Sunday, May 15, 2011

"How long will it be before 'Forrest Gump' technology becomes the standard tool for spicing up news coverage?"

This is the latest bogus video to hit the Internets, and the latest to be produced as a commercial -- this one for Gillette -- and then  "leaked" to create a stir. (An earlier example, a Gatorade spot purporting to show a ball girl making an impossible leaping grab, can be seen here.)

This piece appeared on the Huffington Post which -- once it had lured readers into clicking and adding to the statistics they show their advertisers -- admitted that it knew the piece was phony all along. While I guess we should be grateful they owned up to the fraud, it's not like they discovered the video was fake and decided not to post it. I was reminded of a column I wrote back in July, 1994, to which I would only add that, having since begun toning photos for print, I'm more forgiving of the TIME Magazine cover of OJ (who had only been arrested a few weeks before this column ran). 

Oh, and I would also add,  "I told you so."

Technological media tricks feed public paranoia
The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh NY, July 17, 1994

If I believed in synchronicity, I'd be convinced that the convergence of the O.J. Simpson trial, the release of "Forrest Gump"and the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing was intended as a cosmic warning to the media.
   Following the moon landing in 1969, feature stories began to appear about people who believed the government had faked the whole thing.
   In 1978, Hollywood capitalized on  that paranoid disbelief with a movie about a phony Mars landing staged on a desert soundstage to fool the American public.
   One of the stars of that movie, "Capricorn One," was former football star O.J. Simpson. Today, we have feature stories showing that a significant number of people do not believe Simpson guilty of murder.
   Some of these people may simply insist on calling him innocent until proven guilty, but there are clearly a large number who believe Simpson is being framed by "them."
   Until there is a vaccine for paranoia, some people will insist, despite all evidence, upon the existence  of government conspiracies, UFO abductions and underwater cryptosaurian critters. But there are others who teeter between irrational disbelief and healthy skepticism, and they may still be coaxed to the truth with sufficient evidence.
   This is where "Forrest Gump" enters the picture.
   I have long been uncomfortable with bogus archival footage, those phony black-and-white television ads that either show fake "strait-laced experts" or bogus "company founders," as if what you are seeing was shot several decades ago.
   "Forest Gump" ups the ante. Instead of phony actors in bogus settings, we now have real dead folks in extremely convincing footage, doing and saying things they never did or said.
   I'm not concerned that future generations will view "Forrest Gump" as a documentary, and I respect the creators' right to be creative. Still, I worry how we in the media can convince anyone of the truth of anything while we so cheerfully demonstrate our uncanny ability to fake reality.
   At least "Forrest Gump" is presented as fiction.
   Supermarket tabloids have been using cut-and-paste photo composites of two-headed housewives and bat-children from the moon for years, and passing off this nonsense as the real thing. Now, technology has made it possible to create fraudulent pictures without the redeeming veneer of goofiness the supermarket tabloids have always possessed: Real photos and phony photos have become virtually indistinguishable.
   Sadly, real newspapers and supermarket tabloids are likewise becoming a little hard to tell apart.
   Most  newspapers, including the Press-Republican, have rules against using this commonly available technology to create misleading photographs, but it is an ability that has not gone unused at some allegedly respectable places.
   In addition to the recent TIME Magazine cover doctored to make Simpson look more sinister, Newsday drew flak during the Winter Olympics for faking a picture in which Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were shown apparently skating together.
   It's ironic that an industry so eager to pounce upon the ethical shortcomings of others is willing to barter away its own credibility for the sake of a brief flash of graphic excitement. As was pointed out in a discussion on WCFE's "The Editors," the days of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" are now past, those innocent days when a father could tell his child that, if you read it in the newspaper, it must be true.
   You may argue whether the purpose of a free press is to provide the nation with an informed citizenry or to maximize profits by pandering to the public lust for cheap thrills, but for TIME or Newsday to stoop to the level of a supermarket tabloid is more than an insult to readers. When one of the most influential newsmagazines and a leading daily newspaper both make an editorial decision to begin manufacturing images, how long will it be before "Forrest Gump" technology becomes the standard tool for spicing up news coverage?
   I remain convinced that the majority of people who believe the unbelievable do so out of ignorance, but I am finding it harder to believe that we are winning the war against  that ignorance.
   The barbarians are not only at the gate, but they are gaining an alarming degree of control over the means of communication.
   Humanity has survived some astonishing plunges into ignorance, and I do not think that the world will end because of a debasing of the mainstream media. On the other hand, I have no particular desire to live through the next Dark Age myself, and events in Bosnia, Rwanda and elsewhere demonstrate clearly that we have not outgrown our penchant for rotten behavior. I can't help but be discouraged at anything that feeds the forces of ignorance, prejudice and fear.
   The answer, as always, lies in our children.
   The media and educators have a societal responsibility not to teach young people to accept the word of authority figures, but to teach them how to judge the validity of what they are told by any source.
   Toward that end, I applaud the growing movement among educators to reduce their reliance upon textbooks and to send students out to conduct independent research on topics of interest.
   Students must learn the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how to evaluate each.
   They must learn to distinguish error and lies, and to recognize truth.
   Meanwhile, the media is going to have to do some serious soul-searching and decide how to handle the amazing technology available to it.
   Having demonstrated our ability to produce fake photographs and videotape, and a willingness to do so, we have a grave responsibility to demonstrate some visible and credible restraint in the future.
   I know that "Forrest Gump" is fiction. Let's make sure we're all clear on what isn't.


Brian Fies said...

Fuel for two types of people: those who believe anything they see (like my father in law, who e-mails me clips like that a few times a day even though I keep sending him to Snopes) and those who believe nothing they see (the usual Moon hoaxers, Truthers, etc.). Both types of ignorance are dangerous, and I think argue for an absolute ethical standard that news photos must not be tampered with, with penalties for those who do.

Cutting and pasting to create images that never existed is an easy call. But I remember, during my brief newspaper career, standing in the darkroom watching a photographer use a little disc to "dodge" his print and create a subtle halo around the subject's head to lighten his face. Easier now with Photoshop. It's manipulation, but is it wrong? Beats me. A fish-eye lens that sees things no eyewitness could, a filter that makes a sunny day look overcast, tweaking a contrast or hue? Maybe, sometimes, it depends.

It's not a new issue. I was fascinated by Errol Morris's dissection of two photos Roger Fenton took in 1855 during the Crimean War. One photo showed a road covered in cannonballs, a nearly identical photo showed the road mostly clear. The modern mystery: which came first? Did Fenton scatter cannonballs over the road to make a more interesting shot, or did soldiers come along and pick up the cannonballs for re-use? (I originally read Morris's huge essay at the New York Times website; there's a good summary of it at Some hanky-panky in the earliest years of photojournalism is to be expected. They hadn't yet had time to invent the rules. But hasn't it always been so?

BTW, Morris concluded that Fenton scattered the cannonballs to make a more interesting shot.

Mark Jackson said...

1) Prescient column, except perhaps for the part about "the growing movement among educators to reduce their reliance upon textbooks and to send students out to conduct independent research" - the schools I know that still try to do this are in a constant struggle against overwhelming pressure to teach to the (high-stakes) test.

2) As it happens the /CJR/ has an interesting piece about the death of bin Laden and photo fakery, with some discussion of how digital manipulation might be detected.

3) Speaking of bin Laden, I think an appropriate response to demands that the death photos be published would be for the White House to announce that they've already put them out on the Internet but "we're not going to tell you which ones are real." Might explode some heads that deserve it....

Mike said...

I mentioned in my intro that I'm less critical of the TIME Magazine OJ cover brouhaha, in which people charged them with darkening his face. I'm pretty sure it was the opposite-- that Newsweek had lightened their copy of the mug, with the result that it printed in more lifelike tones, which was a contrast with TIME's version. It is perfectly acceptable to "change" a photo so that it appears more like the real thing, because a camera does not do what our brain does and adjust for various lighting situations. Most dodging, I think, comes under that category. So would lightening a photo shot at dusk -- the eye adjusts, the camera does not.

I'm very uncomfortable, however, with how NASA jazzes up deep space photos. I understand the rationale given -- that adding color helps the viewer distinguish the various elements. But I think adding color also helps NASA by providing a lot of "Wow!" to the otherwise basic black-and-white shots they are actually receiving. Let's not mistake education and PR.

I think, Mark, that a lot of the primary-resources stuff still goes on, but has also been moved into the textbooks since 1994 -- Ken Burns, of course, touched off a revolution in how history is told, though he didn't actually invent much of anything.

But then we manipulate that: Scholastic has a "Dear America" series of fictional diaries in which young girls provide an apparent first-person view that puts historical events through a Wonder Bread filter. Most kids understand that it's fiction, but it sure smells and tastes and looks like history.

But social studies isn't tested, so history doesn't really matter anyway, does it?