Photo Credits: (missiles) Sepah News photo via Agence France-Presse/NY Times, (Powell) The Associated Press
Lying is a moral choice people make. Individuals lie. Governments lie -- some lie more than others. The truth is, lying is a fact of life.
Ethicist Sissela Bok puts it this way, "Deception and violence -- these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings" (Lying: Moral choice in public and private life, 1978, New York: Vintage, p. 19).
In this age of photo ops and digital photographic manipulation, the "deliberate assault" on human beings appears unremitting. Deception leads to violence against humanity. In fact, when was the last time a lie got us out of a war? This article compares two forms of deception used by individuals and government to shape public opinion – the digitally altered image and the photo op.
Who can forget one of the first major digital deceptions -- the 1992 OJ Simpson mug shot on the cover of Time magazine?
Despite the uproar caused by the darkening of Simpson's skin, the manipulation appeared an anomaly -- a fluke produced by an artist who decided to take creative license with a mug shot.
In a 2006 survey I conducted to help clarify what professionals consider to photo manipulation, I used three different definitions and asked respondents to agree or disagree.
When questioned, “I define photo digital manipulation as changes to the content of a picture after it is made through electronic means,” nearly 90 percent of respondents agree with the statement.
In a similar way, when asked, “I define photo digital manipulation as a process that changes the content of a picture by adding or removing visual elements from the original,” again, the majority agrees with the definition.
However when asked, “I define photo digital manipulation as a process that helps to make the picture better aesthetically,” responses greatly varied.
In this case, 10 percent strongly agree, while 27 percent agree. The remaining 62 percent remain either neutral on the definition or disagree with the statement. As one respondent suggests, “This is a small part of photo digital manipulation, not necessarily THE definition. I would guess this is where the amateur checks in--cleaning up redeye or other little messy details that are easily fixed in this digital world.”
At the same time, when presented the definition, “I define photo digital manipulation as a process that helps to make the objects in the picture more visually interesting,” a majority affirmed the statement.
This raises an issue of semantics, since making “the picture better aesthetically” and making “the picture more visually interesting” seem, at least to me, fairly closely related. In fact, one participant asks, “Can we define the difference 'manipulation' vs. 'image enhancement/post-processing' (tone, color, contrast, brightness, etc.).
Perhaps this is where the line begins to be drawn for many people. For decades, post-production processes have accepted the enhancement through dodging and burning, yet today event long-standing antecedent practices appear to be under the magnifying glass.
Recently, major news outlets around the world, including The New York Times, The Los Angles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, used a photograph of an Iranian missile launch. The photograph turned out to be digitally altered. Headlines accompanying the picture showing four long-range missiles coming off pads were written, true to form, to both seduce as well as edify readers.
The logic here is that if big media buys into a lie, then the public will follow. Not so, thanks to an intrepid army of bombastic bloggers ready to pounce on the slightest journalistic misstep, the truth was revealed. The Iranian government's official news agency manipulated the image. Stop the presses. Why should surprise anyone that Iran would use deception in its current high stakes game of threats against the West?
Pictures, after all, have been used to provoke conflicts for a very long time. In 1897, media baron William Randolph Hearst allegedly told his artist in Cuba, Frederick Remington, who was apparently bored with his assignment for lack of action, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." Even though Hearst disputed the quote, there is something prescient in the statement. History tells us that Hearst made a moral choice to provoke a conflict with Spain. After the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, Hearst's newspaper and others fabricated stories about Spanish atrocities against civilians in Cuba and Puerto to force intervention. Hearst's moral choice to lie was motivated mostly by blind ambition. Hearst needed to build up his media empire. What better way to build a news business than by inventing a war? However, Iran's motivation to manipulate images of its defense system is purely rhetorical -- a way of flipping off the United States after all the chest thumping it has been getting from the White House. The picture is a rhetorical act because it traffics in persuasion and ideology. Lying is a mind game. In game theory, credibility and veracity are cornerstones of influencing an opponent's choices. Bloggers, anxious to make a little news of their own, called Iran's digital bluff, but the game is far from over. In fronting Iran's play, bloggers may have actually escalated tensions between the countries and forced us closer to war.
Different kinds of Deception
While digital photo manipulation is an explicit lie, there are other forms of deception that are far more insidious.
These lies, as illustrated in the photo op pictured above, are more ambiguous and at times even more deceitful. When former Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a vial containing a model of anthrax during it was to convince the world that Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction presented a clear and present danger. The vial was a prop used to signify peril and that if the U.S. failed to rid the world of Hussein we could only imagine the worse possible scenario. Powell's visual cues were supported by statements such as "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence" and "there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more." Although the U.N. Security Council didn't buy Powell's rhetoric, the U.S. press did. Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan notes the White House press corps were "complicit enablers" in the buildup to the war in Iraq. Much of the media at the time were eager to have "good" visuals to accompany White House rhetoric and Powell's waving of the pseudo biological weapon worked like a charm. The picture appeared on the pages of most U.S. newspapers and magazines and helped to sell the war to the American public.
While Iran's digital altered missile image was an explicit lie, Powell's pretentious viral rattling theatrics, however, was a more insidious form of deception. The moral choices made at this level are more ambiguous and implicit. Moreover, it is harder to detect the lies when they are presented as "official" news. When political strategists try to spin messages they rely heavily on educated guesses about what they can get away with selling to the American public.
The press often appear to unabashedly play by the rules of the game, and the political image-makers own the rule book. Therefore, much of what we see has been managed to provide predictable responses. Powell's visit to the U.N. was a pseudo-event far more interested in winning hearts and minds than it was about telling the truth.
Staged pseudo-events are part of our political culture and rarely called into question by the public. But there also appears to be greater tolerance for verbal shock and awe over pseudo-events that use physically altered images. Robert Warren explains Daniel Boorstin's theory of the pseudo-event as "a manufactured happening that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy through media exposure."
Stirring up public fear through the influence of government propaganda as played out in the press, be it by Iran or the U.S., continues to deliberately assault human beings around the world through deceit and violence.
Despite overly self-absorbed and obsessed with smoking guns theory bloggers are acting as change agents in this country. Bloggers challenge journalists to live up their implicit promise to “afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted.” Moreover, bloggers are setting the tone for more engaged and visually sophisticated audiences. Bloggers are now beginning to speak truth to power by calling into question the deceptive practices committed by institutions of authority in this country.