June 6, 2006

Latest NYT Attack Victim: The Addict


So, which progressive figure has been singled out this week for a front page character assassination in the NYT?  Try Jerry Brown, who is running for Attorney General in Tuesday’s California primary.

Not only does the article run through a decades-old litany of “wacko” Brown associations — think: Linda Ronstadt; “We The People”; Mother Teresa; “Governor Moonbeam” — the Ronstadt relationship comes up twice given that Brown is pressed on it.

The most toxic aspect of the piece, however, is the intimation that Brown in not just an oddball, but an incompetent.  In spite of his seven year mayorship in Oakland, the article offers not one word about Brown’s record except to connect his fortune to a recent “sudden and inexplicable” surge in the local murder rate.

The story also heaps ridicule on the notion Brown could be taken seriously as a “lawman.” “Could it be,” it asks, ” that Mr. Brown … is suddenly siding with (gulp) the establishment?”  So hostile is the article that it ends with Brown having to frustratingly defend his passion for public service — a love the writer frames as “an electoral addiction.”

In BAG fashion, however, I’m interested in how The Times leverages the pictures to reinforce the slanderous text.

The lead image above is the shot that appeared on the front page.  Notice it applies a similar feature I discussed in last week’s NYT attack on Nancy Pelosi.  In that case, Pelosi was speaking to a reporter “without a head.”  Here, we see Brown talking to a disembodied hand, as if he is being attacked by a microphone, and isn’t worthy of a more sentient connection.

Beyond that, Brown’s expression is clearly prejudicial to him.  With that frown and the closed eyes, the impression is of someone haughty and disapproving.  So bright is the reflection on his head, eyebrow and cheek, however, the better explanation for the Brown’s presentation is that he is looking into photo lights, or the sun.

What are the odds off a candidate profile in which the politician — in all three pics — is shown almost completely by himself?  Certainly, the black-and-white photo is dashing, but the other two more reinforce the image of an outlier, loner, iconoclast.  And, if you compare the juxtaposition of photos #2 and #3, you get another “sweet” character trait.  Framed in front of signs bearing his name, you get the picture of an ego maniac.


On nyt.com, these two images run vertically.  In the print paper, however, they appear side-by-side, as they do here.  What do you read in the juxtaposition?  Once an egomaniac, always an egomaniac?

And, what about the temporal effect?  With the two Jerry’s facing each other, the photos function like bookends across time.  With “today’s Brown” looking “backward,” the connotation is that he’s seen better days.  At its most vituperative, Brown comes off like a has-been — a guy who now has to work to pull himself together.

Taken alone, the “tie fastening” shot has other connotations, as well.  Characterized as someone with “an addiction” for office, this image frames Brown caught in the act, “suiting up” (like a junkie  shoots up) as he begins one more day in the compulsive chase for the next gig.  (Another visual dig involves posing him in front of a bulletin board.  Compared to the banner from his glory days, it seems like “the three-time presidential candidate” has had quite a fall.)

If you look at the larger version of this shot, by the way, Brown’s expression seems emotional or pained.  The shot is coupled the the article’s conclusion, in which the ex-Gov is made out as cranky and embittered (or, in the writer’s description, “nervous” and “barking”).

No way to know of course, but couldn’t that expression — along with Brown’s defensive tone — be completely natural in light of  the harassing interview?

(image 1 and 3: Victor Jose Cobo for The New York Times.  Image 2:  Jeff Robbins/Associated Press.  Published June 5, 2006.  nyt.com)

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Michael Shaw
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