A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2011
Official photo of Congresswoman Michele Bachma...

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Having been delayed by start of the semester preparations, I only just got around to seeing the cover of Newsweek. I had heard about the Bachmann controversy, but hearing about it and seeing the horrible cover in person are two different things.

The intentional use of unflattering images is, of course nothing new. Using such an image is a standard rhetorical device and can be somewhat effective in slanting the audience’s perspective. As with all rhetorical devices, a critical thinker will be on guard against it and (hopefully) see through the rhetoric so as to determine if anything substantive lies behind it. To use this specific example, one way to approach this cover is as follows: “wow, what a horrible picture of Bachmann. Newsweek claims she is the queen of rage, but do they provide any actual evidence for this claim? Also, is that something that should worry me?”

In addition to the critical thinking aspect, there is also the ethical aspect regard such images. Such photos are easy enough to find-after all, no matter how attractive or intelligent a person might be, there is always some angle, lighting or momentary expression that will enable a really awful photo. Of course, better photos are also easy to find and, as most folks know, a professional photographer can make almost anyone look good (or at least okay).

As such, there is typically a choice to be made when it comes to images: a good one, a bad one, and so on. In some cases, a bad image can be justified. Obviously, if that is the only available photo, then it would thus be generally acceptable to use it. It can also be justified in cases when the image is relevant to the story. For example, if someone is arrested a photo of that event, even if the person looks awful, would seem to be acceptable. After all, a photo of someone being arrested seems perfectly appropriate for a story about the person being arrested. However, neither of these apply to the Bachmann photo. First, there are plenty of good photos of her that could have been used. Second, while a picture of her being angry could be relevant, the photo selected does not show rage. It is a bad photo that makes her seem, well, dull and a bit confused. About the only thing that can be said in Newsweek’s favor is at least they did not modify the image to make it appear worse (like what Time did to OJ Simpson).

As sort of a variant on the philosophical principle of charity, news publications should follow a principle of image charity: unless there is an adequate justification for a bad image, then at least a neutral one should be used. As such, Newsweek acted incorrectly in using this image.

Another possibility worth considering is that a bad image is used because the person selecting the image is lacking in aesthetic judgment. That is, they do not realize that they have picked a crappy picture. This does happen. Years ago when I tried my hand at Match.com I noticed that many women would have some very good photos and also some truly horrible photos that made them look awful. While I could be wrong, I infer that they did not realize that the photos were bad-if they did, they would not have used them.

Of course, the folks at Newsweek cannot seriously claim that they are incompetent when it comes to picking photos. Surely they were quite aware of the nature of the image and went with it anyway. The most plausible explanation is that it was intended (as noted above) a rhetorical shot at Bachmann to make her look bad. While this sort of thing is what can be expected in campaign ads, it is not what should be done by a publication that purports to be an objective purveyor of the news or a provider of objective and fair analysis.

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30 Responses

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  1. FRE said, on August 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    I looked at the Newsweek photo and didn’t think that it looked all that bad.

    • dhammett said, on August 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      One man’s meat . . .

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm

      Its is not horrific, but it is definitely not a good photo. Interestingly, this probably helped her a bit-it can be taken as evidence that the “lame stream” media is out to get her. Which is probably true enough.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Newsweek is circling the bowl…trying desperately to be relevant…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm

      They have been trying to change their mission, but I suspect that they are becoming less relevant each day.

  3. WTP said, on August 12, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    I don’t see what’s the big deal with the picture. What little I’ve read of the story line was ridiculous, but given Newsweek and given who Bachmann is, nothing surprising there. Newsweek has done far worse. This smells more like a desperate attempt to attract attention. Be just marginally annoying enough to get the right stirred up but still safe enough to provide themselves cover. Without Newsweek, I wonder what George Will will do for relevance. Perhaps Mother Jones could use an anchor.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on August 12, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    Good post. La trahison des images . . . you are surly correct that a news mag such as Newsweek can’t claim incompetence. Being an attractive, middle aged woman who is a Tea Party leader means the media must bring her down. She is being attacked about books she read and recommended years ago. Jeez, I don’t agree with lots of books I read but I recommend people read them. The media, however wishes to point out that these are radical extremist Christian book. But they’re not as radical as the ones I have read. She is pro-Israel–as they all are–which I cannot tolerate, which is too bad. I would rather look at her than an old white man, which is what we usually get for prez.

  5. magus71 said, on August 13, 2011 at 4:24 am

    Look at the covers of Star magazine or the National Enquirer. They deliberately find the worst photos of people. This is the level to which Newsweek has sunk. But it’s not only Newsweek. I have a tough time with any media now.

    Fortunately, my media expose is smaller than it was two years ago and I feel better for it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm

      Times was also notable in its modified image of OJ. While the editors must assume it helps sales (maybe it does), it seems to be a poor practice from the standpoint of journalistic integrity.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on August 13, 2011 at 10:13 am

    It could have been worse. They could have used this pic:


  7. chamblee54 said, on August 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Here is a video about the newsweek photoshoot…. http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/360abd38db/behind-the-scenes-of-michele-bachmann-s-newsweek-cover
    This is going to be fun.


    • T. J. Babson said, on August 13, 2011 at 11:10 pm

      Positive proof that any intellectual pretensions the Left has are totally bogus…

      • FRE said, on August 13, 2011 at 11:53 pm

        Are you assuming that everyone on the left is the same?

        Is it impossible that a few people on the left are legitimate intellectuals?

        • T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2011 at 6:29 am

          FRE, just arguing that the intellectual arrogance emanating from the Left is unwarranted.

          • dhammett said, on August 14, 2011 at 8:57 am

            Based on a photo of painted toenails. C’mon TJB!
            Seems you’re making Much Ado About Nail Polish.
            I’m a toe man. She gets my vote.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2011 at 9:14 am

              Universe in a grain of sand? Or is a toenail sometimes just a toenail?

            • dhammett said, on August 14, 2011 at 10:14 am

              Just a toenail. Hardly a suitable jumping-off point for using the view of a former log cabin conservative to attack what you assume are the “intellectual pretensions” of the Left.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2011 at 10:33 am

              “…view of a former log cabin conservative..”

              And Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat, but so what? The question is whether Sullivan’s fascination with Sarah Palin’s toenails is emblematic of the Left, and I think it very well may be.

            • dhammett said, on August 14, 2011 at 11:06 am

              Sullivan’s been a Palin-hater for some time now—long before the toenail photo. Maybe he hates her for her “non-intellectual” pretensions. I wouldn’t pretend to know. You’re welcome to your universe of sand. In this instance I’ll choose a world where a toenail is a toenail.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm

          Not at all. Nor on the right.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2011 at 5:59 pm

        Witness the high intellectual tone set by Paul Begala. Right up there with “toenails” Sullivan.

        Rick Perry’s Ruthless Drive to Win
        Rick Perry has called Social Security unconstitutional and presided over the execution of a man who was probably innocent. But as Paul Begala argues, that’s just the beginning.
        by Paul Begala | August 13, 2011 11:51 AM EDT

        I first met Rick Perry in 1985. He was a Democratic freshman state rep, straight off the ranch in Haskell, Texas. He wore his jeans so tight, and, umm, adjusted himself so often that my fellow young legislative aides and I used to call him Crotch. Even among state representatives, even among Texas Aggies (graduates of this cute remedial school we have in Texas), Perry stood out for his modest intellectual gifts. Hell, he got a C in animal breeding. I have goats who got an A in that subject. But lack of brains has never been a hindrance in politics.

        Mitt Romney should be shaking in his Guccis.

        Rick Perry threw his hair in the ring on Saturday. His entrance into the GOP presidential field can be a game changer. Perry can raise money as well as Mitt. He can rally the base as well as Michele Bachmann, and he will say or do anything—annnnnnnyyyyyyything—to win. And in today’s Republican Party, if you want to be the nominee you have to be willing to do some really crazy s–t.


  8. T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Stop the presses. Sarah Palin got in a minivan. You can’t make this stuff up.

    • dhammett said, on August 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      Fortunately conservatives have no intellectual pretensions. . . . . . .That might explain how they can launch an attack against something less concrete than painted toenails or getting into a minivan. With great, inaccurate specificity they can snipe at something that hasn’t even happened yet..Remember this classic?

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2011 at 9:50 pm

        Can you blame them after seeing this video? Look at the glazed look in the girl’s eye…

        • dhammett said, on August 14, 2011 at 10:19 pm

          Here’s a group of somewhat older, and supposedly wiser (though they’ve got no intellectual pretensions, since they’re conservatives) McCain supporters during an ’08 gathering.

          It’s like a Leno Jaywalking segment. Only sadder.

    • WTP said, on August 14, 2011 at 8:49 pm

      TJ, do you smell what I smell?

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 15, 2011 at 7:20 am

      Pot, meet kettle. Except in this case the craziness reaches into the Vice President’s office.

  9. magus71 said, on August 15, 2011 at 7:17 am

    Why confuse intellectualism with intelligence?

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