In 1996, when U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, was seeking re-election, his media consultant used a doctored photograph in one of the campaign ads.
Warner’s campaign was trying to make the point that his Democratic opponent was too liberal for Virginia but lacked a convenient photograph with which to make that point visually. Instead, the media consultant found a photo of President Clinton with two prominent Virginia Democrats — U.S. Sen. Charles Robb and former Gov. Douglas Wilder.
Using what at the time was some new-fangled technology, the media consultant simply took the head of Warner’s opponent — Mark Warner, later governor and now senator — and put it on Robb’s body. There, for all the world to see, was the senator’s opponent with two politicians who weren’t particularly popular in Virginia at the time.
Problem solved —and problem created.
When news broke that John Warner had used a fake photo in the ad, how did he respond? He fired the media consultant. He ordered the ad withdrawn. And he held news conferences in not one but two different cities to take the blame. “This was a serious, terrible mistake,” Warner said. “I was not responsible in any other way than that I engaged this firm, and for that I take full responsibility.”
Ah, the good old days.
Now contrast 1996 with 2019: The campaign of state Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield County, put out a campaign flyer with a doctored photo and seemed rather proud of it.
The doctored photo takes an image of Gov. Ralph Northam appearing to present Sturtevant’s opponent, Ghazala Hashmi, with some kind of framed photo — but instead of whatever the original photo was, the campaign subbed in the notorious photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook.
The Sturtevant campaign defends the doctoring, saying it is “clearly a lampoon of a nationally known political scandal that highlights my opponent’s contradictory stance of calling for Gov. Northam’s resignation in February and being ‘grateful to have his support’ after accepting a political contribution from his political action committee.”
To our eye, the image clearly isn’t real —and therefore obviously is “clearly a lampoon.” The question, though, is what about people without our trained eye? How many people are gullible enough to believe it’s real? (Both parties would agree there are a lot of gullible voters out there; they’d just disagree as to which ones are being taken in.)
In any event, the point here is not so much this particular ad as some of the larger question it raises: What can we believe anymore?
It used to be that seeing was believing, but in an age where photographic images can be manipulated with remarkable ease, even that standard seems quaint.
The two examples cited above both involve Republicans, but these offenses aren’t confined to one party or even one country.
The most current examples in the U.S. tend to involve doctored photos of Democrats that have made the round of social media — President Trump infamously, and irresponsibly, re-tweeted a doctored video that made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear to be intoxicated. Facebook, just as irresponsibly, refused to take it down. Other notorious doctored images show four liberal Democratic congresswomen — including two Muslims — sitting in front of a photo of Osama bin Laden and an Islamic State flag. In fact, they were sitting in front of a photo of some ordinary American politician — and an otherwise blank wall. Other countries, though, have also seen doctored images. Canada’s Green Party recently altered a photo of its candidate for prime minister — Elizabeth May — to make her look more environmentally sensitive. The real photo showed her holding a disposable paper cup; the unreal photo showed her holding a reusable plastic cup with a metal straw. That’s hardly the most serious of offenses — the party considered it a little white lie. Perhaps a little green lie. But a lie’s still a lie.
Computers have made it oh-so-easy to get away with this sort of thing, but doctored photos are almost as old as photography itself. A famous photo of Abraham Lincoln standing with his hand on a desk is actually Lincoln’s head on the body of John Calhoun (a politician with whom he had very little in common). Another famous photo of Ulysses S. Grant on horseback during the Civil War is actually a composite of three different photos. The Soviets and the Nazis became masters at manipulating photos — sometimes to insert key figures into situations where they weren’t present, sometimes to airbrush them out if they fell out of favor. Fashion photos get “retouched” all the time to make models appear impossibly perfect. In 2017, France — a place that knows its fashion — passed a law requiring that any such photo be labeled “retouched photo.” The news website France24 said the law was an attempt “to restrict fake and unhealthy portrayals of people’s bodies and, by doing so, combat eating disorders.” That’s noble, but politicians aren’t fashion models. A former French cabinet minister was accused this summer of circulating a deceptive photo of himself climbing the Alps. The photo is real— not retouched or doctored — but the angle was changed to make his ascent look more daunting. The giveaway: The rope he was using was at an odd angle, as if gravity no longer applied to him. Oops.
So what can we believe anymore? We’re about to enter a campaign season (of course, it seems like we’re always in a campaign season). Here’s some general advice that works for all parties and all persuasions: If the photo —or, if only text, the claim — seems too good to be true, it probably is. Check it out. And certainly don’t forward it, or you become part of the problem. It’s easy to be taken in.
Back when Barack Obama was president, the satirical website The Onion published an article declaring that polls showed that even the president of Iran was more popular with rural whites than Obama.
Americans of both left and right probably got a chuckle out of that (perhaps more on the right than the left).
Iran’s news agency, though, thought the story was real.
Don’t be like the Iranians. Instead, we should all be more like John Warner in 1996.