Secret Service controls journalists’ access to US presidential campaign

Secret Service look on as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall at the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thurs., Feb. 4, 2016.  - M. Scott Brauer
Secret Service look on as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall at the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thurs., Feb. 4, 2016. – M. Scott Brauer

The US Secret Service has taken an increased role in controlling access and behavior to political events where they operate, and that is raising concerns about journalists’ access and ability to cover the current US presidential election process. For the first time, the Secret Service now has authority over which journalists are issued credentials for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

This article on the Dissent NewsWire published by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee offers a good summary of the issues at hand. First, journalists must have applied for credentials through the Congressional Press Galleries (the deadline was in April). After that application is approved, the process is handed over to the Secret Service to run background checks, though the actual background checks will be handled by a third-party private company called Ardian Group. The same company handled background checks for press covering the Pope’s 2015 visit to the United States.

Writing to media colleagues (parts of which were published by Politico and the Daily Beast) BuzzFeed’s Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton detailed his concerns about the Secret Service’s new role in vetting journalists. “It seems like an unnecessary step and it gives them in my mind a new and troubling precedence to try and exert authority over the press corps,” Stanton wrote. Because the process lacks any transparency, he wonders what might disqualify a reporter from being able to cover the Conventions. Would Christopher Morris be refused access because of his well-documented assault by a Secret Service agent and subsequent removal from a Trump event? What about reporters who’ve been arrested during the process of their reporting? “[T]he Secret Service told POLITICO that such an arrest would not warrant a denial. Instead, they said they were looking for such things as aggravated assault or domestic violence charges — even multiple DUIs wouldn’t necessarily warrant a denial, they said.”

But right now, there is no way to know what will result in a denial of credentials, and as far as I can tell, there is no appeals process for a denied credential. “The Secret Service has refused to explain what past activities would prevent a journalist from obtaining clearance, and there is no viable appeals process. So a reporter may be denied the ability to cover the convention based on incorrect information, or political motivation,” writes Sue Udry for the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

“As we understand it, this intrusive vetting process will not be imposed on delegates, alternates and invited guests to the conventions—all of whom will be accessing the same areas in the convention hall as the news media,” BuzzFeed’s Stanton wrote (excerpted at the Daily Beast), “We find it perplexing that subjecting only the news media to a higher level of scrutiny would ensure a secure convention, while thousands of other attendees go unchecked and unverified.”

Screenshot of US Secret Service FAQ page with information about background checks and security for so-called National Special Security Events. - screenshot taken 25 May 2016 -
Screenshot of US Secret Service FAQ page with information about background checks and security for so-called National Special Security Events. – screenshot taken 25 May 2016 –

The Secret Service’s authority to do this stems from a 2012 change to US Criminal Code, 18 US Code § 3056 (e) (1), which reads, “When directed by the President, the United States Secret Service is authorized to participate, under the direction of the Secretary of Homeland Security, in the planning, coordination, and implementation of security operations at special events of national significance, as determined by the President,” and Presidential Decision Directive 22, a secret directive issued by President Obama in 2013. Obama’s administration does not have a great track record for ease of press access.

I’m going through the screening process right now, so this is an issue close to me. I ran into issues with the Secret Service a couple of times while covering the New Hampshire primary for my project, This is the worst party I’ve ever been to. Before one Clinton event, a Secret Service officer dropped my flash. At a couple of Trump events, Secret Service officers prevented the press from getting close to the stage, despite promises from the campaign that we would have an opportunity to do so. At one event, members of the press couldn’t go to the bathroom without an escort. At another, a CNN reporter was threatened with being blacklisted from covering future events if he left the designated press area. At a Ben Carson event, Secret Service first denied me access to the event (their information about access times was different from what the campaign press liaison had sent via email) and then told me I couldn’t move around a room where members of the public were allowed to move around without restriction; at that event, the Carson press liaison said she had no problem with me being there or moving around the room, and didn’t know why the Secret Service was being so restrictive.

As it stands, it’s getting more difficult to cover politics, and that’s troubling.

Re-examing Steve McCurry’s iconic imagery: an unphotoshopped image can still deceive


Steve McCurry has been in the news lately, and not for good reasons. The latest hubbub really got going when Italian blogger Paolo Viglione posted a manipulated photo he saw at a retrospective exhibition, Steve McCurry’s World, in La Venaria Reale, one of 13 currently touring McCurry exhibitions. The image appears to have a poorly-done clone stamp applied to a lightpole and person in the background. On May 6, PetaPixel posted about this image and two other images that people posted about on facebook. PetaPixel’s post, which notes that altered images have been removed from McCurry’s own site and the Magnum archive, also includes an unsatisfying response from McCurry himself, excerpted below:

Today I would define my work as visual storytelling, because the pictures have been shot in many places, for many reasons, and in many situations… I try to be as involved as much as I can in reviewing and supervising the printing of my work, but many times the prints are printed and shipped when I am away. That is what happened in this case. It goes without saying that what happened with this image was a mistake for which I have to take responsibility. I have taken steps to change procedures at my studio which will prevent something like this from happening again. Steve McCurry, speaking to PetaPixel

Looking at the images, it seems to be a clear case of image manipulation, the sort of which plagues World Press Photo each year. Material portions have been removed from images. American photojournalists should recognize this as a clear violation of the NPPA Code of Ethics, specifically point 6: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context.” It’s a serious charge and one that often results in the end of a photographer’s career. It’s also just disappointing to see McCurry, who has inspired and influenced so many serious photojournalists, involved in something so small and petty as photoshop manipulation. But these sorts of accusations and discussions really miss the point.

GIF comparison of two versions of Steve McCurry image - one with two people removed from the background
GIF comparison of two versions of Steve McCurry image – one with two people removed from the background

Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael, writing on Time’s Lightbox site, delves a little deeper into the issues one should worry about regarding deception in photography. When talking about photojournalism (and journalism, generally), people tend to speak about “truth” and “objectivity.” Digital manipulation is a concern (though van Agtmael doesn’t think it’s a big worry, at least in this case), but trying to hold up a photo or body of work as a representation of truth or as an objective examination of a subject is a fool’s errand. A photographer’s conscious and unconscious biases are indivisible from the work they produce. A middle-aged, upper-class American white male’s photographs of India will necessarily be different from a young Indian woman’s photos of the same subject. The two photographers are operating from a different perspective and will choose different things to show in different ways. Van Agtmael writes, “We shouldn’t mistake something factual for something truthful, and we should always question which facts are employed, and how…. To capture something happening in a pinprick of time is inherently a limited means of understanding. Factor in history of representation, complex racial and identity politics, and the demographic breakdown of many World Press winners (white, western males, or those working for organizations dominated by them), and you end up with a very imperfect rendering of the world.” Van Agtmael has also responded to criticism of his piece on a public Facebook post by Time editor Olivier Laurent (embedded below):

I disagree with van Agtmael’s dismissal of the digital manipulation recently uncovered in McCurry’s work. McCurry’s work isn’t presented as digital illustrations, but rather to show something akin to “This is what the world looks like.” When he (or his employees) remove people from a photo, the photo is no longer connected to reality. This is clearly deception. The rest of van Agtmael’s argument is sound, though. It’s an extension of Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s incisive piece on Lightbox, How a lack of representation is hurting photojournalism. And it’s also worth revisiting Donald Weber’s great piece following the 2015 World Press Photo staging scandal: The Rules of Photojournalism Are Keeping Us From the Truth: Notes on a frozen art form from a World Press Photo juror and member of the VII photo agency. It’s easy to get lost in the deep weeds of epistemology. Truth is not an inherent property of an image that hasn’t been digitally manipulated or staged. And digitally manipulated or staged photos can present a subject in a way that is truthful. Photographers, editors, and the audience must consider the circumstances in which the photo was taken and presented to the public to determine whether it is an honest representation of the subject. This 2009 interview with Christopher Anderson by JM Colberg also contains some good discussion on the subject.

“To consider a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthropological past, to settle on a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy.” Teju Cole, A Too-Perfect Picture

There is more manipulation at hand in McCurry’s work than moving a few pixels around, and it’s more difficult to point to than obvious photoshopping. I’ve written previously about the insidious idea of the “noble savage” in photography, and McCurry is a longtime practitioner of the genre. You could maybe even call him the modern inventor of it. For decades, his stock and trade has been the dignified poor person in a far-off land untouched by modernity, gazed upon with admiration and pity by a wealthy western audience. His most recent book, India, as well as his touring exhibitions feature these sorts of images almost exclusively. And sometimes, his work uses dark-skinned foreigners as props behind white people to sell luxury goods.

Teju Cole, writing for the New York Times Magazine, delivers a useful critique: “To consider a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthropological past, to settle on a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy.” Cole loses the thread a little, I think, by focusing on images that appear to perfectly composed as to almost be posed–compositional beauty is useful in drawing in viewers–but the rest of his critique is worth reading. He’s also careful to note than an outsider’s perspective is not always appropriative or otherwise problematic. But McCurry’s is. Even without the photoshopping, his work his misleading. McCurry’s work presents a quaint and orientalist vision of the world that is divorced from reality. That, too, is a violation of the NPPA Code of Ethics, but this time it’s the very first rule: “Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects,” and the third: “Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.”

Teju Cole’s critique drew out some defenders of McCurry’s work, most notably PhotoShelter co-founder Allen Murabayashi’s “In Defense of Steve McCurry” (also posted to PetaPixel, from where it was widely shared and where there are many comments). Murabayashi rightly counters Cole’s critique of well-composed images, but misses the greater deception and disservice presented by McCurry’s western gaze. The discussion at the Online Photographer is worth reading, as is the discussion at Reddit’s /r/photography subreddit. The Online Photographer discussion offers different perspectives on the idea of whether McCurry’s work fundamentally misrepresents India. The Reddit discussion is an eye-opening view of whether or not eliminating digital manipulation will restore any credibility to photojournalism. The top rated comment there includes this line, “He is an editorial photographer. Which means the goal of his pictures is to make illustrations along a story/article. If the pictures underline the article then he did a good job.” Lewis Bush also has good analysis of McCurry’s work on the disphotic blog.

“McCurry’s questionable ethic draws on subjects who seem happy (perhaps) to be photographed by a foreign tourist who wants to build on a fetish of the underdeveloped world and its supposed charms.” Paroma Mukherjee, A Trip Around Steve McCurry’s Photoshopped World

These are all criticisms made by westerners, and it’s worth considering the Indian perspective. I’ve found one recent piece about McCurry’s work written by Indian photo editor and photographer Paroma Mukherjee A Trip Around Steve McCurry’s Photoshopped World. Mukherjee writes, “[McCurry’s] gaze is imperialist and his understanding of the locations he visits poor, but his confidence and marketing skills – dazzling…. Over the years, I began to despise his idea of India too…. McCurry’s questionable ethic draws on subjects who seem happy (perhaps) to be photographed by a foreign tourist who wants to build on a fetish of the underdeveloped world and its supposed charms.”

Mukherjee also notes that McCurry dodged questions about his “outsider gaze and aesthetic” at recent promotional events in India for his India book. I found a discussion about this (found via RAIOT) started by Indian photographer Aditya Arya on facebook (embedded below):

On the other hand, Anindita Ghose, writing for Vogue India, writes that McCurry’s work helps Indians see themselves better. Her article, A Selfie with Steve McCurry, praises his photographs, “They’re intuitive; they make no claims to a deeper understanding of context. And most importantly, they betray a genuine curiosity…Sometimes, we need an outsider to hold up a mirror to see ourselves better.” The final paragraph includes a quote from McCurry that I think sums up everything about why his approach and the resulting work is so fraught: “India is losing some of its Indianness.”

But after all of this discussion (and countless more on facebook, twitter, and elsewhere), Allen Murabayashi probably correctly reminds us, Your opinion of Steve McCurry doesn’t matter. McCurry will continue to get huge commissions, exhibitions, and print sales around the world, regardless of what any of us have to say about his work. Back to that reddit thread linked above, the top-rated comment ends, “I’d hang any of his pictures on my walls in contrast to most of those that criticise his work.”

The curious case of National Geographic’s layoffs and financials

The dirty secret is that NatGeo needed the money for their endowment. Nothing makes money. Nothing. The only thing holding them together is the channel now, spinning off money so they can be alive.” former Nat Geo executive, speaking to the Guardian

The news was everywhere recently that National Geographic would be laying off staff at the magazine. This comes after September’s news that the magazine would become a for-profit after 21st Century Fox bought 73% of the new entertainment company controlling the magazine and National Geographic’s television and other media properties. Variety initially reported that the new entertainment company would lay off “less than 10%” of its 2,000 employees. Jim Romenesko published notes from National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary Knell which asked staff around the world to make themselves available on Nov. 3 to receive information about the restructuring of the organization. Then, in the largest layoff in the organization’s history, 180 of its staff were laid off, including cuts at the magazine. The Guardian has a great piece about the whole thing: How Fox ate National Geographic.

Screenshot of former National Geographic photo editor Sherry Brukbacher's twitter announcement that she was laid off.
Screenshot of former National Geographic photo editor Sherry Brukbacher’s twitter announcement that she was laid off.

When the merger between Fox and National Geographic was first announced, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote a curious article about how the financial difficulties cited as a reason for the sale were not evident in the National Geographic Society’s publicly-available financial documents. “In fact, in 2013, the most recent year for which records are available, the organization had one of its best years. Its revenue grew 16 percent, topping $500 million and throwing off a $25.7 million surplus. Net assets expanded by 20 percent, putting the society’s net worth close to $900 million,” wrote Farhi. Executives at the organization, including the magazine’s then-editor in chief had all been well compensated for their part in buoying the Society through tumultuous recent years. Farhi reports that executive compensation there ranked among the highest in the country, though cautions that comparison to other non-profits might not be good because the organization is part-charity, part-commercial.

Nevertheless, Farhi’s Nov. 4, 2015, article on National Geographic’s layoffs says that the layoffs were done to avoid “financial derailment.” In 2014, Farhi wrote, “Its revenue declined about 5 percent, to $500 million, and its operations swung from a surplus of $25.5 million to a $20 million loss. Net assets declined by $90 million, to $805.5 million, compared with a year earlier.” In his earlier piece, Farhi wrote that much of National Geographic’s financial growth could be attributed to its investment portfolio, and thus the organization was vulnerable to swings in the stock markets. The sale to Fox was intended to stabilize the organizations financials.

National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary Knell told Farhi, “You can’t prejudge [the merger]. If in two or three years, if we mess up the [National Geographic] brand, then people will judge us. But give us a chance.”