Time Editor Defends Doctoring Iwo Jima Photo, Calls Objective Journalism 'Fantasy'

     Time magazine continued to defend its manipulation of the classic Iwo Jima flag-raising photo – calling it a “point of view.” Managing Editor Richard Stengel said the cover art was part of the publication’s global warming advocacy and a way of forcing readers to “pay attention.”


     Stengel defied the traditional notion that journalists should be unbiased. “I didn’t go to journalism school,” Stengel said. “But this notion that journalism is objective, or must be objective is something that has always bothered me – because the notion about objectivity is in some ways a fantasy. I don’t know that there is as such a thing as objectivity.”


     Stengel supported his claim by stating the role of journalists is not to ask questions, but answer them.


     “[F]rom the time I came back, I have felt that we have to actually say, ‘We have a point of view about something and we feel strongly about it, we just have to be assertive about it and say it positively,’” Stengel said. “I don’t think people are looking for us to ask questions, I think they’re looking for us to answer questions.”


     Donald Mates, an Iwo Jima veteran, told the Business & Media Institute on April 17 that using that photograph for that cause was a “disgrace.”


      “It’s an absolute disgrace,” Mates said. “Whoever did it is going to hell. That’s a mortal sin. God forbid he runs into a Marine that was an Iwo Jima survivor.”


     Stengel spoke at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., part of the third annual Stuart J. Bullion Lecture on April 21. He made his remarks in the wake of a controversy sparked by magazine’s use of the iconic image of Marines raising an American flag at Iwo Jima with the flag replaced by a tree. He told the Ole Miss audience it was an attention ploy.


     “My feeling is you have to grab people by the lapels and say, ‘Hey, pay attention’ and that was the idea of doing this,” Stengel said. “[I] just think you can’t be squeamish about trying to get people’s attention.”


     He also equated the cause of climate change with the cause that the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima nearing the end of World War II and admitted he understood the image might be offensive.


     “Yes, absolutely,” Stengel said, reacting to a question if he thought some might be offended by the cover. “I certainly hear that some people would be offended by it. Obviously many people have – were offended by it. But I do think, and I have made this case and I’ve made the case to people who have talked about it, is that climate change and we can even discuss the merits of it or not – climate change is going to affect every living human being.”  


     “And, to say that somehow we’re taking a little cause in the midst of a big cause, like the veterans of Iwo Jima seems to me to not make sense,” Stengel continued. “I think what we’re doing is raising both by taking two incredibly strong and powerful ideas and combining them. So it is greater than the sum of its parts, rather than either one being the less than the sum of its parts.”


     However, National Press Photographers Association’s Ethics & Standards Committee Chair John Long, disagreed in a statement published on the organization’s Web site on April 18, calling the alteration of the photo “an insult.”


     “It’s not so much unethical in the sense of digital manipulation since the original photograph is so obviously changed, but it's an insult,” Long, who is also a photojournalism professor at Syracuse University. “It's another example of the lack of respect photojournalism gets in the world of word journalism. If they respected the photograph in the same way they respect the written word, this would never happen.”


     As for journalistic standards, Stengel told the audience they are “making it up as we go along.”


     “I don’t even know what rules there have been all along in journalism,” Stengel said. “There are rules we kind of observed by tradition, but it’s not like you know the legal code or the being a doctor with the way you treat people. We sort of make it up as we go along and I think that is what will continue to happen.”


     Stengel’s position ignores principles set down in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. The “standards of practice” that Stengel’s standpoint might have violated include:


    Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others. Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context. Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief. Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.


Leslie King contributed to this story.