Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
November 13, 2016

Media Normalizing: Reading the Ryan/Trump Speaker’s Balcony Photo Op

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) shows President-elect Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump the Speaker's Balcony at the U.S. Capitol on November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day president-elect Trump met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The urgent concern among so many activists, journalists and citizens right now is that the traditional press is normalizing Trump’s victory. Trump’s first visit to the Capitol as President-elect last Thursday offered a good example. You’d expect that a man who has just been chosen as Chief Executive — one unfamiliar with the procedures and rituals of the office — would be thoroughly focused right now on the role, the protocol of the office, the inauguration process, and, of course, the governing landscape.

It is worth breaking down the Trump – Ryan photo-op taken on the Speaker’s balcony last week, and, especially, the generic media framing. For context, take this paragraph from a Washington Post article, typical of other media accounts. It read:

…Trump and his wife, along with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, met with Ryan at the Capitol, where Trump pledged to work closely with Republican congressional leaders. Ryan ushered Trump out onto the Speaker’s Balcony and gestured toward the Washington skyline and the monuments west of the Capitol. He pointed to an inaugural platform being built on the Capitol grounds, appearing to show Trump where he would be taking the oath of office as president.

The depiction is generally correct, but what it fails to capture is Trump’s response and where his interest lies. The written description is generic, and the historic photos that circulated far-and-wide from the less than two-minute encounter are even more generic and normalizing, especially the photo of the two men pointing off in the distance.

How can I say that? Because there’s a record of the balcony encounter.

In the 1:11 minute Reuters video, you can hear Speaker Ryan, up to the :45 second mark, helping inform the Trumps of what to expect on Inauguration Day. Specifically, Ryan describes the physical configuration of the ceremonies on the Capitol grounds below while the sound of hammers fill the air.

There is no way to know if Trump was listening or not, but he suddenly interrupts, pointing out his hotel. If you listen to the entire clip, it seems that Ryan’s intention was to lay out the inauguration scene and then locate the White House for the Trumps. Instead, tracking the President-elect, Ryan answers: “Yes, that’s your hotel, right there!” Always one for size comparisons, you can then make out Trump explaining how the hotel, the former Washington Old Post Office building, is “supposed to be the second-biggest building in the-.” At which point, Ryan cuts in, “after the Washington Monument, yes.”

And that explains what you’re seeing in the photo above, Ryan pointing at a national monument while Trump is pointing at his own. Of course, the impression you get from the photo, the Getty photo caption (below), and most of the media descriptions is that the Speaker and the President-elect are on the same page. The impression is that Ryan and Trump, in completely normal fashion, are sharing the task at hand. But that is not what is happening at all. The Speaker is focused on the governing landscape while Trump is focused on Trump.

(photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images. caption: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) shows President-elect Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump the Speaker’s Balcony at the U.S. Capitol on November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day president-elect Trump met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House.)

 

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