Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Doctored Photos Row: In Viewership, Fox Goes Down with a Fight

" ... Fox ran modified pictures of both men. Mr. Steinberg's teeth had been yellowed, his nose and chin made more bulbous, and his ears jugged. Mr. Reddicliffe was given black bags under his eyes, and his hairline was pulled back. ... "

Images taken from Fox News screen shots next to actual images of New York Times staffers. (

Globe and Mail Update
July 9, 2008

NEW YORK — Forget about that quadrennial blood feud known as the U.S. presidential election. In New York, at least, the most intriguing tussle between left and right in recent days doesn't centre on Barack Obama or John McCain, but on a pair of media organizations – The New York Times and Fox News – that wield considerable political clout in their own right.

Detractors of Fox, America's No. 1 cable news network, have always complained that it twists the truth, refracting people and events through a conservative prism until they acquire the distortions of a fun house mirror.

These criticisms, of course, are metaphors – or at least they were until a week ago, when a Fox program aired unflatteringly altered photographs of two New York Times staffers whose work had raised the broadcaster's hackles.

The doctored pictures, which weren't identified as such to viewers, have stirred a froth about journalistic ethics in media circles here, pitting liberal-minded broadsheet against populist network in a conflict that bears all the scars and sniping of a political race.

The seeds of the dispute were sown last week, when Times reporter Jacques Steinberg wrote a story on cable news ratings. The piece acknowledged that while Fox remained the most popular news destination for prime-time viewers in the coveted 25-54 demographic, its once dominant lead had eroded, with rivals CNN and MSNBC adding viewers at a faster clip.

A few days later, on the morning show Fox and Friends, co-anchor Steve Doocy described the article as a “hit piece” and averred that Mr. Steinberg had been doing a “bunch of attack stories” on the network.

Further, he added, Mr. Steinberg's boss, Steven Reddicliffe, was a former employee of the Fox media empire and reportedly had “an axe to grind” with the company.

At the same time, Fox ran modified pictures of both men. Mr. Steinberg's teeth had been yellowed, his nose and chin made more bulbous, and his ears jugged. Mr. Reddicliffe was given black bags under his eyes, and his hairline was pulled back.

A Times columnist struck back Monday. Veteran media scribe David Carr portrayed the Fox media relations team as a group of vindictive bullies, and raised the spectre of anti-Semitism in the network's visual treatment of Mr. Steinberg. The column elicited feverish activity on blogs over the past two days, with one, Gawker, publishing a scathing piece about a Fox public-relations executive.

“In a technique familiar to students of vintage German propaganda,” Mr. Carr wrote of Mr. Steinberg's image, “his ears were pulled out, his teeth splayed apart, his forehead lowered and his nose was widened and enlarged in a way that made him look more like Fagin than the guy I work with.”

A spokeswoman for Fox declined to discuss the matter, pointing only to the network's characterization of these insinuations to The Times as “vile and untrue.”

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York and an unabashed critic of Fox, said he wasn't surprised by the network's treatment of the Times staffers.

“To speak of Fox News ethics is like speaking of the ice on the Hudson River today,” he said. “There's very little they won't do to prove a point and, obviously, what they're trying to do is stick it directly to The New York Times, and Steinberg and company.”

Some media observers view the bitter contretemps between the two news outlets as an outgrowth of the media industry's transformation, not just in terms of the proliferation of online media, such as blogs, which have changed the way journalism is practised and blurred ethical lines, but in terms of the industry's dire economics, which have fuelled more intense competition for readers, viewers and, ultimately, advertising dollars.

Even so, digitally altering photos like this is not the sort of thing media experts would expect to see on Canadian networks – and if they did, there would probably be a lot more regulatory fuss.

“I think we would be more likely to see a complaint filed to the Canadian Radio-television [and Telecommunications] Commission or have the issue brought before a press council,” said Marc Raboy, the Beaverbrook chair in ethics, media and communication at McGill University in Montreal.

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