May 10, 2011

The news from Brooklyn


Different situations.

Newspapers can get away with a lot. Libel is not easy to prove and the protective aura of incidental misinformation can help any casuist hide their ulterior motives. It’s been that way for a long time and to some degree the culture celebrates it. Remember Donald Rumsfeld‘s book of poetry? Exactly. That sort of thing.

Then there’s this story about a Brooklyn based Hasidic newspaper, Der Zeitung, that decided to phototshop the now iconic photograph of the “situation room” from last week’s operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. The original photograph was taken by the White House’s official photographer, Pete Souza, and has instantly become symbolic of the hyper-realities of modern warfare, not to mention the image-driven concept of the modern presidency. In the photograph you can see President Obama and his closest advisers soberly watch the operation to kill Bin Laden unfold. Real time. In particular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stands out. There has been much speculating about the emotion displayed by Clinton, who is seen in the photograph with wide eyes and using her hand to cover her mouth.

More than anything the photograph is an an impressive look at how far command-and-control technology has come. The President of the United States can now view and interact with individual military actions like a point and click strategy video game. Souza’s photograph was also, according to the actions of Der Zeitung, a dangerous corruption of society. You see, the conservative newspaper has edited out of history the likenesses of Hillary Clinton and Director of Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason. The two women have been completely removed from the photo by the newspaper.

Der Zeitung has since apologized and awkwardly explained that it has always maintained a tradition of removing women from photographs because they are sexually suggestive when included. As far as reasons to edit Hillary Clinton out of a photograph, this is sketch comedy gold. It’s also not the first time this sort of thing has happened. USA Today notes that in 2009 a similarly conservative paper in Israel cited similar justification for editing out female ministers in a cabinet photo.

While certainly the most pernicious, Der Zeitung was definitely not the first offender. The White House released the photograph along with the statement that it could not be altered or edited. That provision changed nothing last week, as The Atlantic observed last week. The release led to a meme frenzy of doctored photographs. There is a difference here though, and it would be nice if there were legal realities that recognized the difference. To include the Jersey Shore‘s “The Situation” in a photograph of the White House “Situation Room” is comedy at its worst, which is okay. Der Zeitung on the other hand, should somehow be liable for purposefully obscuring the truth.

The whole thing is enough to make one verklempt.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.