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Michael Shaw Headshot

Reading The Pictures: Scoring Off John And Elizabeth

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2009-05-08-edwardsoprah.jpg

The key to understanding the latest hooha over the John Edwards-Elizabeth Edwards soap opera is to recognize that the photo above -- published far-and-wide over the past few days -- came from Harpo Productions. Besides referring to one of the world's greatest comedians, that is also the name of Oprah's production company.

Trumping any ugliness taking place between this political couple is the PR jujitsu currently being perpetrated on the public with Oprah scoring with a huge pseudo-news interview exploiting this miserable story and otherwise serious media organizations (1, 2) scoring by playing this exploitation off as news.

For my purposes, I'm specifically interested in how the scene in the photo -- cleverly instigated, captured and distributed by Harpo -- plays to the worst instincts, taking advantage of a.) the Edwards daughter, b.) the inflammatory allegation (true or not) that Edwards fathered a child with his mistress, and c.) the anger-baiting hook of the cheating husband as dirt (even if he is).

First of all, how sad the Edwards daughter need be drawn into this, in an interview specifically exploiting the war between her parents and her father's affair. Second, how interesting Harpo -- milking the most salacious angle of the story -- showcased a photo of Elizabeth pointing out her daughter, as if needing to identify her own child in contrast to any other John might be responsible for.

And finally, the composition is designed to stoke the highest gender flames, the way the women are huddled in a protective scrum away from the monster and forming a protective wall between the child and John. (Forget about the fact that it's ratings-driven Oprah, smack in the middle there, currently separating the family.) And then, in the most tawdry move possible on Harpo's part (because it's a story about a guy who couldn't keep it in his pants, after all), notice how, as much as bending forward, Oprah could be seen to be bending back in the most awkward alignment with our Casanova.

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(image: AP Photo/Harpo Productions, Inc.)