Thursday, March 6, 2008

The skin game

WYSIWYG — what you see is what you get. It’s a acronymal coinage common to the Internet age, a shorthand meant to describe, according to Wikipedia, “a user interface that allows the user to view something very similar to the end result while the document or image is being created.”

"What you create is what you see" is a nice idea. But in a visual culture shot through with the impact of Photoshop and Illustrator, visual embellishments on reality are as much the rule as the exception.

The Clinton campaign may be the first in this election year to have turned the WYSIWYG protocol on its head, inviting a building criticism for an attack ad that appears to darken Barack Obama’s skin color, and to obliterate the ethical line for what to now had been a relatively high-minded campaign. For the ad’s critics, cognizant of life in the Photoshop era, what you see isn’t necessarily what there is.

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A posting Tuesday on the site shows side-by-side screen grabs of Obama taken during the one-on-one debate with Clinton in Cleveland last week. The first screen grab showed the (apparently unaltered) network news feed. The second screen grab, used in the Clinton ad, shows a clearly darker-skinned Obama.

For all the obvious reasons, the Clinton people didn’t waste time responding. Spokesman Jay Carson told Fox News he had spoken with the campaign’s ad maven, longtime Democratic Goodwrench Mandy Grunwald, who rejected and denounced the ad on DailyKos as “not their ad.”

“We don’t know what is up there, but it is not our ad,” Carson said.

The Clinton ad, released in Texas on Monday, the day before that state’s primary, alleged that Obama was “too busy to hold even ONE hearing on Afghanistan” in his role as a chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a panel tasked with oversight of Afghanistan.

Carson told Fox that Obama’s image was darkened as part of a “saturation-desaturation” process that is used in commercial production. Carson, Fox reported, “sent in an example of a Clinton ad featuring the candidate and the original footage of Clinton delivering the campaign speech used in the ad. He said both candidates have done it in their ads, and that there was no ulterior motive behind doing so in the campaign’s most recent ad.”

But one posting on the DailyKos site said that while darkening footage may be SOP for political ads trying to “cast the target as sinister,” it is “not an acceptable excuse.”

“Even if you accept that as normal practice, it’s still a dirty one, and it takes on a more charged meaning when you’re using it to attack someone in your own party who’s already fighting against a lot of racism in the false Muslim smears,” the poster said. “This is, at best, the worst of politics as usual.”

As you might expect, there’s already been comparison of this fiascette to Matt Mahurin’s controversial 1994 Time magazine cover-image “photo-illustration” of O.J. Simpson after his arrest on murder charges. The LAPD mug shot of Simpson was provocatively darkened in a way that took unusual license with the truth.

Some in the blogosphere have called this Obama image flap much ado about something done every day. There are, bloggers noted, an abundance of techniques that let photo and video editors tweak images endlessly, toying with reality in ways we often don’t even realize.

And blogger Swan noted something on DailyKos that all channel-flippers watching the same event on different stations know is true: “Different cameras always have different angles, different lighting. If you watch a live event on CNN it always looks a little different if you flip channels to MSNBC for example.” That's even true for events covered with pool cameras, like presidential addresses. The color saturation and tones will be different from one to the next.

But another blogger at DailyKos — one apparently with experience in color correction technology — says flat out that it’s a manipulation, and says so in great detail.

Look at Obama’s image in the Hillary Clinton campaign ad:

Now peep Obama’s image from the direct MSNBC feed:

Even allowing for a sometimes less-than-ideal video reproduction, there's a difference not just in color but in the width of Obama’s face — the Clinton ad's is noticeably more horizontal than in the MSNBC feed’s image.

This issue would be concerning enough, and maybe easier to dismiss, if that was the only thing to arouse suspicions of below-the-belt strategy going on.

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James Oliphant, of the Chicago Tribune, relates how a Clinton cold-caller on Monday — the day before the Ohio primary — had an oops moment that may say something about how Clinton won in Ohio, and possibly about how she plans to win from here on. Oliphant, writing in the Tribune’s politics blog The Swamp, reports on the Clinton caller making one of those pesky little mispronunciations of Obama’s name. Confusing it with … well, you can guess who.

It all makes you wonder. You want to believe Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be so precipitantly desperate as to reach into that well of human fear and political history — Republican political history — to find a way to win. You hope against hope that Clinton’s not that much a student of Machiavelli.

But then you consider what’s at stake.

Hillary Clinton, despite the “triumphs” in Ohio and Texas, hasn’t gained much ground in the delegate count — the coin of the realm for this part of the election cycle. Her strategy, which may have led to her campaign using a digitized race card and playing games with names, at least suggests a mounting desperation that can’t conceal a lack of preparation.

Lisa Van Dusen of the Edmonton Sun may have called it right: “Mrs. Clinton has looked more like Wile E. Coyote trying to outwit the Roadrunner with yet another Acme just-add-water contraption than the hare sleeping on the roadside as the tortoise coasts by.

“In a different world, Hillary Clinton would have been the renegade, the change agent and the historic first. In this world, Obama decided to run for president this time. That she didn't see him coming may say more about her judgment, her experience and who she is than just about anything else she's ever done.”
Image credits: Obama: U.S. Senate (public domain). O.J. Simpson: © 1994 Time Magazine. Wile E. Coyote: © Warner Bros.


  1. The Love Collective3/07/2008 6:16 AM

    It's a shame and a sham, but why aren't we surprised? To think that they would "darken" Obama in the ad is a clear-cut attempt to scare white people away, his surging fan base.

  2. Color and Gender should have no baring on the election. I will be voting for McCain because of my beliefs on abortion and the importance of national security.
    Grace and Peace,

  3. Excellent post. Really enjoyed your take on this.


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