When I saw the doctored Reuters photograph of smoke rising over Beirut, side by side with the unaltered version of the same scene, the first thing I thought was: which is supposed to be the scary one? If I saw either cloud of smoke rising from a bomb blast in my own city, I wouldn’t be worried much about where it fell on the Pantone color wheel. (More-elaborate comparisons of the two altered photos, which led Reuters to pull over 900 pictures by photographer Adnan Hajj, have been springing up on YouTube; best to search on "Reuters," perhaps because the video makers have had a hard time spelling "Adnan Hajj.")
The story of the photos was first broken on the blog Little Green Footballs and has become a cause-celebre, especially among conservative and pro-Israel bloggers, who see evidence of anti-Israel bias in the media. They have a point–well, half a point, anyway. The principle of not faking anything in the news is absolute. But the effects of particular fakeries are relative. It was much more pernicious–if we’re to be totally honest here–when a Time cover of O.J. Simpson after his arrest was doctored to make his skin look darker. The manipulation made an accused man seem more sinister before he had gone to trial, and it did so by playing off the language of racial stereotype. Hajj’s manipulations are gratuitous and almost pointless: whichever side you take in the war, the devastation in Lebanon and Israel is real and well-documented, faked photos or not. A bomb leaves you just as dead, however dark a cloud it kicks up over your remains.
That said, the gratuitousness of the altered Reuters photos just makes them that much worse. Mainstream media will do itself no favors by downplaying this as a controversy hyped up by opinionated bloggers. It is a controversy hyped up by opinionated bloggers, of course, but so what? That’s the world we live in, and in many ways it’s a good thing: whatever their motives, partisan bloggers have kept the media honest, even if after the fact.
And every time a straight-news journalist alters a fact–even something as picayune as the color of a bomb blast or the number of flares fired from a plane–it convinces people that the media must lie about big things as well. All facts become suspect, all information becomes relative, and you might as well believe whatever your gut tells you, because the news is invariably driven by its own bias, which is, invariably, against you. We become a nation of Stephen Colberts, believing that facts are sketchy and overrated and should never be allowed to get in the way of what we want to believe.
We can argue till we pass out over Adnan Hajj’s motives–politics? drama? careerism?–and those of the bloggers who pounced on the photos. In the end, they don’t matter. What does matter is that every time something like this happens, the winners are the people of every political stripe who believe it’s their calling to, to paraphrase another war, destroy the truth in order to save it.