Friday, September 26, 2008

Part IV: The Atlantic

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Sen. John McCain is depicted on the front cover in extreme close-up by photographer Jill Greenberg, who was also responsible for the manipulated photographs below (subsequently posted on her website). The cover came under scrutiny by right-wing media sources after the manipulated shots were discovered. This summons the question of what effect the reputation, political philosophy, and previous work of the photographer has on the work he/she produces.

Without the discovery of the other contraversial photographs which prompted further investigation into Greeberg's work, would conservative commentators feel the same way? In their wake, is it possible to look objectively at the cover of The Atlantic or the contents of the magazine?

Presenting this cover to the students in my Introduction to Mass Media course, their response was not critical until I revealed Greenberg's manipulated shots. Once they were exposed to them, however, it seemed impossible to view either the cover or the contents of the magazine objectively.

Such "ex post facto" reasoning raises the old issue of the role cognition plays in perception. Those with conservative points of view whom would, presumably, find themselves offended by the three images above are going to find it difficult to supress knowledge of the previous work of the photographer in order to render an objective decision about the fairness of McCain's portrayal on the cover of the magazine. In my classroom, this tended to manifest itself as increased attention to the folds of skin beneath McCain's chin and the lines around his eyes.

The problem, however, is this: no photograph is unmanipulated. Above, I was actually incorrect to refer to the photos in question as "manipulated" to distinguish them from the cover photograph which, itself, is certainly manipulated as well. The tricky thing about photography has always been its capacity to mechanically reproduce reality as if the person behind the camera had little to do with the outcome. As a result, it serves as a great way to hide ideological portrayals because the photographer will always imply that he/she was just capturing what was there.

So the debate over the unmanipulated cover vs. the manipulated images of McCain is actually false because it is really a debate about the way the photographs are manipulated which is important. Right-wing viewers are less offended by the cover because it manipulates McCain's appearance in a way that is more amenable to their ideological stance.

The real problem, however, begins when conservative pundits begin to imply that the magazine itself has a similarly unfair treatment of John McCain because of the choice of hiring Jill Greenberg as their cover photographer. Actually reading the article with which the cover photograph is associated reveals the author (Jeffrey Goldberg) to have employed the most objective of methods to write his story. Having traveled to speak with McCain and his closest associates, Goldberg chooses to hand over documents and photographs to McCain in attempt to prompt reflections from him rather than asking pointed questions that are guided by an agenda. In essence, Goldberg uses qualitative research techniques in order to bring out McCain's real thoughts on the subject of the war in Iraq. Instead of subordinating McCain to his interview, the author subordinates his interview to McCain. Is it possible to be more fair or objective?

It's easy for the like-minded to get caught up in the furor that right-wing pundits (Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, et al.) have created about the dreaded "liberal media," without actually investigating the media content they are attacking. Striving for the goal of objectivity despite the impossibility of its attainment is one of the trademark strengths of the Western Press and it shouldn't be thrown into the same category as openly ideological sources (e.g. The Weekly Standard and Mother Jones).

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