Old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

By John Long

I’ve seen Elvis at 70 on the cover of the Weekly World News; I’ve seen James Dean as an old man too, usually while I am waiting in line at the drug store where they sell the tabloids; I’ve seen Alfred E. Newman as President Bush. Princess Diana at 50? No big deal.

But wait, this is Newsweek. When did they become the reincarnated Weekly World News or the National Inquirer or the new MAD magazine?

The recent Newsweek cover depicting Princess Diana as a 50-year-old companion to the new Princess Kate caused a stir and I was asked what I thought about it since it was obviously a Photoshop manipulated photograph. My first response was, “I have no problem with that.” Due to my 20-year-plus campaign against digitally altered photographs, people were a little taken aback. But then I asked, “What is the very first question you need to ask when manipulation is involved?” It’s this, isn’t it? “Does this photograph deceive the reader?”

[Newsweek cover with a photo illustration of Princess Diana and Princess Kate walking together]

Tacky, yes; tasteless, yes. But does it deceive the reader? Unless you have been living under a rock you know the Princess has been dead for a long, long time. There is no attempt to lie so I see no ethical breach. However, I do see a journalistic disaster.

It seems inappropriate to create a digitally manipulated photograph that looks real and use it on the cover of a magazine that purports to tell only the truth. Pandering in order to increase sales is not a pretty thing. It is a misuse of technology, but not a lie as such, unless it ends up in some archive. The problem with “what if” types of manipulations that look real is that they can become accepted as real when taken out of their original context. When former Texas governor Ann Richards died, one of the wire services put out a file photograph of her sitting on a motorcycle – but had to pull it quickly when it was pointed out that this was the famous Texas Monthly Photoshopped cover wherein the only part of the photograph that was her was her head (all the rest was of a model in a studio).

It seems to me that one of the other axioms I have used for over 20 years of talking about this issue needs to be emphasized: If it looks real, in the context of news it better be real.

If you are going to make a photographic illustration, make it an illustration. A photographic illustration that looks real is not an illustration; in the context of news it is a lie. Time had a cover years ago that worked fine. It showed a 1930s street scene in black-and-white while a Photoshopped man selling apples from today was in color. The cover used photographs to make an illustration but there was no mistaking that this was a construct. There are a million ways Newsweek could have made the Diana cover look like the illustration it really was – mix black-and-white and color, use a drawing, etc.

But this would not have the shock value, the spookiness that many people have pointed out. By looking real the reader was confronted with an uncomfortable queasy feeling. The best word was from the Star Tribune, which called the cover “grotesque.”

This is Newsweek, one of the top news magazines. They deal in the real. This isn’t People or Men's Health, etc. Maybe the proper place for a story such as this would have been Vanity Fair. (And here, the light bulb comes on.) Isn’t the editor of Newsweek Tina Brown? And didn’t she used to be the editor of Vanity Fair? Aren’t news magazines an endangered species, and aren’t they all trying everything they can think of to stay alive?

Is the cover of a magazine or a book an advertisement? Legally it is, but does this make it ethical to do what you want to the cover photographs? In the Day In The Life series of books, every cover except the Day In The Life of Russia was heavily manipulated and the publishers always said this was okay because the cover is an advertisement. The problem was then, and is still the same today, for Newsweek ... if the cover has been manipulated and is a lie, why should we believe everything on the inside is truthful? If it is not real on the cover, how can we believe the information on the inside is real?

News magazines and newspapers are dying and not all of it is due to social and technological change. Some of the problem is self-inflicted.

The digitally enhanced cover depicting an aged Diana, with Kate Middleton gazing at her dead mother-in-law, is just grotesque and unprofessional.