Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Message is in the Eye of the Beholder, er, Photo Editor.

Does the New York Times see McCain and Obama as in step with one another?

"Day of Chaos Grips Washington; Fate of Bailout Plan Unresolved," reads the headline, and just below it are two nearly analogous portraits: one of Barack Obama, the second of John McCain. Caught mid-stride, left leg forward and right arm extended in step, both men look, at least at first glance, like superheroes off to free Washington from the "grips of chaos."

While at first glance, it seems a funny coincidence to have caught the two candidates in a parallel moment, a closer look may reveal something more. The two photos look very similar, sure, but do they read equally?  Could this editorial choice, made by the New York Times, speak to a larger bias?

These shots were candid, but have since been placed carefully into a context. Presumably back in Washington, preparing to determine the "fate" of the bailout plan, the stage is the same. Upon a closer look, the scenes, however, play out very differently once the details are teased out into larger ideological tropes.

Obama, protector of Main Street USA, is caught walking down the street on a sidewalk not unlike that of any American town. The only onlooker is a woman with a red and blue umbrella--no cameras are in site--and it's unclear if the man behind him is a security guard or just a guy headed to work on a rainy Friday. 

McCain, on the other hand, is caught walking through what looks like a grandiose government hall, complete marble floors and gold-framed paintings. This is not the same hall your average American passes through daily. Over McCain’s shoulder are men with name tags and cameras (one man appears to be using a camera phone). They read like members of an exclusive club; McCain, the object of their interest. While Obama’s possible protector wears a standard trench coat, McCain is separated from the onlookers by a hulking police officer, uniform on and gun visible.

Moreover, Obama is shown carrying a newspaper—a prop for the intellectually elite. Meanwhile, McCain, carries only a tissue, adding timber to an already burning fire.

It’s visually catching to watch the two men walk in step, but I am not sure the photos truly portray Obama and McCain walking in unison towards a bipartisan agreement.  Of all the photos snapped, it was these two that were carefully chosen by the New York Times to coincide with an alarming headline last Friday. Sure the shots might have been candid, but the Time’s use of them is, without doubt, not so.  They might look the same, but they are certainly not equal.  

Edit: I stumbled across this on New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones' personal blog.  Posted on September 26, regarding, I assume, the front page of the Times:
"Obama is a stronger candidate.  Look at the pictures in paper.  He is walking outside without an umbrella.  McCain is lazy.  He is just walking indoors."


Will Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Marshall said...

I think both Obama and McCain squandered a real opportunity to show some leadership during this bailout negotiation. At the debate, they agreed on the need for a bailout and both agreed that "Main street" needed to be taken care of. They also both kept a low profile during the deliberations. You say they're not "the same" like the photo suggests, but you say how they're different. The fringe members of both parties have very different ideas about this bailout and I found their reaction underwhelmingly centrist. They're going with the flow, not leading.

Will Marshall said...

I mean you *don't* say how they're different.

M. Dery said...

Why was the post removed? Inquiring minds want to know. If you're going to expunge a post, best to say why, I think; otherwise, reader raises a skeptical eyebrow. Fascinating analysis of visual, rather than literal meaning. But you never tell us exactly what subtext the Times's choice of photos implies. That Obama is an intellectual (as you argue his newspaper implies) and that McCain has one foot in the grave? How, semiotically, does a tissue imply that McCain is about to shuffle off this mortal coil? More random, hit-and-run thoughts: wry use of ironic link ("like superheroes off to free Washington from the 'grips of chaos.'). Your close reading of the backdrops for each candidate, and of the conceptual clash between the images and the headline, is really intriguing. But your assertion that that the Times's bias is incontrovertible---that the candidates are "not equal"---isn't adequately evidenced, I think, but what is a compelling but ultimately not totally convincing exercise in semiotic analysis. Nonetheless, a great read.