Politics and the Media   /   Summer 2008   /    Articles

Photo-Op Politics

Kiku Adatto

In the fall of 2005, President George W. Bush went to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao11xThis essay is drawn from Kiku Adatto, Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).. On November 21st, the New York Times reported the story on the front page, noting in the lead paragraph:

In a day of polite but tense encounters, President Hu Jintao of China told President Bush on Sunday that he was willing to move more quickly to ease economic differences with the United States, but he gave no ground on increasing political freedoms.22xDavid E. Sanger and Joseph Kahn, “Chinese Leader Gives Bush a Mixed Message,” The New York Times(21 November 2005).

The article proceeded with the usual thoroughness and gravity. The accompanying pictures were a different story. Four large color pictures of Bush stretched like a cartoon panel down the front page and below the fold. The first picture shows Bush walking towards a door in a formal meeting hall with bright red panels, the second catches Bush with a goofy expression on his face as he clutches a large brass door handle, the third shows Bush looking across the room as an aide gestures towards the proper exit, and the last shows Bush waving as he begins his exit. The caption reads, “After meeting with reporters in Beijing, Mr. Bush tried to exit through a locked door. Realizing the mistake, he made a mock grimace, and an aide pointed the way. He joked: ‘I was trying to escape. It didn’t work.’”

Why were these pictures in the paper? And why do similar photos appear with growing frequency in the Times and other newspapers, and on multiple internet sites? The answer has less to do with any overall policy or political bias on the part of the media than with a larger cultural trend. One side of photo-op coverage features how public figures set up their “perfect pictures.” The Times’s front-page coverage of Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished Moment” announcing victory in Iraq, “Keepers of Bush Image Lift Stagecraft to New Heights,” falls into that category. Another side of photo-op coverage is to elevate minor mishaps (gaffes, spills, squealing microphones, or backstage behavior), putting on make-up, combing one’s hair, or choosing a jacket and tie into front-page news.

The magnification of politicians’ mishaps or the construction of “failed photo-ops” reflects a kind of guerrilla warfare between the media and politicians, an attempt to resist manipulation by puncturing the images the politicians and their media teams dispense. The more the politicians seek to control their images, the greater the tempta- tion among reporters and photographers to beat them at their own game, to deflate their media events by magnifying a minor mishap into a central feature of the event itself.

One gets a glimpse into how the press rationalizes what they do by looking at the way the public edi- tor of the New York Times, Byron Calame, responded to readers’ criticism of the photos of Bush in Beijing about two weeks after they appeared. Calame noted that “Mr. Bush gets his fair share of serious, staged appearances on Page 1,” and quotes Times editor Martin Gottlieb’s rationale for running the Bush pictures as “a choice between a photo-op [a picture of Mr. Bush riding a bicycle with a group of Chinese riders] or a picture of something that happened spontaneously.” Bill Keller, the Times executive editor, thought the locked-door photos of Bush were “amusing,” “depicted a real event,” and would “draw people into the paper.”33xByron Calame, “When the Newspaper Is the News,” The New York Times (4 December 2005).

We can see the Times editors straining to find news value in the pictures, rationalizing that it was “spontaneous” and “a real event,” when in fact it was a scrimmage in the battle between the press and politicians for control of the picture. Making bloopers and minor gaffes big news is an alluring, often irresistible ploy, even if it means a departure from standard news values. Readers, used to watching baseball bloopers or outtakes of their favorite stars goofing up scenes during the final film credits, laughed or were outraged, depending on how they felt about Bush

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