Photo Op
June 2003

by Ron Steinman

C'mon. Let's get real. What editor exists in television or print, who does not love a photo op, especially when it comes from the White House, whoever is sitting there. There is not a picture editor or a news producer alive who will not use a staged event, mainly from this White House, when the set is perfect, the lighting perfect, the event, well, not so perfect, or to everyone's liking, but there for everyone to use. Whoever does the staging hopes mightily it will appear as the lead and not buried where no one will see it. When they get their wish, which is often, high fives all around until their palms hurt and Champagne corks pop.

Another way to look at the photo op is this, though with jaundice from personal experience. The photo op brings out the best that daily journalism has to offer. It makes everything worthwhile. Competition kicks in. Juices flow. Saliva bubbles. Front-page stuff emerges. The lead story on the evening news is there for all to pontificate about. The day just got easier for every editor in the land, in other lands, in the solar system. However, there was no enterprise. There was no journalism. The story came easy because someone handed it to the journalist and all he had to do was add icing to a already sweetened cake. Dinner and a few drinks follow the event. The day ends in harmony. No one but the event maker really benefits because he was the most successful. It is exactly what he wanted. The journalist who covers the story sleepwalks to his next assignment, probably content, but not necessarily, because he knows better. America watches the staged event and reads about it, but comes away with little understanding of what it means. The event wins and we the poorer for it.

Recently talk among insiders became heated when Mr. Bush decked out in a flight suit that looked custom made, with no one doubting its custom fit, landed on the aircraft carrier, USS Lincoln to deliver a major address to the nation. Many thought it wonderful. Some found that White House display and the use of the office less than pleasing and manipulative beyond their imagination. Do we forget so easily the many staged events that have become icons? JFK at the Berlin Wall. Ronald Reagan at the Statue of Liberty. Name your favorites. News or not, and some made news, the pictures were great. They titillated the audience for the thrill they brought home from afar, even if they added almost nothing to our understanding of what they were supposed to convey.

We are all complicit for accepting planned and staged events. I was when I had shows to put on. I went with the flow. I am as guilty as was any other editor at any time. Sure, I loved a good photo op. Some were better than others were. Many never worked. Without them, the news at times would be dull. What would we have to fill all that time and space?

Now that you asked, I will tell you. Cover fires, wars, revolutions, people being caught doing something dumb, people applauded for something smart. Cover car accidents and explosions. Cover terrorism and the war on crime. Cover the fool and the wise person. Cover aftermath of every kind. Keep away from all photo ops even if they do often provide the picture of the day, unless it is your assignment and is necessary for work. If you must be at a major photo op cover for a possible disaster and if nothing happens to warrant it making news, pray the editor will relegate it to a back page or the end of the news show. I wish I had done that more often, though I believe it would have changed nothing.

That one picture of that one president striding resolutely down the deck of a carrier returning from the war against Iraq was hard to prevent being the lead story in a broadcast or on the front page of newspapers. Sure, George W Bush is president and we must cover every move he makes. We should not pander to his current popularity or his position. I resent the manipulation because it originates with insiders who are refugees from broadcasting and should know better. Then again, selling out to the highest bidder has little to do with integrity and respect for your heritage. Those men and women, the current crop of White House image-makers, are betraying the trust and honesty once the cornerstone of their profession. I know they do not care; otherwise, they would be doing something more meaningful with their lives than shilling for a politician.

However, at the end of May, President and Mrs. Bush had a tour of Auschwitz before going to an important summit meeting. The expression on their faces in seeing the horror of that Nazi death camp, specifically the piles of discarded baby shoes (not in the photo) was priceless, well worth the price of admission into an otherwise carefully protected person and his wife. The moral of this story is despite my opposition, even photo ops can and do provide the unexpected and when out there covering them, never let your guard down.

© Ron Steinman

Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War


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