May 23, 2005

Prayer for the Kangaroos


This is a “class A” example of how the media is getting steamrollered by the right.

Yesterday, the NYT Magazine did a cover story on Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate and the institution’s resident wild-eyed evangelical.  So how did the Times approach the task of profiling this pit bull?

Primarily, by making him a better man.

It’s not that the article failed to mention Santorum’s aggressive personality, his disdain for constitutional tenets that hinder the take-over of all social and educational functions by organized religion, or his proselytizing of Senators and Congressmen.  It’s that these attributes were couched as minor blemishes in comparison to how passionate and supposedly authentic Santorum is. 

It’s one thing to base a story on the thesis that “the Boss” — as he’s called — has a rationale for his beliefs.  It’s another thing to seed the article with images attributing thoughtfulness, earnestness and piety to a man whose fundamental principal is to “crush opponents” in the name of “total victory.” 

(By the way, maybe it’s not outside the norm, but how often does a NYTimes Magazine political profile earn four separate images?)

Anyway, let’s look at the pictures.

Personally, I don’t buy the prayerful gesture and the choirboy look.  But I can’t tell how much my skepticism is due to previous observations of Santorum or the fact the camera itself is having its doubts.  Besides the hands and the look, the other strange element here is the tie.  It is yellow with blue kangaroos.  Is the tie the tip off that the rest of the picture is not to be trusted?  (And, who dresses this guy?)

The other interesting thing about the cover are the titles. 

At the bottom of the cover, there is a phrase that really establishes identity — if you happened to be Bill Clinton.  The Senator From a Place Called Faith is a direct derivation on the Clinton line: The Man From Hope.  Clinton, however, was a politician with a natural and long standing bond with religion and faith.  Like Bush, Santorum’s evangelism occurred later, and as a sudden swing — in this case, through the influence of his wife.  In Clinton’s case, the metaphor makes sense because Hope was a real place.  For Santorum, though, faith seems more like an agenda.

The sub-head, The Coming of Rick Santorum, of course, compares the Senator with Christ himself.  (And I thought the Clinton comparison was a stretch!)

Inside, this is the photo that leads the article.


It’s titled: “The Believer.”  (The copy entering at the left is the end of the question: Has he found a way to turn blue states red?)

(Is that like turning water to wine?)

If the cover is a little suspect in tone, this multi-page spread is not.  Here, the NYTimes might as well be the Washington Times.  Santorum the thinker?  C’mon!  Even this article (patronizing as it is) acknowledges the Senator as someone who shoots from the hip, is highly impatient and is not a good listener.

If you wanted to create an aura around this guy, I’m sure there are ways to do it.  But not this way.  Could you imagine shooting Bush in such a pose?  It would be ridiculous.  Everyone knows Bush is an action man.  But, in many ways, Santorum is a Bush clone.  Both distain reflection.  Both are impulsive.  Both don’t care to read.  And for both, it’s their way or the highway.  So what’s there to think about?

This third shot is especially strange, and perhaps the most revealing.


It’s labeled: “The Senator’s personal effects in his office, including his bible.”  Here’s some of what I’m thinking:  Is this guy so weak a subject that they had to set up a prop table?  Why can’t we identify anything else but the bible?  Just how telling is it that the bible obscures both the flag and the map of America?

  This fourth picture is a bit of a curveball. 


Could this be a punch line?  Does this image, depicting the set up of the cover shot, emphasize that all these pictures are as contrived?  Notice, by the way, that the attention in this shot is mostly going to that flippant tie. 


Maybe the Times followed the overly sappy cover with “The Thinker”  to push the earnestness to the level of the ridiculous.  Following that, they set up the “personal effects” table to suggest this guy is just three books, a hat, and an eagle short of any substance at all.  Then, they just finished him off by exposing Santorum as a two-bit actor with a penchant for kangaroos.

My analysis might belong in the realm of fantasy.  Either way though, I think the Times got played.  If the aim was to take a closer look at Santorum, they ended up glorifying him when a more critical analysis was due.  And, if they were trying to reveal him as a hypocrite, they erred badly on the side of subtlety.  Just like the NYT Magazine allowed DeLay buddy and GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff to pose as a victim a couple weeks ago (Crying Shame- link), I would say they also made Santorum look more like a saint than an acting saint.

Going back to the cover, however, I would say the tie really is the one true element here.  To the extent — as one unnamed Senator was quoted — Santorum has a “general distain for everybody,” this silly and not-quite-appropriate tie is a rebellious FU.  In the way nothing else in these photos actually fit, the tie matches Rick Santorum’s lust for mockery.  In fact, after the Republican’s hop over the Democrats this week and undo the filibuster, maybe Rick’s next mission should be to propose this tie as mandatory Senate wear.

(Article link)

(images: David Burnett for the New York Times Magazine. May 22, 2005)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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