Rushing to judgement

Last week David Frum, senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, political columnist, and former White House speechwriter, accused the New York Times of using staged photographs to illustrate a news report from Gaza. On eight occasions, Frum’s Twitter account criticized the Times’ “faked” photographs and even suggested that Reuters and the Associated Press were in on the deception. When this theory was comprehensively debunked by Michael Shaw, publisher of a website that specializes in analysing news photographs, Frum retracted his claims on the Altantic’s website, saying that “the images [of two grieving Palestinians] do appear authentic.” He also apologized to the photographer Sergey Ponomarev “whose work I impugned.”

Not content to climb down gracefully, however, Frum used his apology to mention “the long history in the region of the use of fake or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda” and he provided a link to a site that offered evidence for this claim. This site, too, was quickly shown to be a highly dubious source. Reviewing the “non-apology” for Gawker, Adam Weinstein witheringly noted Frum’s “unapologetic impulse to re-order facts in accordance with his ideological commitments … when mainstream facts flat-out contradict his intuitions.” Michael Shaw also noted that Frum “didn’t acknowledge or extend an apology to the two Palestinian brothers whose integrity was impugned.”

Elsewhere, media watchers noticed that several celebrities who had tweeted support of Gaza quickly retracted their messages, mindful perhaps of the complications that controversial attitudes might pose to their careers. One notable exception was the English cricketer Moeen Ali, a British Muslim who sports an unashamedly thick beard and has helped to raise funds for relief work in Gaza. Ali continued to wear “Save Gaza” wristbands while playing Test cricket, even after being advised by the match referee that this contravened the ICC’s rule against “messages which relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes.” The English Cricket Board said that Ali had not sought permission from the team’s management, but it also argued that the messages were humanitarian rather than political. These relatively minor and unrelated responses to the war in Gaza give some sense of how hard it has become for the general public to make sense of distant crises in a highly mediated world. Overwhelmed by distressing images, we inevitably rely on a few well-informed people to shape our opinions. While we may not expect them to get every analysis right, we do expect them to act in good faith. Frum’s response to the Times coverage says a great deal about his underlying attitudes towards Palestinians, as does his reference to the “long history” of other deceptions. His non-apology is galling precisely because a seasoned political operative and media pundit ought to know how easy it is to make mistakes when trying to analyze complex events. Despite authoring the phrase “Axis of Evil” for George W Bush, Frum is a moderate Republican who often questions his party’s received wisdom on matters closer to home. Not long ago, for example, he wrote a telling critique of the idea that guns make people safer, concluding that “[w]hen gun advocates claim that guns protect people, they omit to say that guns protect people in situations that would not have been dangerous in the first place if the guns had been left at home.”

Of course there are many other recent cases, on both sides of the political spectrum, of how photographic evidence can provoke rushed judgements, or serve political agendas. Each failure of interpretation should make us more wary of future responses to disturbing images, but the lesson seems to be easily forgotten. Earlier this week 50,000 horrifying photographs smuggled out of Syria by a former military-police photographer appeared to substantiate allegations of war crimes by President Bashar al-Assad. The photographs will undoubtedly sway US public opinion closer towards taking direct military action against Assad, but they will do nothing to improve the public’s understanding of the dangerous entanglements such a military response would entail. Here, again, an adequate responses to the situation cannot be reduced to Twitter- or wristband-length messages or slogans.

Cases like these illustrate the wisdom of a saying variously attributed to the poet Louis Zukofsky, the composer Roger Sessions and Albert Einstein, that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

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