Picture Kill: How We Got Here
Update (2:41 PM PDT): Here's a trip down memory lane, to try to explain how we got to this point. To start, let's begin with this National Review piece by Tom Gross, which sets up how Reuters was historically viewed by the average reader:
Many people still think of Reuters as the Rolls-Royce of news agencies. Just as the House of Morgan was once synonymous with good banking, Reuters has long been synonymous with good news-gathering. In 1940, there was even a Hollywood film about Paul Julius Reuter, the German-Jewish immigrant to London who as early as 1851 began transmitting stock-market quotes between London and Paris via the new Calais-Dover cable.His agency quickly established a reputation in Europe for being the first to report scoops from abroad, such as of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Today, almost every major news outlet in the world subscribes. Operating in 200 cities in 94 countries, Reuters produces text in 19 languages, as well as photos and television footage from around the world.
As with so many things in the world, that began to change on September 11th, 2001. So let's look at the immediate period after 9/11, back when the majority of Americans believed Osama bin Laden when he took the credit for 9/11, before a third peeled off into the Oliver Stone/Michael Moore/Kevin Barrett conspiracy ozone. As James Taranto wrote last year, linking to his own immediate thoughts after 9/11:
Far more dangerous than the hard anti-Americanism of the far left (and some elements of the far right) is the moral relativism that prevails among Western liberal elites, especially in journalism. Exhibit A is Reuters. As we noted on Sept. 24, 2001:Stephen Jukes, global news editor for Reuters, the British wire service, has ordered his scribes not to use the word terror to refer to the Sept. 11 atrocity. . . . "We all know that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist," Jukes writes in an internal memo. "To be frank, it adds little to call the attack on the World Trade Center a terrorist attack."
Reuters is the most self-righteous about it, but many other news organizations also use terms like militants, commandos, guerrillas and even dissidents to refer to terrorists--even though in some cases these terms are not only overly solicitous to the enemy but factually inaccurate (a guerrilla attack, for instance, has a military target, while a terrorist attack targets civilians).
Or as Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs put it in 2002:
Let’s see. Osama Bin Laden has called for the death of Jews and Americans, and said it was his duty to acquire nuclear weapons for a holy war against the West. His organization is responsible for numerous terror attacks. He turned Afghanistan into an unprecedented training ground for international terrorism. He’s on videotape gloating over the 9/11 atrocities.But to Reuters, he’s merely a “dissident.”
Reuters, at times, has seemed particularly chummy with terrorists, as Ynet News spotted last year, referring to terrorist Zakaria Zubeidi:
Zubeidi, who heads Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, has been named by security officials as a key figure in organizing terror attacks on Israeli civilians.Zubeidi’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have claimed responsibility for more than 300 terror acts in the last five years.
But to Reuters, he's a buddy to appear in their in-house joke videos:
A Reuters spokeswoman confirmed the video’s existence, but said the London-based news organization is “not associated with any group or faction in any conflict.”The screening, which occurred in a Jerusalem restaurant last March, involved the showing of a video during a private party.
"The video's theme was what Israel would be like in 10 years," said an Israeli government official who attended the party and viewed the video.
"All of a sudden, at the end, there is Zakaria Zubeidi, playing the head of Reuters. Zubeidi was sitting in Reuters' Jenin office, saying he was Reuters’ chief,” the official said.
The party included guests from the BBC, ITN, the Independent newspaper, and French journalists.
"They all thought the video was hilarious," the official said. He added that only a few individuals did not seem amused during the screening.
"They were laughing; they thought it was very funny, he said.”
Which seems more than a little odd, considering the pressure that such affiliations put on their stringers. Back to the Tom Gross NRO piece:
Reporters of course can’t be everywhere at once. The increased speed of the Internet and the demand for instant, 24-hour TV news coverage means that the world’s news outlets rely heavily on Reuters and the AP, which in turn rely on a network of local Palestinian “stringers.” Virtually all breaking news (and much of the non-breaking news) on CNN, the BBC, Fox, and other networks comes from these stringers.Such stringers are hired for speed, to save money (there is no need to pay drivers and translators), and for their local knowledge. But in many cases, in hiring them, their connections to Arafat’s regime and Hamas count for more than their journalistic abilities. All too often the information they provide, and the supposed eyewitnesses they interview, are undependable. Yet, because of Reuters’s prestige, American and international news outlets simply take their copy as fact. Thus non-massacres become massacres; death tolls are exaggerated; and gunmen are written about as if they were civilians.
As Ehud Ya’ari, Israeli television’s foremost expert on Palestinian affairs, put it: “The vast majority of information of every type coming out of the area is being filtered through Palestinian eyes. Cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army’s actions and never focus on Palestinian gunmen. Written reports focus on the Palestinian version of events. And even those Palestinians who don’t support the intifada dare not show or describe anything embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority, for fear they may provoke the wrath of Arafat’s security forces.”
One Palestinian journalist told me that “the worst the Israelis can do is take away our press cards. But if we irritate Arafat, or Hamas, you don’t know who might be waiting in your kitchen when you come home at night.”
And yet, to Reuters, Hamas and the fortunately very late Arafat are the good guys! Last week, blogger Ace of Spades presciently noted that the use of pro-Palestinian stringers in the Middle East by Reuters and other news agencies was bound to eventually cause them big problems:
The American media is setting itself up for a massive scandal. One day, it will in fact come out that they are guilty of willful blindness and a deliberate avoidance of asking their stringers tough questions to maintain their own plausible deniability.And they'll have to answer some hard questions, such as, "If you're so vigilant against being 'used' by the American government for its 'propaganda,' why are you so blithely nonchalant about being worse-used by America's enemies?"
Many of Steven Glass' colleagues looked back and wondered how they'd been fooled by his fabrications for so long. Apart from the outlandishness of some of his stories, he also had an uncanny knack for getting the Killer Quote that tied together a piece or summed it up in one pithy, bullet-point sentence. We should have known no one gets that lucky so consistently, they said later.
The American media seems to be an employing a possible Army of Steven Glasses, and yet they're more than willing to pretend they don't know what's going on so long as those suspiciously-dramatic front-page pictures keep coming back from the foreign stringers.
Enter Charles Johnson, who did much to uncover the use of false memos by CBS's Mary Mapes and Dan Rather in September of 2004 in their attempt to influence the last presidential election. Johnson's blog Little Green Footballs has served, since 9/11, as a sort of clearing house of information about the Middle East that PC-obsessed "Big Media" considers too hot or too-PC to touch. He has long been in a thorn in the side of Reuters, to the point where in May of this year, a Reuters employee, apparently in their London office, issued a death threat to him. (While not publicly naming the employee, Reuters claims that he has been "suspended".)
This post about RatherGate, as it quickly became known in the Blogosphere, is worth flashing back to, as it highlights much of the same techniques used yesterday to demonstrate that the photo by Reuters stringer Adnan Hajj was a fabrication. The discovery of Rather's forged memos (allegedly from the early 1970s) actually didn't begin in the Blogosphere--it began on FreeRepublic.com, whose bulletin board technology actually predates the World Wide Web. But once the "Freeper" whose handle is "Buckhead" posted that he suspected the memos that CBS used were false, the Blogosphere went to work as a collective fact-finding team.
Eventually, this lead to LGF's Charles Johnson to simply fire up Microsoft Word into its default settings, retype the text of the document, print it out, place his version on top of a printout of CBS's version and noticed they were fake. In other words, there was no typewriter, electric or manual, that could do the sort of font-setting that we take for granted today with modern PC word processing programs and accompanying laser printers. Simultaneously, numerous other members of the Blogosphere came forth with their own knowledge of typography and its accompanying hardware both modern and 35 years ago, to rapidly discredit CBS.
A similar thing happened yesterday, as Johnson first spotted the Photoshopping in Adnan Hajj's photo of Beirut covered in multiple plumes of black smoke, and other members of the Blogosphere and message boards went to work analyzing the photo.
Unlike the all-knowing omniscience Americans seemed to grant Walter Cronkite during his heyday, I view the "Big Three" network TV anchormen of the past 50 years as little more than news readers; dramatists hired for their stentorian tones. it's their producers that write their copy--as even Cronkite himself has since admitted. And while Rather is infamous for trying to cover up an all-too-human and perfectly understandable bias with feints of "objectivity" (much like Reuters, collectively), I tend to agree that his biggest mistake in 2004 was circling the wagons; as Andrew Sullivan noted at the time:
The original mistake was not a firable offense. But the digging in surely is. It seems to me that when a news anchor presents false information and then tries to cover up and deny his errors, he has ceased to be a journalist. I'd like to say that Dan Rather needs to resign from his profession. But, judging from the last few days, he already has.
Reuters, to the credit, claim they "shall not be accepting or using pictures" taken by Adnan Hajj, their stringer. While it doesn't place any blame on their editors or other gatekeepers for letting the photo through, it's at least a slightly better first step than CBS's.
But given Reuters' shoddy recent history, as 9/11 and subsequent events illuminate, they've got their work cut out for them, if they wish to regain the trust of many of their readers, in the era of the Blogosphere. Again, it's worth harkening back to something that was written about RatherGate, this time by Glenn Reynolds in 2004:
I think there are some important lessons for Big Media -- and for everyone else -- in the rise of the blogosphere. They stem from the fact that bloggers operate on the Internet, where arguments from authority are difficult since nobody knows whether you're a dog.In short, it's the difference between high-trust and low-trust environments.
The world of Big Media used to be a high-trust environment. You read something in the paper, or heard something from Dan Rather, and you figured it was probably true. You didn't ask to hear all the background, because it wouldn't fit in a newspaper story, much less in the highly truncated TV-news format anyway, and because you assumed that they had done the necessary legwork. (Had they? I'm not sure. It's not clear whether standards have fallen since, or whether the curtain has simply been pulled open on the Mighty Oz. But they had names, and familiar faces, so you usually believed them even when you had your doubts.)
The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.
That's because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren't linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that's impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.
(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in -- nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that's been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress -- except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).
You can also refine your arguments, updating -- and even abandoning them -- in realtime as new facts or arguments appear. It's part of the deal.
This also means admitting when you're wrong. And that's another difference. When you're a blogger, you present ideas and arguments, and see how they do. You have a reputation, and it matters, but the reputation is for playing it straight with the facts you present, not necessarily the conclusions you reach. And a big part of the reputation's component involves being willing to admit you're wrong when you present wrong facts, and to make a quick and prominent correction.
When you're a news anchor, you're not just putting your arguments on the line -- you're putting yourself on the line. Dan Rather has a problem with that. For journalists of his generation, admitting an error means admitting that you've violated people's trust. For bloggers, admitting an error means you've missed something, and now you're going to set it right.
What people in the legacy media need to ask themselves is, which approach is more likely to retain credibility over time? I think I know the answer.
Does Reuters? Given the post-9/11 track record of Big Media in general, Dan Rather's stonewalling to this day, and Reuters' cozy relationship with terrorism, I tend to doubt it. But going forward, I'd very much love to be proven wrong.
Late Update (8/9/06): If you're new to the whole Reuters photo scandal and its enormous scope and implications, Zombietime.com has a superb, heavily illustrated primer on the various techniques of photo manipulation that have been deployed by Reuters' photographers in the Middle East. Don't miss it.