18 Deaths Cancelled!

Rightie blogger Thomas Lifson says the New York Times ran a fake photo on its web site. A fake staged photo, even.

Is a fake staged photo fit to print? What if it staged in a way that makes the US forces fighting the War on Terror look cruel and ineffective? The evidence argues that yes, it can run, and in a prominent position – at least in the case of the New York Times website.

I did some detective work and learned more about where the fake staged photo came from. But first let’s let Mr. Lifson rant for a while about media bias.

The photo has since been removed from the home page, but still can be seen here.

The picture shows a sad little boy, with a turbaned man next to him, a little bit further from the camera, amid the ruins of a house. Other men and boys peer in from the background. The photo is captioned

    “Pakistani men with the remains of a missile fired at a house in the Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border.”

The story it accompanies is about the apparently failed attempt to take out al Qaeda’s #2 man al Zawahiri, with a missile attack from a Predator drone.

“How sad!” readers are encouraged to think. “These poor people are on the receiving end of awful weapons used by the clumsy minions of Bush. And all to no avail. Isn’t it terrible? Why must America do such horrible misdeeds? Bush must go!”

The only problem is that the long cylindrical item with a conical tip pictured with the boy and the man is not a missile at all. It is an old artillery shell. Not something that would have been fired from a Predator. Indeed, something that must have been found elsewhere and posed with the ruins and the little boy as a means at pulling of the heartstrings of the gullible readers of the New York Times.

I’ll take Mr. Lifson’s word about the artillery shell; I don’t know artillery shells from spinach. But I do know something about photograph attribution, and this one clearly says “Getty Images” in the lower right-hand corner.

This means that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., did not personally order up a staged fake photo from New York Times photographers. Rather, it was purchased (probably for one-time use) from Getty Images. I found the image (Image #56593062) in the News database. The Getty Images caption reads,

Bajur, PAKISTAN: Pakistani tribesmen stand by a unexploded ordinance at their house which was damaged in an alleged US air strike the day before in the Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border, 14 January 2005. Thousands of tribesmen protested against an alleged US air strike targeting Al-Qaeda’s second in command that killed 18 people near the Afghan border, witnesses said. AFP PHOTO/Thir KHAN (Photo credit should read THIR KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

How This Stuff Works is that Getty purchased the photograph from photographer Khan, who is probably a freelancer or stringer, and added it to its database for view and purchase. Some web site editor at the Times pulled the photo off the Getty database with a company credit card and put it up on the web site to accompany the story. I couldn’t find it in yesterday’s or today’s print edition, so I assume it only went on the web site.

If indeed the image was fake staged by the photographer, it seems both Getty Images and the New York Times were scammed. There were other heartstring-tugging photos in the database that possibly were not fake staged. See, for example, # 56596136, which I think is a better photograph on an artistic level than #56593062. But no; the Times went with #56593062. Too bad.

Mr. Lifson comments,

So the formerly authoritative New York Times has published a picture distributed around the world on the home page of its website, using a prop which must have been artfully placed to create a false dramatic impression of cruel incompetence on the part of US forces. Not only did the editors lack the basic knowledge necessary to detect the fake, they didn’t bother to run the photo past anyone with such knowledge before exposing the world to it.

The fact is that the drones who throw the web site and most of the newspaper together do not routinely run anything by the big shots, at the New York Times or any other newspaper; there’s no time. The Times web site editors trusted Getty Images. I would have made the same mistake, since Getty Images is a long-established source of news photos and is usually reliable.

Although I think Getty Images is more at fault than the Times, I notice the New York Times caption writer called the ordnance in question “the remains of a missile,” whereas the Getty caption calls it “unexploded ordinance [sic].” I suspect sloppiness on the part of the New York Times web caption writer, no doubt a recent English Lit graduate, who just guessed the pointy-ended thing was a missile. After the web editors got some complaints about the photo, they pulled it. Again, that’s How This Stuff Works.

I see at Memeorandum that the righties are having fits about the New York Times, however. Hugh Hewitt says the shell destroyed “what’s left of the New York Times‘ Reputation.” Scott at Power Line posted the image and commented,

The Times’ caption said: “Pakistani men with the remains of a missile fired at a house in the Bajur tribal zone near the Afghan border.” Only it’s not the remains of a missile, it’s an old artillery shell. Which means the photo was deliberately faked by the people depicted, probably with the knowing aid of the AFP photographer. I think the villagers were lying about not hosting members of al Qaeda, too.

ONE MORE THING: The photo is still up at Yahoo News Photos, but with a changed caption that now says the men are shown standing next to “a unexploded ordnance.” Yes, probably from the 1980s. No doubt the picture will be reproduced in many newspapers around the world.

One, Getty Images says the photo was taken 14 January 2005 [update: I guess we’re a year off, aren’t we], although I ‘spect they were taking the photographers’ word on that. Two, Yahoo News credits the image to Agence France-Presse (AFP). They didn’t get it from the New York Times and apparently not from Getty Images either. I don’t think AFP and Getty are subsidiaries; possibly the photographer sold the same image to both agencies. Maybe AFP got scammed, too.

But the good news here is that because (I trust) there is one fake staged photo, the entire news story about 18 innocent people being killed has been cancelled. The villagers were faking the story; they were probably lying about not hosting al Qaeda also. We can now dismiss the whole episode as so much spin, as if it never happened. I know you are relieved.

Lessons of History

Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, attorney general during the LBJ administration, writes in today’s Los Angeles Times about the perils of unchecked power. Specifically, he writes about J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King.

These days Hoover has become almost a comic figure; the tough guy in ladies’ underdrawers. But for a time he was so powerful even presidents were afraid to go after him. “Some of that support was based on admiration,” writes Katzenbach, “some on fear that he had damaging personal information in his files.” Although on paper he reported to the attorney general, in fact he operated outside anyone’s control. In the eyes of the nation Hoover was a hero who had fought organized crime and Communists. But by the 1960s, Katzenbach writes, Hoover was getting old.

He believed the world was questioning and rejecting the values he held out as fundamental — patriotism, respect for law and order, sexual mores grounded in marriage and family, the work ethic. He detested what he saw as a growing culture of permissiveness, and, as a conservative Southerner, he seriously questioned the idea of racial equality.

Hoover convinced himself that MLK was working for Communists. Lack of evidence thereof would not dissuade him. In 1963, Hoover went to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy for approval for a wiretap on Dr. King’s phones. Bobby Kennedy feared that Hoover’s accusations would destroy the Civil Rights movement.

When Hoover asked for the wiretaps, Bobby consulted me (I was then his deputy) and Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division. Both of us agreed to the tap because we believed a refusal would lend credence to the allegation of communist influence, while permitting the tap, we hoped, would demonstrate the contrary. I think the decision was the right one, under the circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that the tap was right. King was suspected of no crime, but the government invaded his privacy until I removed the tap two years later when I became attorney general. It also invaded the privacy of every person he talked to on that phone, not just Levinson.

But what we didn’t know during this period was that Hoover was doing a lot more than tapping King’s phones. As King’s criticism of the FBI continued, and as Hoover became more and more convinced there must be communist influence even though no evidence ever materialized, he determined to discredit and destroy King. He went further, putting bugs in King’s hotel bedrooms across the country. (He claimed that Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell had authorized him to use such listening devices in cases involving “national security” back in the 1950s, and that he did not require further permission from the current attorney general, who in any case had no idea that the FBI was doing it.)

The FBI recorded MLK having extramarital affairs, which it used to try to destroy him. The FBI played the tapes for journalists and other influential people. At one point tapes were mailed to MLK with the suggestion he commit suicide.

This is appalling, to be sure, but Katzenbach makes an essential point — Hoover believed he was doing the right thing . He believed his acts were justified to protect the United States. “Perhaps because of age accompanied by virtually unchecked power, he lost any sense of proportion in law enforcement, using his authority in what he thought was a righteous cause.”

And here’s the conclusion:

Today we are again engaged in a debate over wiretapping for reasons of national security — the same kind of justification Hoover offered when he wanted to spy on King. The problem, then as now, is not the invasion of privacy, although that can be a difficulty. But it fades in significance to the claim of unfettered authority in the name of “national security.” There may be good and sufficient reasons for invasions of privacy. But those reasons cannot and should not be kept secret by those charged with enforcing the law. No one should have such power, and in our constitutional system of checks and balances, no one legitimately does.

Forcing the executive to explain its reasons for intrusive law enforcement is essential to maintaining not just privacy but freedom itself. A congressional committee must exercise oversight. So too must an independent court because Congress is also subject to possible political pressure.

Our freedom is too precious, and too much blood has been shed to preserve it, to entrust it to a single person, however sincere and however well intentioned.

At Newsweek, Jonathan Alter describes the peril we face now:

Any rational person wants the president to be able to hunt for Qaeda suspects wherever they lurk. The “momentous” issue (Alito’s words) is whether this president, or any other, has the right to tell Congress to shove it. And even if one concedes that wartime offers the president extra powers to limit liberty, what happens if the terrorist threat looks permanent? We may be scrapping our checks and balances not just for a few years (as during the Civil War), but for good.

And, once again, in the Civil War Lincoln made emergency use of a power given to Congress (to suspend habeas corpus) to deal with riots and unchecked lawlessness in some of the border states while Congress was not in session. When Congress came back into session, Lincoln went to Congress, acknowledged this power rightfully belonged to Congress, and asked for their retroactive approval even while the Civil War was still heating up. He didn’t just declare he could do whatever he thought necessary because there was a war on.

Alter continues,

The NSA story is an acid test of whether one is a traditional Barry Goldwater conservative, who believes in limited government, or a modern Richard Nixon conservative, who believes in authority. Alito is in the latter category. His judicial opinions suggest a deference to executive power, and he once pioneered presidential “signing statements” that are meant to help judges come down on the president’s side. Just recently, Bush attached such a statement to John McCain’s bill banning torture in which the president reserved the right to ignore the law if he wants to.

Alito embodies the inherent contradiction of the conservative movement. The nominee is an “originalist,” which means, as he said last week, that “we should look to the meaning that someone would have taken from the text of the Constitution at the time of its adoption.” But at that time, the 18th century, the Founders could not have been clearer about the role of Congress in wartime. As James Madison put it, “In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war and peace to the legislative and not to the executive branch.”

No honest reading of the writings of the Founding Fathers, in or out of the Constitution, justifies Bush’s wartime ‘inherent authority” theory. The fact that so many “conservatives” accept this theory even as they babble about “strict construction” of the Constitution is proof that they’ve gone off the deep end, the charts, the scale, and any other measure of rational thought. The Right has become a virtual mob.

As John McGowan wrote here, “To pay the law heed is to accept that one’s own virtue is doubtful.” The ideologue who has no doubts he is right also has no qualms about setting the law aside when it gets in his way. But the person who would do such a thing is the same one whose judgment is too skewed to be trusted to do it — like J. Edgar Hoover.

Update: See Glenn Greenwald, “Bush followers are not conservatives.”