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When Photojournalists Become PR Stooges

Too often what passes for photojournalism isn’t journalism at all, it’s public relations. Would a real journalist print a press release as delivered? Would a real journalist write verbatim about a staged event, just as it was scripted by the event managers who delivered the event?

So why do the photojournalists even from the biggest agencies and biggest media continue to take staged photographs and present them on the front pages of papers and TV screens worldwide.

Here is yesterday’s front page of the New York Times.NYTimes A1 --Photos0003.jpg

The photographer dutifully took a staged photo of George Bush at Fats Domino’s production studio in New Orleans and the New York Times dutifully ran it at the top of the page. How do we know it was staged because the story’s lead, written by real journalists, not PR stooges, says:

President Bush said Tuesday that he took “full responsibility” for the slow federal response to the disaster as he made a carefully choreographed pilgrimage to the city that suffered most. (My emphasis.)

Here is more from the real journalist:

He did not stray far from his script nor venture out of his motorcade as it sped past some of the worst destruction in the Lower Ninth Ward, where rows of gutted homes stood along deserted streets. (My emphasis)

Do we get photos of the destruction that is being sped past, no, we get the photo on the left instead or the one on the right.

buh and volunteers2.jpg

This from a Maureen Dowd column also in yesterday’s New York Times:

He spoke to a small number of residents in the boiling sun before the one house that had been tidily restored in a blighted neighborhood in Biloxi. Outside the TV frame, there was a toilet on its side in the yard of a gutted house. On one fence spoke Bush and band2.jpgthere was a child’s abandoned stuffed toy. (My emphasis.)

Why would it be outside the TV’s frame? Why do the photographers dutifully just take the staged event and not take photos that reveal it as a staged event.

I know these folks can do it. The New York Times website is filled with striking images and slide shows that are powerful. The Sunday New York Times Magazine had images of children that are as emotive as the best work by Walker Evans. So why the lapse at staged events, why do obviously talented photojournalists then take on the role of PR stooges? I want the truth, not carefully choreographed images. What do the photographers want?

Of course, one way to get around this is for citizen journalists to show up at all these events and shoot the manufactured scenes and eventually embarrass the photographers and their editors into sticking to their chosen profession, which is suppose to be photojournalism.

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3 Responses to “When Photojournalists Become PR Stooges”

  1. Gary Goldhammer Says:

    Great observations and analysis, Leonard. As you know, however, the journalistic negligence goes deeper. Why didn’t the reporters work with the shooter to capture the right images to support the copy? What about the assignment editors on the photo and news desks? The bigger issue is the reporters were focused on their “piece” of the story — in this case the text — and not on the story as a whole, which includes images. Journalists need to be better storytellers and tell those stories across muliple mediums.

  2. Spacey Says:

    The White House advance team no doubt picked their scenes with pin-point precision and the usual sense of absolute power. Anyone who’s worked in network news knows no one deviates from THAT script.

    And the White House crews that travels with the Prez are all so well-trained by now, that yes, they are little more than Rove toadies and PR stooges. Utterly worthless really, but if they were to deviate from the memo and the talking points, they’d be out of a nice cushy union (NABET) job.

    Funny how very little discussion, if any, about the role of the TV news networks’ unions in the shaping (or not) of new media. Now there’s a topic for you and Jeff Jarvis to take on!

  3. Anna Says:

    Did Byron Calame ever address this practice?

    Leonard, any chance you could contact Calame – and the photojournalist – and ask them, and report their responses?

    (it may also be that the photographer didn’t do the selecting, that it was an editor’s action or preference)

    I would like to hear how they go about making these choices, but if nobody asks directly, it’s not going to come out.

    and they’re more likely to answer you than me…