by Chris Maynard
And today, it’s time for a spot quiz.
Attendance will not be taken. Answers will not be graded. Researching the image (a.k.a. cheating) will be overlooked. It is the Internet, after all, where, as a New Yorker cartoon caption once pointed out, no one knows you’re a dog. And, if it’s at all possible, no peeking at early postings: the last thing needed is a results column that looks like an ad for Diebold.
Recently The BAG posted a shot of Representative Pelosi surrounded by children on the occasion of her being sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House. The issue, simplified here, was whether the national press was reflexively emphasizing her gender, and by extension forcing her into the traditional role as child-bearer with little regard to her capabilities as a political leader.
This AP shot, which ran in the New York Times on Tuesday, accompanied an article headlined “Democrats Seek the Middle on Social Issues” which dealt with the Democratic Party’s attempt to approach topics such as abortion, gay rights and embryonic stem cell research, which their opponents have turned into hot-button issues as an efficient way of polarizing the country, as everyday, middle of the road beliefs rather than earth-shattering decisions designed to get everyone’s heads down in the trenches.
Speaker Pelosi and Representative James E. Clyburn, the new majority whip, besides appearing in the photo, were also mentioned in the text. Ms. Pelosi:
“highlighted her (religion) in her first week in office, with two high-profile church services in Washington. There have been occasional protests from religious conservatives, challenging the rights of Democrats like Mrs. Pelosi to present themselves as both good Christians and supporters of abortion rights.” Meanwhile, the Democratic whip, according to the article, “has led a ‘faith working group’ in the House in an effort…to get members ‘more comfortable with these issues and more connected with values voters.'”
The quiz, however, is not about their beliefs, their supporters or their detractors.
What we’re looking at is a news photograph with no context of its own. We know it’s Pelosi and Clyburn, but we know nothing else. Therefore: What’s the event in which they’re taking part? Why are their arms up in the air? Where, exactly, or even approximately, are they? How long ago was the picture taken? And how does the picture fit in with THIS story?
As quizmasters who know the answers to these questions, we’re not looking to assign blame for anything, but merely for a way to figure out how much any medium can tint the truth of a photo by placement or with a simple caption or even by running a shot with no caption at all. At the turn of the year, when large shots of Jerry Ford and Saddam Hussein hit page one, no one needed a caption, or even a headline, to know they were dead. It’s not always that simple.
Look at an old American custom, the parade of the guilty. In the old days it was pretty easy: black hats and white hats. Then other kinds of bad guys popped up, but they were still easy to spot, usually slightly seedy, frequently bruised and circled by barrel chested cops. It all changed in the 80s, when Wall Street became a crime scene and the sight of a guy in a suit carrying a raincoat on a sunny day was always good for a chuckle.
Now we have a land in which being clean as driven snow has become such a relative concept that it’s beside the point. Run a search and find 20,000 reasons why Jack is right, and Jill will come back with 20,000 reasons why she is right. The audience wants hints of what to think, and it wants them to be easy.
Life becomes a process of getting up every morning and shaving the dice. Which, really, is what captionless photos do. It’s usually easier, and always faster, to just check the spelling and plunk down whatever picture fits, especially if it fits the concept on which the news article was sold. Editors of the newest sort can even do away with understanding the concept.
So, if you’ve got a spare minute, take the test. At best, you’ll read captions with a newly raised eyebrow; at worst…well, there is no worst. As we said before, no one’s counting.