Exploiting the Reuters incident

Right-wing bloggers and pundits go wild over Reuters photographs.

Published August 7, 2006 9:30PM (EDT)

It is indisputably wrong for a media outlet to alter photographs or other information so as to falsely represent what is being reported. That is beyond dispute. Yet for three straight days now (and still going strong), the right-wing blogosphere has been wallowing in a self-celebratory swarm because two photographs taken in Lebanon and published by Reuters were found to have been altered using Photoshop by the freelance photographer who submitted them. Rush Limbaugh has now joined the party, decreeing that "Reuters ought to be investigated." (The frequency with which Bush supporters call for media organizations to be investigated because of what they report is itself notable.)

Given the intensity and duration of the blogospheric mob scene fueled by the Reuters discovery, one would think that this event demonstrates some sort of important point beyond the particular photographer's poor judgment or deliberate deceit. But it is difficult to see what the point might be, to put it mildly.

The alterations made to the original Beirut photograph appear to have increased the amount of smoke one sees in the photo, taken after a Beirut bombing raid, but the amount of smoke in the original unaltered photograph is itself quite substantial. Israel really is bombing Lebanon; buildings really are being destroyed; many Lebanese civilians really are dying; and nobody who is serious disputes any of that.

These excited bloggers seem to be using the Reuters incident to try to "prove" that the dreaded "mainstream media" -- and Reuters has long been a special target for many extremists on the right (who sometimes refer to it as "al-Reuters") -- is hopelessly biased against Israel and in favor of Islamic terrorists, including Hezbollah, and that nothing the MSM reports about this war, or anything else for that matter, can be trusted. Many of these bloggers appear to hope that this incident will call into question the reliability of all reporting on the war outside of YTNews and Fox, including what happened in Qana, Lebanon, and any reports that reflect negatively on the Israeli war effort.

But Reuters hardly has a monopoly on scandals of this sort. Quite the contrary, examples of photographic alterations and political distortions of evidence are abundant. The blogger TBogg today documents two instances of photographic manipulation -- one from the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, which cloned members of the military in the audience while the president was speaking, and another that used Photoshop to falsely depict John Kerry at an antiwar rally next to Jane Fonda.

And then there was the complete misquoting by Fox News' Carl Cameron of John Kerry at the height of the 2004 campaign:

"Move over Dan Rather, Fox News' Carl Cameron is joining you in the hoaxer hall of shame. Fox News' Web site posted a story written by its top political reporter yesterday with made-up quotes that painted Democratic presidential contender John Kerry as a spa-going girly-man."

Ironically, one of the anti-Reuters lynch mob leaders, Little Green Footballs, defended Fox's publication of false Kerry quotes by arguing that Fox "pulled the article down and apologized for it the same day. That is, of course, how a responsible news organization handles a situation like this" (emphasis added). That, of course, is precisely what Reuters did with the altered photographs. In fact, the agency went much further by removing all of the photographs and announcing it will never use that photographer again. Fox, by contrast, refused to remove Cameron from covering the Kerry campaign and continues to employ him. Worse, Fox excused itself by claiming that publication of the fake quotes "occurred because of fatigue and bad judgment, not malice."

And then there is the still-unsolved mystery of the identity of the pro-Iraq war advocates who created forged documents purporting to prove that Iraq sought 500 tons of uranium oxide ("yellow cake") from Niger -- complete fiction that made its way into Senate and presidential briefings, and then into the president's State of the Union address, helping to sell the invasion of Iraq.

By all means, misleading photographs and other fabrications should be documented and exposed. But such scandals typically reflect little about anything beyond the culpable individuals involved.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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