Monday, May 09, 2011

It takes balls to have journalistic ethics

When I first saw the now-famous photo of top Obama administration officials conducting the Osama bin Laden kill mission, I figured the biggest row over it would be how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton covered her face with her hand. After all, hyper-analysis of her gesture is just ridiculous enough for public consumption. Turns out, though, that someone found a better way to hide Hillary’s mug.

Der Zeitung, a flexibly spelled publication for the Hasidic Jewish community based in Brooklyn, engaged in a bit of broadsheet bullshit by airbrushing Clinton and Counterterrorism Director Audrey Tomason out of the photo. This was in accordance with their strict policy against publishing photos of women.

OK.

Just a few things:

• It’s pretty insane to claim to be a newspaper of record and then revise the record.
• Doing it for religious reasons makes you an especially wretched propagandist.
• If your policy is to hide women, at least make it clear that you’re hiding the women. Wouldn’t a face blur or a painted-on paper bag do the trick? I didn’t think it was possible, but such a perfect photoshop job actually makes this worse.
• The editors could have skirted all of this controversy in the first place by, you know, not running the photo at all. Maybe Der Zeitung should eschew photos altogether and become a Gray Lady like the New York Times used to be. Except for the Lady part.
• Their Mother’s Day coverage must have sucked.

Oh, Der Zeitung did apologize. Let’s not leave that out. I’m sure this was all a misunderstanding and that the removal of women from photographs was a typo or something. Maybe they accidentally ran the first draft of the photo? Who am I to judge?

Oh, wait. I’m in the media. I can totally judge.

The newspaper for which I worked most recently has a strict anti-altering policy. I learned this on the fly one night, after the print paper had gone to press.

Before I get into the details, here’s a brief primer on our process: every night, at a predetermined deadline (usually 11:35 p.m.), we’d send the last of the digital pages to the press crew downstairs so they could plate them for printing. About 20 minutes later, we’d skim off the first few print copies and check for mistakes, a step we called “paging.” If we noted a mistake, we’d call up the press and tell them what we would fix, and tell them whether it was an “A-stop” or a “B-stop.” An “A-stop” was the literal “stop the presses” moment. A “B-stop” meant the mistake was only enough of a big deal to get on if the press stopped for any other reason.

We regularly ran a cute critter on the front-page rail as a promo for our online pet galleries. On the night in question, after paging, someone noticed that our latest featured dog brought a couple of his little friends to play:

Pictured L-R: Mojo, mojo.
Talk about an A-stop fable.

(That’s a copy editor joke. Rim shot. That makes two!)

After a laughing fit and a semi-serious discussion on the nature of dog testicles with my boss, I called one of the press girls and asked her if there was anything she could do about the giant scrotal bounty this dog was sporting. At least, I think I got those words out. A minute later, she called me back and said she’d digitally erased them. The new Puritanized portrait looked exactly the same, without the nuts. As far as quick photoshop jobs go, it was quite good. No one would notice a thing was amiss. Except poor castrated Mojo, who now answered to Nojo. (Ba-dum-BUM!)

My co-workers noticed too. You see, it was against newspaper policy to publish any photo that has been digitally altered. So we wound up not using the dog at all and found another one in time for the full press run. Being me, I cut out the version you saw for posterity and taped it to my cubicle wall. I’ve been using it for laughs and shock value ever since, not to mention as a cautionary tale on what happens when copy editors drop the — well, you know.

So anyway, back to Der Zeitung and press integrity. Yeah, it’s a terrible affront to pretty much everything there is to present such a drastically altered photo as accurate journalism. If I could be the paper’s managing editor for a day, I’d tell the newsroom to adjust its philosophy and apply the same standards of integrity to world-changing events that we did to dog balls.

I’d use those exact words, too.

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