Saturday, March 17, 2007
There They Go Again
I know this doesn't have anything to do with the environment, but it is reflective of how low we've sunk in journalism. I'm talking about The March 26 cover of Time magazine, which features a photograph of Ronald Reagan with the cover line, "How the Right Went Wrong. What would Ronnie do? And why the Republican candidates need to reclaim the Reagan legacy." What's most arresting about the photo is a tear running down from his right eye and over his rosy cheek. After the OJ Simpson cover debacle, you'd think they would have learned their lesson. But no. You have to look in the small print — the cover photo credits — to learn that the photograph is by David Hume Kennerly, and the "tear by Tim O'Brien." I take this to mean that the tear was added by Tim O'Brien, electronically.
Tear by anyone is an outrage. Time is a bloody news magazine, so presumably they should be dedicated to telling the truth. Well apparently, the truth is that Reagan wasn't crying when the photo was shot. The photo is a lie. Most readers will see the photo and think Reagan really was crying when it was taken. That was my first reaction. How many people will look like I did to see whether it was Photoshopped? Not many.
And this is the first cover of a redesigned magazine. In a one-page note to reader, managing editor Richard Stengel goes on piously about the redesign. "Every issue of Time tells a larger story about the world we live in, and we wanted to create a design that would best present that story," he wrote. Lower down he says, "We offer clarity in a confusing world, explaining not only what happened but why it matters." That tear on Ronnie's cheek shows up with stunning clarity. It's looks hyper-real, in fact. And that's because it's not plainly real. It's a fake. What does this suggest to readers? That their journalism is fake as well? That wouldn't be such an unreasonable conclusion.
You could argue that it doesn't much matter. Reagan did cry from time to time (on demand, like an actor, some say), and that the image is symbolic, not meant to be taken literally. Such nonsense. Where do we stop? Why not doctor all news photos to increase their symbolic power? In fact, why not doctor all stories to suit our purposes? What matters is a higher truth, right?
Wrong. We tell the truth. That's our job. And when some of us don't, the credibility of journalism overall is eroded.
If one of the world's leading news organizations doesn't see what an outrage this is, what does that say about the future of journalism?