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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Caught short in the web
WEBLOG WATCH
The Magazine's review of blogs
By Alan Connor

    Even the president of the United States
    Sometimes must have
    To stand naked

- Bob Dylan, 1965

As the forthcoming Dylanfest approaches, it's worth remembering that these words were considered shocking in the 1960s.

In the 21st Century, when world leaders are every day derided, twitted and lampooned on blogs and message boards all over the globe, the idea that there's anything iconoclastic in portraying the president as a person like any other - well, it seems almost quaint.

The note was written during UN summit talks

But only almost.

Last week, Reuters took a photograph of President Bush writing a note during the 60th General Assembly of the United Nations - and it looked like he was indicating to Condoleezza Rice that a trip to the loo was imminent.

In happier political times, this might have marked the official end of the Silly Season, and Bush's fans and critics alike might have shared a sympathetic smile at the idea that no matter how many of the world's premiers you might gather in one room, none of them can resist a call of nature.

And the unpleasant truth that even the great and the good have to concern themselves with the most basic functions is one that's been raising smirks both satirical and smutty since at least Aristophanes.

WEBLOG WATCH
Weblog Watch is the BBC News Magazine's weekly review of bloggers' views of the world
But it would seem that this is neither the time nor the place for gentle toilet humour.

So divided is opinion on GW Bush, in fact, that the response in the blogosphere has been about as far from gentle as it gets.

Critics of Bush were, of course, delighted: one of the caricatures most frequently used to undermine the president is that he's a stooge among those who really wield geopolitical power, and subscribers to that view found it hard to resist posts with headings like Condi, Can I Go To The Potty?.

President Bush and Ms Rice
There were plenty of blogs with this kind of ribbing, but it was rarely good-natured. And among Bush supporters, the mood was still blacker, and the subject of their ire was Reuters: what precisely is the news value, bloggers thundered, in a private moment of the Commander-In-Chief?

It can sometimes seem strange in the UK, where die-hard party members will reserve the right to deride the PM, but the office of the American chief executive is able to command automatic respect; as Tony Abu Tuz thundered:

    "In a time of war, where US military and diplomatic success depends (at least in a small part) on the overseas image of the President and the office, Reuters' crude manipulation and attempt to belittle the President amounts to propaganda for the enemy."

Strong words, and there were equally strong claims. Among Bush's supporters, two main theories were in evidence. The first was that the photo was not genuine.

The immediate response of Pat at Judicious Asininity was: "The note is a forgery designed to embarrass the President" and many among the community at Little Green Footballs agreed. Lest this seem unbelievably sceptical, it's worth remembering how much misinformation is bandied around, both in politics and during wars, and especially in politics during wars.

Smell of blood

For pro-Bush American bloggers, the memories of "Rathergate" are still strong. "Rathergate" was an incident during the 2004 presidential campaign where CBS anchor Dan Rather presented papers calling into question George W's war record, only to have the documents pored over and discredited by a quick-witted collection of websites and weblogs.

Smelling a similar kind of blood, many bloggers and commenters discerned post-hoc treatment in the Reuters photos, and claimed victory when Reuters acknowledged that the image editing application Adobe Photoshop had been used. But this may have been hasty.

For news junkies, Reuters' account of the summit makes for compelling reading: it describes a photographer called Rick Wilking, fresh from having his kit looted when covering New Orleans, subsequently bored in the UN, filling up some memory sticks, and leaving it to his colleagues to investigate and prepare the images.

And this preparation - or rather, the degree to which one can tidy up, alter, or otherwise manipulate a digital photograph without changing its "editorial content" - is a hot issue which is unlikely to cool down any time soon. But this is not an easy time to discuss the niceties of journalistic ethics as expressed by a sometime Reuters employee:

    "If a person standing next to you could see the same thing as what's shown in your image then you're OK."

In this instance, it would seem that Reuters certainly did not invent the image, but did make the handwriting more legible: BBC News readers might be interested to know that most of the pictures on this website have had their black border and picture credit added in Adobe Photoshop, and may well have unwittingly undergone such processes as a "Sharpen". Nothing too sinister there, we hope!

But, however easily dealt with, the editing of the image is the lesser of the pro-Bush bloggers' charges against Reuters. (It's also one for which Bryan Costin offers an ingenious solution: "All [the media] have to do is make the full sized, original photo available for download.") The more vexed issue is why an apparently reputable agency would consider such a note to be newsworthy.

Independence

This is a place where pro- and anti-Bush bloggers, who would normally be at each other's throats, find an unlikely common ground. That is to say, despite Reuters' institutional preoccupation with independence, commenters at both the "liberal" Daily Kos and the "conservative" Free Republic see a cheeky agenda from the agency.

At the former, we're reminded that Reuters staff have died in Iraq; at the latter, we're reminded that, like the BBC, Reuters has a policy about the use of the word "terrorist" and meet what's probably the most important aspect of what wags are calling "Pottygate" - the perception of conspiracy:

    "Low-life media. Was it REALLY necessary to publish that, or was it published simply to make Bush look weak or dumb? Is that picture ANYWHERE near approaching something newsworthy? No, of course not, but we know the MSM's agenda. Pathetic."

Anyone employed in these MSM - the Mainstream Media - would do well to acknowledge this problem with trust. It might be hard for a journalist to grasp that many of their readers lump the established media outlets together. And Occam's Razor might well suggest that news-hungry and scoop-voracious hacks are never going to be able to resist a story as salacious as "world's most powerful man caught short" - even a lifelong GOP member is going to feel his "professional" instincts kick in at this point.

But the trust problem remains. If a genuine and quite daft photo from a third-party agency is taken to be either a hoax or a sinister stratagem, there's a serious problem with the Fourth Estate. And it's hard to see how the parties, the free press, or the citizens can come out of that well.

In fact, as Jay Tea notes, the only winners from this Silly Season story may well be the folks at Adobe:

    "Two major organizations were caught manipulating photos of public events, and in both cases everyone called it 'Photoshopping'. That's the kind of brand recognition money can't buy."




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