12/14/2010 09:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Media Lit 101: The Aspen Institute -- Photoshopping Madeleine Albright & Condi Rice

Imagine you are Walter Isaacson.

You are the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, "a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC," (according to its own website). You were previously the chairman and CEO of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine. You want the latest issue of your premier magazine, The Aspen Idea, to have on its cover a photo of the public meeting of the Aspen Strategy Group where Nicholas Burns, the director of the Group, moderated a conversation between former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice.

You've got some great photos of the secretaries in animated conversation. But the bad news is the stage was set up with the moderator in the middle, and the photo you want to use of the two women has that distracting guy right there in the center. What do you do?


I'm not sure what you would do, but according to editor-in-chief Jamie Miller, Mr. Isaacson and the rest of the Idea editorial "team" okayed a cover image, which involved not only a Soviet-style removal of poor Mr. Burns, but further photoshopping to add shadow detail and delete the distracting background of the repeating Aspen Institute logo type (which would not have matched up when the two sides of the photo were photoshopped together).

"We didn't really feel like it [the photoshopping] affected any kind of news value of the story," said Miller.

When asked if she thought the tiny credit on the table of contents page that reads "On the Cover: Institute trustees and former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice. Photo by Michael Brands. Photo Illustration by Steve Johnson and TMG" was sufficient to alert readers that the image had been manipulated and a person had been deleted from the picture, Miller said, "we didn't feel that we really needed to get into it any further than that."

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) disagrees with such editorial decisions: "if a photo looks real, it better be real." And as I wrote in another column about Washingtonian magazine's photoshopping its 2009 cover of President Obama in swim trunks: "The rule of thumb is, if you want to change what's in the photo, choose another photo."

John Long, NPPA Ethics Co-Chair and past president, tells the story on the NPPA website of Sports Illustrated editors who showed in one photo "a star player, Ricky Moore, going up for a lay up with another player, Kevin Freeman, in the frame. They also used the same photo on the cover of the regular edition of the magazine, cropped tighter but with Kevin Freeman removed. I guess he cluttered up the cover, so he was expendable. The point I want to make here is that, if Sports Illustrated had not used the same photo twice, they would not have been caught."

That's actually how I discovered The Aspen Idea's slight of hand. The Institute sent out a fundraising brochure with the original photo in it. It's not as pretty as the magazine cover image, but my sense of the event is better grounded in the reality of what happened there. 2010-12-14-Aspenbrochure.jpg In the faked Idea cover photo Secretary Albright is speaking, and has her arm thrown out towards Secretary Rice. Viewers of the cover might well take away the idea that Albright is directly praising Rice, a sentiment reinforced by the headline: Common Ground: Albright and Rice Display the Spirit of Aspen. In the original image, that is not the clear message. With Nicholas Burns in the photo, it appears that Albright's stretched-out hand is as likely reaching out to him as to Rice.

Back in 1982 National Geographic magazine became notorious when it moved two pyramids closer together because they were too spread out in the original photo to make a good vertical cover. The editors defended their manipulation as a "retroactive repositioning of the photographer," meaning that the photographer could have gotten that picture if he had only taken the photo from another angle.

It appears that The Aspen Idea editors didn't recall the outcry after that fakery--or the fact that now, almost 30 years later, copies of that doctored cover are still the first pictures that Google images pulls up when you put the words "National Geographic" and "pyramid" into its search. Otherwise, how to explain Idea editor Miller's comment: "We photoshopped it because the way they were sitting the moderator was in the middle," said Miller. "They were just physically too spread out to make it a cover shot, to get both of the secretaries in. So, it was really just a practical decision."

Every semester I teach a Media Literacy course to several hundred students, and I always have a class where I show the egregious instances where fashion magazines have photoshopped models and celebrities. We talk about the need for readers to be aware that what they see is not the "truth." We also talk about the problems that a magazine of "perfect" people in "perfect" situations creates: body image problems for girls, for starters.

Then I show examples of photoshopping from the news media--a doctored image of smoke over Beirut during the 2006 war with Israel sent out by Reuters, for example, or a 2003 LA Times photo of a soldier in Basra. In those latter cases the photographers lost their jobs for altering their images, and the news outlets lost credibility. Journalism standards and ethics prohibit tampering with the photographic coverage of a news event.

What's the take-away of that lecture for students? That they can--usually--trust news photos to be accurate depictions of what happened, because news outlets want to be seen as fair, balanced and accurate in their coverage. But all bets are off when media are trying to sell something. In the world of consumerism, photo retouchers are not ostracized, they are well-paid to distort what something looks like--if the result is that the distortion gets the audience to want the product: the clothing, the perfume, a subscription to the magazine.

What then should we take away from the decision made by The Aspen Idea to run an egregiously photoshopped cover of a public newsworthy event? That the magazine's primary goal, despite Isaacson's previous credentials in journalism, is less "to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues," as the mission statement of the institute says, than to sell us "the Spirit of Aspen."

But I don't think that's what Aspen wants. Fairness, accuracy and credibility matter in the world of public policy and non-profit institutions. Even in Washington.