And now, it's 'Reutersgate'

by Antonia Zerbisias, Toronto Star

Turned out that where there was too much smoke, there was also fire.

For the past four days, ever since the virulently anti-Muslim/Arab website Little Green Footballs nailed the news agency Reuters for its doctored photo of a smouldering Beirut, the right-wing blogosphere has been crowing about how it has once again shot down the mainstream media (MSM).

This time, the direct hit was on Lebanese freelancer Adnan Hajj, who has been shooting for the British agency since 1993.

What the guy did is moronic. Not only did he clumsily manipulate one photo to increase billowing black smoke where there was plenty to begin with (plus he cloned buildings), he did it when there were many scenes of actual - and worse - devastation available.

In doing so, he compromised Reuters - already derided by the right as "al-Reuters" for its reluctance to use the word "terrorist" - and, by extension, all photojournalists risking their lives in war zones. At the same time, he has given more ammunition to the right-wing flogosphere to complain of media bias, and to shift the story away from the carnage in Lebanon to debates over Photoshopped images and staged pictures.

Worse, this all but ensures that any and all images of civilian casualties or the blasting of infrastructure will be called into question - while the actual deaths and destruction won't.

The smoke picture, transmitted Friday and picked up by media around the world (but not the Star), was uncovered Saturday by a tip to Little Green Footballs overlord Charles Johnson, the blogger credited with bringing down CBS' Dan Rather over his 2004 report on U.S. President George W. Bush's service record - or lack of it - during the Vietnam War.

From there, it spread through the right-wing blogosphere that animated it, analyzed it, dissected it and tore it apart.

Feeling the heat, Reuters issued a 'Picture Kill' later that day, warning its clients that the photo had been "improperly" edited. Then, on Sunday, Reuters announced it was terminating its relationship with Hajj.

"This represents a serious breach of Reuters' standards," the company said.

Explained spokesperson Moira Whittle: "The photographer has denied deliberately attempting to manipulate the image, saying that he was trying to remove dust marks and that he made mistakes due to the bad lighting conditions he was working under."

Except that on Monday, blogger Rusty Shackleford of The Jawa Report turned up a second doctored Hajj photo.

Taken Aug. 2, it shows an Israeli F-16 firing three flares as bombs are dropped on the Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh. Trouble is, the fighter jet actually fired one flare.

On Monday, Hajj was toasted, as were all 920 photos he had shot for Reuters.

(The Star has used four Hajj photos since the war began. The most recent was July 25. None of the photos used by the Star is considered suspicious by Reuters. Our website, www.thestar.com, does not carry Reuters photos.)

Now, this has become "Reutersgate." Or, as Michelle Malkin, a frequent Fox News commentator put it, "Picture Kill is a watershed moment and we won't let the MSM forget it."

Believe it.

Since Hajj's work was discredited, the right-wing blogosphere has shifted into high gear, seeking out other potential instances of photo manipulation. Many are examining images from Qana, the site of an Israeli bombing last week where at least 28 civilians were killed. Others are digging into events in Gaza, claiming images from that Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been staged or edited for the cameras. Right-wing bloggers have dubbed that "Pallywood."

Meanwhile, with very few exceptions, the left/liberal blogosphere remains silent. Not just about "Reutersgate," but also about the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

A couple of progressive writers who have addressed the photo issue have pointed out that the "angrysphere" is quick to condemn the errors of the MSM but loathe to own up to when it fakes the photos or quotes.

But that's no defence for the Reuters screw-up, for which there is no excuse.

Any good photo editor should have spotted that fakery.

Once again, this demonstrates the increasing influence of the blogosphere whose members, in the pre-Internet days, would have had to settle for yelling at their TVs or writing letters to editors. Now they have the tools to instantly push back and make the media pay attention.

If only they showed as much compassion for the civilians who may have suffered when that bomb dropped on Beirut as they did passion when Reuters dropped its bomb on the wires.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey