I read the New York Times and Washington Post every day. I do not watch “reality” television. It is hard enough trying to discern what is true and what is not true without the carefully constructed fantasy world of “reality” TV .
Back in the 1970s British broadcasting legend Malcolm Muggeridge said, “Not only can the camera lie. The camera always lies.” He was not talking about the current world in which you can photoshop just about anything. He was talking about a simpler time when the picture taken was the picture seen. But even then, Muggeridge rightly understood that pictures do not necessarily tell the truth.
The common notion is that if you have seen something with your own eyes, it must be true. But in reality, it is not that simple. Consider the two photographs above. The photo on the left would make one think it was taken outside a prison camp. On the other hand, the photo on the right looks like it was taken from a vacation home in the Rockies.
Both photos were actually taken from the exact same spot in my side yard. In the first the camera is pointed southeast and in the second it is pointed to the southwest. Either picture, taken alone, does not present the whole story. But if your brain sees only one of the pictures, it assumes the picture it has seen is true.
A second Muggeridge phrase was, “The editor is king.” When I was an adoption caseworker back in the 80s, an international adoption issue necessitated doing interviews on CNN and the local television stations in New York City. After the first interview was edited to give a completely inaccurate impression, I realized I should only do live interviews. On videotape it was far too easy for the editor to tell the story she wanted to tell, instead of the story that actually took place.
When Donald Trump decided to run for president I was confident America was smarter than to elect a reality television star. Didn’t people understand reality television has little to do with reality? Didn’t they understand that the editor determines exactly what they do and do not see? Apparently not.
Mark Burnett, the creator of The Apprentice, made Donald Trump president. Burnett has been selling fantasy to Americans since he started Survivor in 2000. He is the one who made Trump a star, not by telling the truth, but by making the viewing public believe what Mark Burnett wanted them to believe about Donald Trump. By the time he was done with his editing magic, Trump looked like a competent CEO and people believed the lie they had been fed. After all, it was right there on the screen.
Print journalism is a better vehicle for truth telling. Words are not as easily manipulated as images. But even with print journalism, the editor still reigns. The information you read is only as accurate as the editor makes it. Last year there were two stories written about me in the Denver Post and the New York Times. The Denver Post is owned by a hedge fund that keeps squeezing profits by cutting back on reporters and editorial staff. Their 800 word article had eight errors of fact, two of which significantly altered the story.
The New York Times, which has added reporters and editors to its newsroom since the 2016 election, had a 4,000 word article with zero mistakes, not one. Not all news outlets are created equal.
The Denver Post wants to get it right, but their owners make accurate reporting almost impossible. But at least the reporters and editorial staff who remain at the Denver Post want to get it right. When Fox News, Breitbart News, InfoWars and the London Daily Mail reported a very inaccurate story that involved a university in Pennsylvania and my TEDxMileHigh video, not one of those companies bothered to even attempt to contact me to verify their information. Not one. They did not care about the truth. Period.
I want to get my news from people who care about the truth. I want to get my information from people who are trying to get it right, even if their companies are owned by jerks. I do not want to get my information from sleazy media outlets that only care about profits and do not care one iota about what is true and what is not true.
It is possible to tell which news outlets work hard to get it right. You can start by seeing if your preferred newspaper has a “correction” section that appears in every edition and, when necessary, shows corrections at the bottom of any article in which they’ve gotten even one detail wrong. If your favorite media outlet does not publish corrections, you need to find a new media outlet.
The truth matters. It always has and always will. If Malcolm Muggeridge was concerned about the objectivity of undoctored images, how much more concerned would he be with the mayhem we see today, particularly in the electronic media? These are trying times, and we must not give up the conviction that the truth is ascertainable and will set us free.
10 thoughts on “The Camera Always Lies”
i love your writing and how you view things. Amazing read.
Paula, you are absolutely right! I’ve always told my friends that the camera lies and mirrors lie too. Have you noticed that your image appears a bit different in each mirror? Thank you for sharing this and reminding me that what we see is not always the truth. Keep the articles coming, I look forward to reading more fresh perspectives.
The Muggeridge quote is most relevant to debates about photography as media. Do you have a reference source for this (date, programme or publisher)? I would love to be able to cite it in my own research on the use of the camera.
It’s an old quote – either from an episode of Firing Line, or from Muggeridge’s book, Christ and the Media. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember the exact source. I remember getting it in the 1970s or 80s.
Another excellent article – I only found one possible error. The error doesn’t detract from the message, but to say “Words are not as easily manipulated as images” is ludicrous. I can do both; pictures are harder. The truth is that a little skepticism is always a good thing (even during a sermon), and your point about a correction section is very important (IMHO). Thanks again.
The brain does not process words in the same way in which it processes images. That is the difference to which I am referring. And you are so right, a little skepticism is always a good thing.
Paula, thank you for another excellent post and reminder to us all. The beginning block of the foundation to discerning truth is that one must WANT to ascertain the truth. At all times, with every “read” we must guard our minds against lazy thinking–or no thinking at all! It seems to me there is too much of both: lazy thinking or no thinking. It has led to people being deceived from the beginning of time, since the Garden of Eden!
Makes me think of the book, The Righteous Mind.
Interesting Story Paula. Best Jeri