Some of the most beautiful newspaper images of the week were also some of the most complex. As President Bush prepared to speak at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, photographers captured him basking, for a moment, in the applause of the audience. Hovering just above him, in a characteristic image by Alex Wong of Getty Images, was the slightly fuzzy but clearly legible word "Victory."
The letters fit perfectly within the borders of the picture, and the composition of this and similar images was a study in strong horizontals and verticals. The president's head was a column of strength, holding up, like Atlas bearing the Earth, the horizon created by the lower border of the banner. In an image by Paul J. Richards of Agence France-Presse, the "o" in victory was even positioned just above the president's head, glowing like a halo, while the president gazed slightly up and past the camera. A beatific moment and an image that White House media planners couldn't have bested if they took the shot themselves.
But there's also complexity here: Was "Victory" blurred because the photographers intended to subvert the administration's efforts to craft a message? Did the blurring of the letters actually strengthen the connection between the president and success in Iraq, like soft music in the background or the hazy sfumato of the smile on Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa"? Or was it simply a camera issue, a decision forced on the photographer by the light, the angle, the choice of shutter speed or aperture?
An image that is both nakedly political and very beautiful is automatically contentious -- just as the big Soviet symphonies of Shostakovich or the films of Leni Riefenstahl still trouble us today for the way in which their aesthetic pleasures short-circuit critical detachment. Photographs of the president (any president, since Reagan, at least) are among the most manipulated and crafted images in our society. Are photographers too easily complicit in the crafting of these pictures? Does the natural quest for beauty by photographers make them unwitting propagandists?
Often, given the ground rules for taking photographs, they have little choice. And to intentionally subvert the intended political message is itself an intrusion on straight journalistic truth-telling, rather as a photograph of a Fourth of July parade that captures only the trash-strewn street afterward would be an inherently untruthful image.
Compare, for example, another image, also by Richards of AFP, that shows the president with microphones blocking his face, like unwanted mutton chops. This time, Bush's head obscures the "r" in the word "for," suggesting a visual echo of a regional accent that drops consonants at the ends of words. The president is offerin' us "a plan fo' victory." This image is as ridiculous as the first one was magisterial, and it's not nearly as pretty.
Reading these images side by side, seeing both the transparency of manipulation and the beauty of the results, it's hard not to admire (perhaps a bit reluctantly) the sophistication of our own media culture. We can make beautiful images and acknowledge the unseen manipulation of them. Political message-making, like politics itself, has an element of the game in it. So rather like Republicans who once watched Bill Clinton and said, through clenched teeth, "God, he's good," or Democrats who watched (with a little despair) the president drop from the sky into Baghdad on a past Thanksgiving, we can enjoy even those messages we find most brazenly fabricated. There's a pure visual virtuosity in image-making that we admire, in part because it exercises our skill at debunking those very same images. It's not unlike the pleasure we take in detective stories, or courtroom dramas: We hear the evidence and we enjoy sorting through the lies (and truth). And we congratulate ourselves.
The pride we take in our ability to both appreciate and debunk our own propaganda should make us more sophisticated when we proffer propaganda to the world. But the other big story in image-making this week was one that suggests we are fatally clumsy at it. As first detailed in the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. military has been planting articles in Iraqi publications without indicating their source. An argument quickly broke out, on Internet political sites especially, about whether this is appropriate. Propaganda is so fundamental to what governments do that it seems naive to expect that the military could resist the temptation, especially during a war going so badly. But propaganda is also fundamentally distasteful to people who fancy themselves citizens of a democratic country.
But missing in all of this was any respect for the sophistication of the Iraqi people when it comes to deciphering media. One of the hallmarks of people who have lived in authoritarian countries, and a characteristic evident throughout the Middle East, is a basic distrust of all media. The distrust is so fundamental that, often, the more outlandish an idea, the more conspiratorial and insupportable, the more plausible it becomes.
We distrust images that look too good. They distrust pretty much everything. But the root reaction is the same -- "you can't fool me." The difference between an image of Bush looking like the conquering hero and an effort to sell news under the radar is in the quality of the deception. We know that presidential imagery is all about selling the message of the week, and we don't feel particularly scandalized by it. But when we tried to manipulate the news in Iraq, we apparently believed we could actually fool them, which is both clumsy and arrogant.
Propaganda needn't be underhanded. When large corporations buy space in a newspaper for their deliciously polite and reasonable "advertorials," or when they make offshore oil exploration the most beautiful, noble and daring profession imaginable on their Sunday morning television ads, they don't do it covertly. Advertising, which has its own rules, isn't propaganda, but it is an effort to make an argument to an instinctively suspicious audience, which is pretty much the task facing the United States in the Middle East. And the best rule of thumb is: If the message is inherently convincing, you don't have to disguise the messenger.
Fortunately, the United States isn't trying to drum up support in Iraq for offshore drilling or logging in federal forests. We're trying to sell democracy, an idea that is supposedly so self-evidently a good thing that one wonders why we don't insist on selling it openly. An open, impassioned argument for what we believe in, made transparently and without condescension, might be taken as a sign of respect and entertained, for a while, despite the almost insurmountable suspicion that confronts us.