How low can press standards go?

Marvin Olasky

8/17/2006 12:01:00 AM - Marvin Olasky

Try on this exciting photo caption: "A Hezbollah PR man poses for dramatic effect in front of a tire fire."

That's what the caption for the cover photo of the July 31 edition of U.S. News and World Report should have read. The caption that actually ran was "A Hezbollah gunman aims his AK 47 at a fire caused by an explosion in Kfarshima, near Beirut." The magazine suggested that the explosion came from a shot-down Israeli aircraft hitting the ground, but bloggers showed that the photo was of tires burning in a garbage dump after a misfired Hezbollah missile hit them.

Now that Israel-Hezbollah War I is over (with War II likely to begin as soon as Hezbollah rearms), we can review in peace an enormous breakdown in already shaky press standards. Big newspapers and magazines have in the past taken a hard line against the staging and doctoring of photos. Last month the Charlotte Observer fired a photographer for changing the color of the sky in a picture of firefighters. Three years ago the Los Angeles Times also terminated an employee for photo manipulation in Iraq. But the response of press lords to massive photographic fraud in Lebanon this month has been astoundingly lackadaisical.

Yes, Reuters fired one photographer for doctoring pictures, but the problem is general, according to photog Brian Denton: "I have been working in Lebanon since all this started, and have been witness to the daily practice of directed shots, one case where a group of wire photogs were choreographing the unearthing of bodies, directing emergency workers here and there, asking them to position bodies just so, even remove bodies that have already been put in graves so that they can photograph them in people's arms."

Denton concluded, "These photographers have come away with powerful shots that required no manipulation digitally, but instead, manipulation on a human level, and this itself is a bigger ethical problem." The manipulation is also not a moot point: When the next war comes, will photographers and editors once again carry Hezbollah's mail?

Here are just three examples of pro-Hezbollah staged photography courtesy of Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse:

-- Photos of bombing sites with clean and undamaged toys and stuffed animals perfectly positioned in front of them for maximum poignant impact. It's possible that Mickey Mouse and others merely sprung up at those spots, but it's much more likely that their placement was the product of intelligent design.

-- Photographers moving other objects to more readily jerk tears. For example, many media outlets displayed a photograph of a mannequin with a wedding dress standing near the site of an Israeli air raid -- as if an explosion that knocked down a building a few yards away would leave a mannequin standing but unnoticed by hundreds of rescuers and media members running around earlier in the day.

-- Photos two weeks apart showing the same Lebanese woman bemoaning the destruction of her apartment by Israeli bombs. The photos showed her in front of two different buildings, leading one blogger to write, "Either this woman is the unluckiest multiple home owner in Beirut, or something isn't quite right."

Most major newspapers and magazines have not admitted their complicity, but three cheers for Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times, who noted that the stuffed toys poised atop rubble were "miraculously pristinely clean and apparently untouched by the devastation they purportedly survived. (Reuters might want to check its freelancers' expenses for unexplained Toys "R" Us purchases.)"

Of course, the larger question is why those corpses and that rubble are there. So kudos to photographer Daniel Etter, who wrote on one blog, "The real staging happens before the rescue worker shows the dead children to photographers. It happens when Hezbollah builds (a) kindergarten right next to its positions."