behind the news

Reuters Takes a Hit in the War on the MSM

Was it really political bias that led a Reuters freelance photographer to doctor a picture of bomb damage in Beirut?
August 8, 2006

The right side of the blogosphere scored a few points yesterday when it drew on about a hundred sets of strong eyes, combined with a collective and abiding mistrust of anything produced by the so-called MSM, to unmask a poorly doctored Reuters photo of bomb damage in Beirut that made the devastation look twice as bad as it actually was.

The caption to the original photo read, “Smoke billows from burning buildings destroyed during an overnight Israeli air raid on Beirut’s suburbs August 5, 2006. Many buildings were flattened during the attack.” Smoke definitely billowed, but it seems the photographer, Adnan Hajj — who, unfortunately for him, is not particularly adept with Photoshop — wanted to double the billow. So he cloned the image of the smoke and placed the clone next to the original.

The lead blogger on the story was Little Green Footballs’ Charles Johnson, who started writing about the obvious doctoring on Saturday, excitedly pointing out that, “It’s so incredibly obvious, it reminds me of the faked CBS memos. Smoke simply does not contain repeating symmetrical patterns like this, and you can see the repetition in both plumes of smoke. There’s really no question about it.” A few others then dutifully chimed in, providing extreme close-ups of the photos and analyzing the rest of Hajj’s oeuvre.

By Sunday, to its credit, Reuters had pulled the picture and fired Hajj. Yesterday, Reuters removed every one of his 920 photos from the site for further examination. (We can’t think of too many blogs that have been so swift to correct an obvious misstatement, but that’s another story, isn’t it?)

There is an interesting, if obvious, question here:


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Why would a supposedly professional photographer breach such a straightforward rule of journalism?

Hajj himself gave no answer. Neither did Reuters, which commented through its head of public relations only that, “The photographer has denied deliberately attempting to manipulate the image, saying that he was trying to remove dust marks and that he made mistakes due to the bad lighting conditions he was working under.” Hajj’s argument, alas, is about as lame as they come. All one has to do is look at the photos and the evidence collected by the bloggers to see how blatant the doctoring was, above and beyond simply removing dust.

For his part, Johnson immediately saw this as definitive proof of leftwing, pro-Hezbollah bias on the part of the mainstream media. The clear implication was that while Hajj was caught, this type of chicanery by photographers who are politically motivated happens all the time.

To offer a counterargument, which is just as speculative as the claim of bias, we think the problem might have to do more generally with the pressures inherent in war photography. Every war quickly provides its stock images — in this war, it’s definitely a cityscape with smoke rising above it. And a freelance photographer, to stay in business, has to one-up or outdo whatever it is that is already out there. He has to provide the most dramatic, poignant, emotionally stirring shot he can. And he has to do it before any of the other hundreds who are also shooting right by him.

We found at least one blogger who agrees with us. Allahpundit writes that, “[I]f you’re going to gamble your career on a Photoshopped image, why do it for something as innocuous as a smoke plume? There are a thousand images of bombs going off on Yahoo! News at the moment. No one would have noticed this one if not for the shoddiness of the manipulation. A cameraman with an agenda would be painting bruises on dead kids at Qana, not making a black cloud extra billowy. I bet what happened is that he got sent to cover the air strikes in Beirut, came away with nothing but bad shots, and made a poor choice in a moment of desperation. Nothing necessarily political about it.”

In short, regrettably or not, this kind of journalism is a competition — and in any competition there will be cheaters. No one, not even Charlie Johnson, can read Hajj’s mind. We tend to think he was not trying to affect our feelings toward one side or the other of the conflict. He was trying to affect us, period. And in that he stepped over the line.

That being said, there is one other point to make. Hajj was apparently responsible for many of the grisly photos that were produced at Qana last week. These photos played a big part in turning portions of world public opinion decidedly against Israel. An investigation needs to be done of his work. It may not contain political bias, per se — but if he was trying for the bloodiest pictures and willing to resort to fraud to produce them, he may well have affected the way people think about the war fully as much as if he were a political partisan.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.