is not from a Catholic ritual and not typical of Catholic prayer. I’m thinking it comes from some politcal scene in the House. I would question the editor’s willingness to slap such a caption under a photo taken from another, probably non-religious context, particularly since the caption concerns religion. As an editor myself, I’d say the caption is unacceptably misleading.

  • tina

    I agree with amm, the picture is clearly a political one (and they both look radiantly happy with Hastert glowering in the background, a threat to this glorious new future?), but its used to make it look like Pelosi is a Pentecostal or something. And, oh, those crazy southern black folk and their Jesus jumpin’! We all know they get the spirit and roll around foaming at the mouth…don’t they?
    A beautiful moment, even if we don’t know precisely which one, a nice pic, criminally misused, the caption is vicious and somebody ought to be fired. For God’s sake.

  • acm

    Pelosi looks like she’s waving, but Clyburn looks like he’s reaching for something (my mind wants to insert a red balloon just out of reach). My first thought was also that it was Nancy’s swearing-in day, but Hastert was way back against the wall then, so it must be later — maybe during a later event that day, and they’re acknowledging somebody in the balcony? Else I’m mystified.
    Anyway, doesn’t seem that odd to me to show the new leader in a political setting in an article with the headline “Democrats seek the middle on social issues,” although surely they could have chosen a dignified image over one that reeks of childish glee…
    The caption is just an attempt to make sure that picture-glancers get the gist of the article, I suppose, but it seems less than descriptive here.

  • Aunt Deb

    This picture, with this caption, is both racist and sexist and is made deliberately so. Because of Bag’s post, I looked more closely at the picture and agree with the posters above who think this is a political event of some sort, in which Pelosi and Clyburn are acknowledging someone or something out of view and the surrounding people are applauding Pelose and Clyburn.

  • ggb

    I believe this photo is from the first day of the new Congress and it might have been just after they elected Pelosi, unanimously, as Speaker. I believe that photo was taken and the caption used on a later news day.

  • Robin Farley

    They’re obviously in the House chamber, probably up on the rostrum waving at someone up in the gallery. The impression given by the article is that this might be some display of evangelical ecstasy. Pretty shameless by the Times.

  • mugatea

    That’s not Dennis Hastert in the background.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    Re: “This picture, with this caption, is both racist and sexist…”
    The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
    “Queen Gertrude speaks these famous words to her son, Prince Hamlet, while watching a play at court. Gertrude does not realize that Hamlet has staged this play to trap her and her new husband, King Claudius, whom Hamlet suspects of having murdered his father. She also does not realize that the lady who “doth protest too much” is actually herself, as the Player King and Queen represent King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude.”

  • MonsieurGonzo

    …rather, it is the caption’s implication that this image has something to do with the fervor of fundamentalist religion that is so perversely misleading as to constitute a complete breach of public trust in popular/mass media reportage.

  • Victoria

    It’s in the House. She’s in her first-day suit. I assume they are waving to the gallery – to family and friends, in celebration of their new leadership postions. – So is this the shot of Pelosi and Clyburn together that they grabbed for use with a caption? Caption first, picture second?
    To this eye, it’s clearly exuberant personal celebration rather than religious fervor.

  • Mad_nVT

    It’s August 2006.
    Nostradamus has just announced his predictions for the coming year:
    The Democrats will win the House. Pelosi and Clyburn are overjoyed.
    Nostro also predicts that the Boy Emperor will get tired and retire to Crawford. He will lose touch with reality.
    Darth Cheney will resign before impeachment. He will go back to Wyoming and shoot things.

  • Megan

    I haven’t looked it up, so these are pure guesses. They look like they want to be called on in school, or at least like they’re joking with each other about wanting to be called on in school. I like how happy they look, and that their bodies are aligned. They seem to be contesting for something. In those postures, they might be trying to catch a t-shirt at a game or something; I would look like that if I were boxing out a guy friend (who was reaching over me). I can’t guess what the event is.
    Where are they? Some place where fancy suits are appropriate (not a game). I dunno. Their work, in Congress maybe? How long ago? Recent, ‘cause why show an old photo? Fit with the story? Well, they’re in the center of the frame and they are black and white and in happy unison. You know, striving for the same goal and stuff. They must be moderates, if they’re doing that.

  • dancinfool

    This pic was taken immediately after Pelosi was elected Speaker. What that has to do with religion I don’t know. Whoever selected this photo obviously decided that it fit the subject even though factually, it has nothing to do with religion. Lazy photo editor? Evangelical Photo editor?

  • Unbreathless

    My first thought: Someone’s throwing Candy! Yay free candy!
    Then it was: Praise Jesus! (because of the caption)
    Then it was quickly followed by: We win! When I actually thought about it.

  • margaret

    I looked at the very nice picture, nice because it shows such happiness, unstaged, and genuine, and read the article, and didn’t peek at the comments, first, and I swear, I had no idea what the article was really getting at, and how this picture fit. It was all very confusing, and I’m glad you exposed the Times at their sloppiest, or their most devious, behavior. (Do people still read that rag?)

  • peco

    From the framing and position of the other people I would say they are walking down an aisle…( in the House? after Nov elections?) the others appear to be applauding…the lady in the red jacket looking at the same thing/person Pelosi and Clybourn are looking at. Not a religious event.

  • mugatea

    I thought ’till my puzzler was sore and ‘Washington’ kept popping into my head regarding the Hastert look-a-like in the background. It’s Jack McDermott serving the 7th CD of Washington State. I knew it couldn’t be Dennis Hastert; he is butt ugly, couldn’t see without his Coke bottle lenses, and I’ve never seen him with more than one black man.
    That looks like Obama over his left shoulder.
    Are they applauding this Kucinich vocal performance?..
    PTate’r the visual from your Santa comment still has me cracking up.

  • tina

    who’s the Lady in Red in the picture?
    This is getting more interesting every moment.

  • truthseeker

    Thanks to dancinfool, we know it’s on the House floor and probably at the announcement of Pelosi as speaker. I’ve seen the lady in red giving speeches on C-span but cannot remember her name. Black guy behind white haired guy can’t be Obama because he is a Senator.
    As for how the NYT used the photo…….I suppose one could make the case that the editor just grabbed a recent one showing Pelosi, but that would be so amateurish and sloppy as to be beneath the dignity of the great gray lady, right? Which leaves us with intentional obfuscation, especially when all the reporting (sic) around the photo is loaded with religious and conservative nuances and hot button words.

  • gkoutnik

    To this practised conservative Christian (and politically liberal) eye, there’s nothing about the picture that suggests religious fervor. The expressions are too focused, to self-absorbed – something is making them happy; they’ve won. Religious fervor is about ecstasy, giving yourself up, and looks nothing like this.

  • demit

    Wow, it’s true, that isn’t Dennis Hastert. As someone noted above, it is Jim (not Jack) McDermott, a Dem Representative from Washington State, serving his 9th term in Congress. Interesting tidbit from Congresspedia:
    “…Rep. McDermott visited Iraq in 2002, prior to the 2003 Invasion. He received sharp criticism from conservatives, both for his visit and for his prediction that President George W. Bush would “mislead the American public” to justify military action. He continuously insisted that no weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. …”
    Mea culpa to Rep. McDermott, whose look I now have to reinterpret. Not rueful, then…unless he’s thinking of all the times he’s been mistaken for Dennis Hastert.

  • Robertosucco

    won’t make my stocks rise…

  • lowly grunt

    I’m going to post before reading the other guesses, but I think they are at a wedding reception and the bride has just thrown the bouquet.

  • lowly grunt

    Or, wait, wait, this is great, they are going for the ball that has just been tipped!

  • lowly grunt

    A la acm up thread with the red balloon just out of the frame, Pelosi and Clayburn are in a mosh pit and the lead singer has just jumped from the stage. Hooookin’!
    I also like the Redskins reference but I KNOW that to be false. (The REDSKINS scoring? please..)
    Maybe Clyburn wanted to high five Pelosi and she inconveniently turned around at the last second leaving him sorta hanging. OR she is high fiving someone in front of her and Clyburn is so jubilant that he is going to join in anyway.
    WHATEVER the context, there is JOY in this picture and I love it. I plan to download it and put it on my desktop. Thanks for the big smile, BAG!

  • lowly grunt

    Okay, one last time to post (and prove I’m human!) I think Jim McDermott doesn’t look particularly dour given the circumstances. He isn’t overjoyed but he doesn’t look like he wants to kick a puppy, either. He looks like he is resigned to Democratic rule and maybe, just maybe, a little hopeful that things will be different, now. I think he is of the generation of men who don’t show emotion overtly, but there seems to be a little bit of an upturn to his mouth… could it be the beginning of a smile? Could also be gas, but if he thinks Shrub has been lying, I think he’s cautiously optimistic.

  • dontkillwhitey

    “Cheerleaders, shoot that T-shirt gun over here!”

  • bartcopfan

    My first thought was that they were both reaching to catch the bouquet that the new bride chucked over her shoulder….

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