campaign desk

Mountain, Meet Molehill

Why is the Obama photo a story?
February 25, 2008

It started, as so many Incendiary Internet Stories do, with Matt Drudge. This morning, the fedora-wearing provocateur posted a photo of Barack Obama—taken during a 2006 trip through Africa—wearing traditional Somali garb, accompanying the picture with a distinctively Drudgian banner headline: CLINTON STAFFERS CIRCULATE ‘DRESSED’ OBAMA.

Here’s the full text:


Mon Feb 25 2008 06:51:00 ET

With a week to go until the Texas and Ohio primaries, stressed Clinton staffers circulated a photo over the weekend of a “dressed” Barack Obama.

The photo, taken in 2006, shows the Democrat frontrunner fitted as a Somali Elder, during his visit to Wajir, a rural area in northeastern Kenya.

The senator was on a five-country tour of Africa.

“Wouldn’t we be seeing this on the cover of every magazine if it were HRC?” questioned one campaign staffer, in an email obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT.

Within minutes, we got speculations and insinuations from the blogosphere: Who leaked the photo? How did they get it? What does it all mean? (It’s on Drudge! It must be a story!) “The photo created huge buzz in political circles, and immediately became known as ‘the “dressed” photo,’ reflecting the Drudge terminology,” noted the Politico’s Mike Allen. “We spent the better part of the morning trying to get some comment from the Clinton campaign,” Josh Marshall declared, seeming proud of spending his time in such a way. The New York Times picked up the story. So did the BBC. And Salon offered a different take on the Clinton-staff-leaked-it headline. “Let me say this: Who is known for their ability to dig up high-impact photos of candidates?” a Democratic operative sympathetic to Clinton asked Alex Koppelman. “Such as, oh, the Kerry-in-the-condom-suit photo? Hint: it is not the Democratic Party.”

Now, far be it from me, on this winter Monday in that long limbo between Super Tuesday III and Super Tuesday IV, to find fault with any “story” that, as one of its narrative byproducts, resurrects the Kerry-in-the-condom-suit photo. We could all use a good laugh, and I should probably, at this bleak point in the primary season, just be grateful for any bit of election-related amusement I can get. Still, the fact that the Obama photo even became A Story deserves at least a moment of pause. Because, really, it shouldn’t have. The only reason it did was because Matt Drudge put it out there with a banner headline.

And the Story’s cause was helped, ironically, by the Obama campaign itself. At 9:29 this morning, David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, sent out a press release calling the photo “shameful, offensive fear-mongering” and “exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world.” On a conference call with reporters this morning, the Obama camp trotted out Obama supporter and retired general Scott Gration to declare that Obama “did what any great leader should do. He accepted the gift, accepted the hospitality, accepted that token of friendship.” Obama aides then went on to “angrily denounce” the Clinton campaign for spreading the photo.

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And the political press accepted the language of the Obama camp’s spin. Politico, coming dangerously close to adopting the photo’s assumptive jingoism itself, called the picture a “smear photo.” The leak was “a ploy to make him look foreign,” the Boston Globe concluded, without a hint of irony. Questions of the photo’s provenance (who leaked it?) weighed out questions of its significance (should we care?) so that, by the time the Clinton campaign—via its new manager, Maggie Williams—came out with a response to the Drudge headline (nearly an hour and a half after the Obama camp did), her statement looked foolish. (“If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed,” she wrote.) Though Williams had a point about how wrongheaded it was to assume that the photo was “divisive,” she was too late: the photo had already become divisive—not on its own, but through its narrative in the press.

Gotta love those self-fulfilling prophesies.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.