Al Neuharth papers the LoC.

Al Neuharth papers the LoC.

Al Neuharth papers the LoC.

Media criticism.
Dec. 2 2005 7:02 PM

Minutemen and Ombudsmen

Eyeballing a Time news photo; also, Al Neuharth papers the LoC.

One morning in a thousand when I climb into the "Press Box" cockpit, I take a break from the usual startup routine—power the ack-ack guns and calibrate them, adjust my bile level, kick a puppy—by flipping the switches and converting my death machine into a ombudsman's Barcalounger. 

My chin grows longer for better tugging. A nurse comes by and removes several pints of blood to ensure anemia in my prose style. Then, sprouting from my walls like mold after a New Orleans flood, come the awards that adorn any ombudsman's walls: An SPJ commendation; a certificate of completion for a diversity sensitivization seminar; a class photo of the Poynter Institute refresher course on fairness, accuracy, and ethics; and a walnut-and-brass plaque honoring my service to ONO—the Organization of News Ombudsmen.

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I negotiate the mile-long (and growing) queues that are my e-mail and voice-mail inboxes in search of a reader comment that doesn't accuse the press of being anti- or pro-Israel, doesn't complain that reporters are captive of the Democrats or the Republicans, or isn't a part of a letter-writing campaign organized by some media watchdogs or a pressure group. Like ombudsmen everywhere, what I need is an open-and-shut case for my Sunday column, something that I can turn into a journalism lecture that doesn't sound too much like a jealous fit. Don't want to let on that I'm grouchy that I don't get to make the first call and only get to do the second guessing. And, today, I find it in an e-mail from a reader who takes issue with a photograph that accompanies the article "Stalking the Day Laborers" in the current edition (Dec. 5) of Time magazine.

The story documents new tactics by the Minutemen, the ad hoc and freelance border patrol group. In addition to scouring the borders for illegal immigrants, the group is now photographing day laborers they suspect have no legal right to be in this country as they gather in public places to solicit work.

Time, December 5, 2005. Page 36.
Click image to expand.

The photo in question appears on the first page of the layout. The face of a day laborer has been graphically obscured, as the caption accompanying it explains, "to protect his identity."

Why obscure a news photo taken in a public place about a subject of national concern? (Ombudsmen love to start their columns with queries because it saves them the bother of having to exert the mental energy it takes to write a lede.)

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As the Time article reports, the Minutemen distribute the photos of suspected illegal aliens to U.S. immigration officials and the IRS, as well as post them on the wehirealiens.com Web site. They hope to both discourage illegal immigrants from seeking work and deter employers from hiring them.

Time Deputy Managing Editor Steve Koepp says Time doesn't know the immigration status of the pictured laborer, so it's unfair to allow the context—Minutemen photographing people they think might be illegal immigrants—to imply that the individual entered the U.S. illegally. Also, if the Time photo hadn't been obscured, it could have been used by the Minutemen as part of their campaign to ostracize day laborers. But Koepp adds, "Even if [the Minutemen] weren't taking pictures, we'd have concerns."

But newspapers and magazines don't alter the faces captured in riot photographs just because they haven't determined in advance whether the faces belong to rioters or passers-by snapped by the shooter. By this logic, every face collected in a news photo of a day-labor site would require Photoshopping prior to publication because it may contain the image of an illegal immigrant, or a legal immigrant, or a natural-born citizen that might be misconstrued. (Or more broadly, any public photo that may contain any illegal act—jaywalking, neglecting to pick up dog poop, whatever.)

Koepp prefers a "situation-by-situation" approach. He looked at other pictures in which laborers' faces couldn't be seen, but none of them illustrate the Minutemen practice of aggressively confronting anybody who might look like an illegal immigrant in such a locale.

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"In the case of our photo, one person was being confronted as if they were an illegal immigrant, but that is an assumption on the part of the demonstrator," Koepp writes via e-mail. "In some other situation, the people in the photo may not be so vulnerable to that assumption. In any event, 'massive Photoshopping' is never desirable and not what we did in this case."

I sense a slippery slope in operation, and the negative influence of TV news operations, which obscure faces all the time. If there is a chance that somebody in a photograph may be guilty of something—such as working in the United States illegally—publications shouldn't obscure his identity. If he's innocent, it obviously shouldn't obscure his face, either. And if the publication doesn't know either way and wants to use the photo, it should express its incertitude in a caption, not by removing features.

Like reasonable ombudsmen everywhere, I conclude my examination with a thoughtful tap of my pipe and the admonition, "I would have done it differently."

USA Today founder and another guy
Click image to expand.
USA Today founder and another guy

Short, Snappy, and Happy A press release from the Newseum/Freedom Forum announces the acquisition of Al Neuharth's papers by the Library of Congress. I stopped reading after the first sentence of the release, threw the Barcalounger out the window onto M Street, and reverted to my genuine persona to compose an improved version of the Neuharth press release.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2005

Today Librarian of Congress James H. Billington hailed the addition of Allen H. Neuharth's papers—memos, speeches, investigative paragraphs—to its archives in a ceremony at the library.

"Not since novelist Raymond Carver allowed Gordon Lish to red-pencil his work has an American writer contributed more—or less—to the art of minimalism," Billington said. "Neuharth's achievement in one- and two-sentence paragraph form, which he continues to demonstrate weekly in his 'Plain Talk' column in USA Today, has no equal in belles-lettres."

Neuharth's skill at paring language down to its essence carried over into the paper he founded, USA Today. As part of a creative experiment that he thought would help his reporters and editors grow, Neuharth banned the letter "e" from the newspaper for all of 1984, the only exception being Neuharth's byline. The staff rose to the challenge and no reader or critic of the paper noticed the letter was missing for 11 months until just before the Christmas when Washington Post literary sleuth David Streitfeld discovered Dumpsters filled with lower and upper case e's behind the newspaper's Rosslyn, Va., tower being towed away to a rural landfill. 

USA Today was greeted with hails of laughter when it launched in September 1982 thanks to the happy-news format Neuharth mandated. His insistence that catastrophe reporting always accentuate the positive resulted in the famous headline, "Jumbo Jet Plows into Mouth of Erupting Volcano: Survivors Still Sought." All the fun started going out of the newspaper in 1989 when Neuharth retired at the age of 65.

The 500-pound bust of Neuharth that once decorated the lobby of USA Today headquarters, and which newspaper employees decorated with silly objects, will be reengineered to spit water and added to Library of Congress "Neptune Fountain."

Critics lauded Neuharth as a late 20th-century Kerouac for his "JetCapade,"  in which he led a team of USA Today reporters through six continents and 30 countries during seven months of 1987 and 1988. The trip had no point but to make arch-rival Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post piss red in jealousy. It succeeded. 

Said Neuharth at the ceremony, "I can't think of a better place for the USA Today's founding documents than at USA's library."

******

In the background of the aforementioned Minutemen photo appears a protester placard that is pure white, with no text or art on it. This prompted one reader to wonder if its message was Photoshopped. Koepp says no, that the strong Arizona sun created the washed-out effect. Send e-mail and pipe tobacco to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)