Photojournalism Ethics: The Faces Of Hillary

Clinton fair

Long ago, a Pennsylvania governor named William Scranton ran for the Republican nomination. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, but he was given to extreme facial expressions, the most grotesque or silly of which always seemed to be captured by photographers and put on front pages. I was a kid, but just reading my dad’s Time Magazines was sufficient to make me feel sorry for Scranton. The photos made him look like lunatic or a drunk. Yet on TV there was nothing unusual about Bill Scranton at all. He had an expressive face, and a fleeting look that might pass his countenance in a nanosecond, barely visible to observers, could make him appear frightening or ridiculous when captured and frozen in time. I wondered then why editors chose and published such misleading and unflattering photographs.

Now I know. They do it because they can, and because they are mean and irresponsible.

As a victim of this tactic, Scranton got off easy compared to Hillary Clinton. Camera technology now permits even more fleeting expressions to be captured, and while the largely Clinton-protecting newspapers shy away from unflattering Clinton photographs, the web is teeming with them. Like Scranton, Hillary has a very expressive face, and one that has become more expressive with age. Unfortunately, this means that she has left a damaging trail of photos of her split-second facial reactions that make her look crazy, sinister, or ridiculous. Matt Drudge, in particular, revels in them. Yes, I have used them myself; like Clinton or not, they are almost irresistible. I’m not proud of it. I’m not doing it any more.

I have concluded, belatedly, that using these misleading and unflattering photos of Mrs. Clinton is very unfair, and the visual equivalent of an ad hominem attack. I know all the rationalizations: The camera doesn’t lie (but we know it does), the camera captures the soul (suuure it does), it’s a joke, and she can take it ( a double rationalization there); everybody does it.

None of them are persuasive. Doing this to anyone, celebrity or not, funny or not, is cruel and  unfair; I think most people know it’s cruel and unfair.

It is also conduct that violates the Golden Rule. Your host knows this as well as anyone: I’m not hideous in real life,  but photos of me often make me looks deranged or worse. Like these, for example:

Ugly Jack 1

(It’s too bad the middle one is so wandering left eye in that photo is especially impressive…)

Just so there’s no confusion about the kind of Hillary Clinton photographs it is mean-spirited and unfair to use, what follows are some of the worst. None of them are an accurate depiction of Clinton’s demeanor, face OR soul. If Clinton actually looked like any of them except for mere seconds, they wouldn’t be unethical to use, but she doesn’t. The only reason to use them is to mock and denigrate her, not merely based on her appearance, which is itself unethical, but based on a false representation of her appearance.

I’m sure you’ve seen many of them before…and don’t ask me what the hell was going on in that last one in the lower right. It appears to be genuine, and Drudge used it yesterday:

crazy hillary

In summation: using such misleading and unflattering photos is no better than name-calling, and in my ethics estimation, worse. Hillary Clinton should be opposed based on what she does and says, not according to how she looks in a split second captured by a a merciless camera lens.

Mean is mean no matter who the victim is. There are plenty of legitimate and substantive ways to attack Hillary. This tactic is lower than low, if tempting and sometimes mordantly amusing.  I apologize for using such photos myself in the past. The ethics alarms just didn’t ring, and they should have.

I’m sorry, Mrs. Clinton. I was wrong.


15 thoughts on “Photojournalism Ethics: The Faces Of Hillary

  1. Thank you! It’s about time you realized how unethical it is to run absurd photos of people. But then, in your apology, you show a half dozen absurd, insulting photos! Shame on you!

    • Bite me. I can’t write about what I’m describing without showing it. Al lof those photos have received wide distribution, and they are a google click away. I also posted my own unflattering photos. Your comment isn’t even competent trolling. I also don’t know what you think an “absurd” photo is. I avoid extremely unflattering photos if I can, even of Donald Trump, who mugs for the camera.

      • While I should have pulled you up for this before, in the scale of things, this piece of unethical behaviour is relatively slight. Still beneath you of course. Your standards for your own behaviour are pretty strict, and an exemplar to me.

        I apologise for not bringing it to your attention earlier. My fault is as great as yours there.

        • Thanks, that’s a kind sentiment. I am at heart and sometimes by trade a humor writer, and the line between using photos for effect and subversive commentary and fair, objective analysis got blurred. I appreciate it when readers kick my ethics alarms when they get rusty or frozen, even though I often don’t sound like it. Having ice water poured on you just isn’t pleasant.

  2. Bravo, Jack. I notice that you also removed the Trump photos that made him look like a caricature of himself, as easy as that might be to do.

  3. Thank you, that was very kind of you. I am always saddened by such photos, no matter who the subject is. Being particularly UN-photogenic myself, I am always empathetic to the victims of “bad photo” publishing.

  4. “:I have concluded, belatedly, that using these misleading and unflattering photos of Mrs. Clinton is very unfair, and the visual equivalent of an ad hominem attack.”

    Does that mean you’ll stop running all less-than-flattering images from here on out, such as the awkward one used to depict the subject of this post

    • Now, you see the difference, Tex. This was a tearful–maybe—apology on the legislature floor, and a performance. It depicts an event and conduct. It’s not a photo chosen because it makes him look funny. That was a photo from an event referenced in the post.

      Not all funny photos of Clinton are inappropriate in context, either, like the famous shrug that accompanied “You mean with a cloth?” I’d use that photo in a story about that exchange. using it as representative of Clinton in another context would be unfair. I’ll use Trump’s handicapped reporter face to illustrate what a boorish asshole he is, but not in a general story about Trump. I don’t think the lines are as blurry as your question implies.

  5. I appreciate that you stand by your words and that you changed your photos of Hillary and Donald on the sides. I wondered if you would do that.

    It’s the little things. Thanks. 🙂

  6. @Jack,

    Where to begin? First, thank you for this blog! You keep me informed on issues the mainstream media neglects. I try to stay abreast of current events, but your blog is invaluable in providing an objective perspective and analysis from an ethical viewpoint.

    Now, we all knew the DNC picked Hillary Clinton years before her nomination. Hillary was slated to be President in 2008, but the DNC decided that they needed to make history with Obama. Completely unqualified! Bernie Sanders refused to go after Hillary Clinton regarding the email scandal. That was a mistake. He refused to attack her character. He still supports Clinton. Consternation?!

    I have to tell you, Jack. This election is akin to choosing between Dante’s Inferno and Hell! I may sit this one out. SIGH!

  7. Jack,
    I commend you for being able to look inward on this topic; well done!

    We just don’t need pettiness in this campaign season regardless of how minor or unintentional it may be; there’s just too much at stake this time around to waste time on such things.

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