Was Obama's skin darkened for Clinton ad?

Examining allegations that an image of Barack Obama was altered, with malice aforethought, by the Clinton campaign.

By Alex Koppelman
Published March 6, 2008 8:59PM (EST)

Perhaps the most potentially incendiary discussion in the blogosphere this week has been over the question of whether Hillary Clinton's campaign deliberately doctored an image of Barack Obama for use in an attack ad, taking debate footage and making Obama's face darker and wider.

In the Daily Kos diary that started it all, diarist Troutnut wrote, "In case you needed yet another reason to despise Hillary Clinton and her vermin strategists, she's now running an ad blatantly lying about Obama's subcommittee. Her ad includes debate footage heavily doctored to make Obama blacker ... I'm not accusing Hillary of technically being a racist. But she is cynically exploiting racism to further her personal ambition, and it's part of a pattern. She's doing it to a fellow Democrat who's virtually certain to be the nominee."

Markos Moulitsas, the man behind Daily Kos, has endorsed the allegations, writing, "There was a concerted effort by Clinton's ad people to make Obama look darker, more sinister, and with a wider nose. The evidence is indisputable."

Personally, I'd avoided discussing the issue because, in my amateur opinion based on limited graphics experience at various publications, this looked to me pretty innocent, but I wanted someone with more expertise to weigh in. That's what the people at Factcheck.org did Wednesday. In their judgment, the Clinton campaign is not guilty of the charges. Here's the bulleted list of conclusions they prepared:

  • The Obama frames from the ad do appear darker than other video of Obama from the same event.
  • However, the YouTube copy of the ad, on which the bloggers base their conclusions, is darker overall than other copies of the ad. We obtained a digital recording of the ad as it actually appeared on a Texas TV station, and it is lighter.
  • Furthermore, our analysis of the Obama frames, using Photoshop, shows a fairly uniform darkening of the entire image including the backdrop. It is not just Obama's skin color that's affected.
  • Also, nearly all the images in the ad are dark, including those of Hillary Clinton. And dark images are a common technique used in attack ads.

Factcheck also writes, "Others will speculate about the Clinton campaign's intentions and motives, as they already have. But without further evidence to the contrary, we see no reason to conclude that this is anything more than a standard attempt to make an attack ad appear sinister, rather than a special effort to exploit racial bias as some Obama supporters are saying ... We're not mind-readers, so we can't say whether or not the makers of this ad intended to engage in 'race-baiting' or were 'using racism to win' as some Obama partisans are claiming. Based on evidence at hand, we find those claims to be unsubstantiated. And the many potential differences between source footage, encoding manipulations, and other variables only make it less likely that any such attempt could be proven."

(The Factcheck piece goes into much more depth than this and contains multiple video and image comparisons that need to be seen to be fully understood. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading the whole thing.)

In an interview, Moulitsas stood by the allegations. "It's clear that it hasn't been debunked, clear that it's true that they darkened his skin and widened his face," Moulitsas said. He alleged that Factcheck was not working off a good copy of the video. "All you have to do is look at the text ... It's washed out and blurry in the Factcheck one," Moulitsas said. "Either they've been duped or they've changed it."

Moulitsas e-mailed Salon a link to a post at Democratic Underground that compares frames of a video posted by Factcheck and the video available on the Clinton campaign Web site and alleges Factcheck used a doctored video. In the post, blogger berni_mccoy writes, "It is clear that Fact Check is COMPLETELY WRONG on this issue and they have either BEEN DUPED or are DIRECTLY FALSIFYING the 'facts'."

Contacted by Salon, Factcheck.org director Brooks Jackson denied that the video his site posted was in any way altered, and charged that the Democratic Underground post was comparing apples to oranges. Factcheck had posted several different versions of the video taken from various sources -- YouTube, the Clinton Web site and a high-quality version recorded by the Campaign Media Analysis Group. It's Jackson's contention (one supported by the wording of the DU post) that the DU poster compared the high-quality CMAG version with the version available on the Clinton site, explaining the difference. "This guy who's falsely accusing us of doctoring the video just didn't pay attention," Jackson said. "His mistake was that the video on our site that he thought was the Clinton video isn't. He never asked us, he never called us, he made an assumption that was simply wrong. And this is a mistake a lot of hothead partisans make when they're trying to substantiate their own biases and beliefs."

Update: Factcheck director Jackson e-mailed to let me know that the site has updated its original post on the matter. In the update, Factcheck says it has corresponded with two of the DailyKos bloggers who kicked the allegations off, including Troutnut. Factcheck writes:

The two Kos bloggers who originally posted the story contacted us separately with thoughtful e-mails arguing generally that the matter deserves serious discussion but not challenging the substance of our article. Both said they found no fault with our conclusions about the charges of racism. Troutnut said he didn't "contest [our] assertion that the netroots' accusation of race-baiting is 'unsubstantiated.'"

In its update, Factcheck also says that the video comparison at DU "is actually evidence that supports what we said in the first place: Versions of the Clinton ad from different sources show different shadings, and the YouTube version on which the 'racism' claim rests is the darkest of the lot."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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