The Economist's Airbrushed Politics

It probably wouldn’t have been that hard—from some angle—to get a picture of President Obama by himself on a Louisiana beach looking down at the ground, apparently at a loss. But The Economist didn’t have one for its cover story on President Obama’s treatment of BP since the oil spill. So it decided to make one of its own.

As the New York Times Media Decoder blog writes, it was “the ideal metaphor for a politically troubled president.” So The Economist took a Reuters photo of Obama standing on the beach with Adm. Thad Allen and local parish president Charlotte Randolph and completely removed Obama’s companions, leaving him standing on the beach alone.

Reuters has a strict policy against its own photographers “modifying, removing, adding to or altering any of its photographs without first obtaining the permission of Reuters and, where necessary, the third parties referred to.” Reuters itself was at the center of photo-manipulation controversy in 2006, when one of its photographers added smoke to a picture to make damage from an Israeli attack on Beirut look worse than it really was.

The Economist is unapologetic. Emma Duncan, an Economist editor, told the New York Times that she had Randolph removed because she wanted readers to focus on Obama, not because she wanted to make him look isolated. It was not, she says, to make a political point, but because having an unknown woman in the shot would have been puzzling to readers.

It’s still not okay. The criticism of Obama is fair enough. The spill may be the product of cronyism that dates back to the Bush administration, but Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, hasn't made good on his promise to reform the Minerals Management Service. Nor has Obama necessarily responded particularly well to the spill. You can certainly make the case, as The Economist does, that business leaders see his treatment of BP as part of an overall attack on business. And it’s true that the altered photograph doesn’t really falsify any historical event.

But although most of us know by now that photos can be easily altered, we nevertheless assume that newspaper photographs that show no obvious signs of edits are images of what actually happened, not artistic renderings of fictive events. It’s bad enough that our fashion and lifestyle magazines are full of pictures of celebrities that have been doctored past the point of what’s anatomically possible. When journalists do the doctoring, it misrepresents history. While I'm sure the photo was edited for compositional reasons, it’s hard to believe that the altered picture wasn’t also chosen because it made Obama look confused and forlorn. That’s just dishonest, and it's the wrong way to make an editorial point.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less

Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

Strange Maps
  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Keep reading Show less

Mini-brains attach to spinal cord and twitch muscles

A new method of growing mini-brains produces some startling results.

(Lancaster, et al)
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new and inexpensive way to keep organoids growing for a year.
  • Axons from the study's organoids attached themselves to embryonic mouse spinal cord cells.
  • The mini-brains took control of muscles connected to the spinal cords.
Keep reading Show less