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Institutional Failure at Reuters

By Thomas Lifson

Though I am five thousand miles away, I think that I can detect the vibrations emanating from West Norwood Cemetery in London. For surely Paul Julius Reuter, the German rabbi's son who founded the Reuters News Agency a century and a half ago, is spinning in his grave.

No other news agency can match the history or romance of Reuters, dating as it does to the pre-telegraphy era, when Reuter employed carrier pigeons to ferry stock price information between Aachen, Germany and Brussels. Hollywood even made a highly-regarded biopic in 1940, Message from Reuters, starring Edward G. Robinson as the founder.

Julius Reuter adapted to changing times very well, unlike his successors at the agency. Moving to London in 1845, he quickly was baptized into the Christian faith, and dropped his birth name Israel Beer Josaphat in favor of the name by which history remembers him, according to the sometimes-reliable (like Reuters) Wikipedia site. An early internationalist, Reuter became a naturalized British subject in 1857, but did not let this stand in the way of accepting a barony from the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He chose to end his days living in France.

A century after his death, his corporate heirs, running the four billion dollar a year Reuters empire have made his name a laughingstock.

Reuters has been caught red-handed peddling to the world's media a fake Photoshopped pitcture exaggerating the damage done to Beirut by an Israeli air strike. And according to experts and casual observers alike, it is a crude job, not in the least bit artful in its attempted deception. Charles Johnson of the website Little Green Footballs first raised the alarm over what appeared to be an obvious fake, and the internet community of bloggers and experts took over, rapidly demonstrating beyond any doubt that the photographer credited with the picture, one Adnan Hajj, had cloned smoke and buildings (to make the district attacked look more built-up, apparently) and exaggerated considerably the extent of the aftermath.

Humiliatingly, Reuters issued a "Picture Kill" notice to its clients, and later published a notice that it would no longer accept photos from Mr. Hajj. But Reuters expressed its finding that only one photgraph was problematic.

Hajj worked for Reuters as a non-staff freelance, or contributing photographer, from 1993 until 2003 and again since April 2005.

He was among several photographers from the main international news agencies whose images of a dead child being held up by a rescuer in the village of Qana, south Lebanon, after an Israeli air strike on July 30 have been challenged by blogs critical of the mainstream media's coverage of the Middle East conflict.

Reuters and other news organisations reviewed those images and have all rejected allegations that the photographs were staged.

(Update: Reuters has belatedly now withdrawn all Hajh photographs, as of 14:38 GMT, 7:38 AM PDT, after the first publication of this article)

The blogosphere has been doing the work that Reuters' photo editors didn't, and has been examining the nearly 350 pictures from Mr. Hajj that have been distributed to the worldwide media by Reuters. Already other examples have been shown to be faked. The Jawa Report shows an Israeli jet firing a defensive round Photoshopped into an attack, for example.

Mr. Hajj was representing Reuters on the ground at Qana, where severe doubts have been raised about the authenticity of his work. See, for example, a dust-covered baby with a sparkling clean pacifier around its neck, courtesy of Reuters and Mr. Hajj.

The Reuters rot goes higher

But Reuters is not a purely innocent victim of a rogue photographer. Hajj's handiwork should have been discovered by any competent photo editor. Consider this: Power Line has published examples of two photos sent to the world's media showing the same building in Beirut in ruins. One of the photos says it is evidence of an attack on July 24th, and the other photo says it is evidence of an Israeli attack on August 5th.

It should have been easy for any photo editor with two functioning eyeballs to detect the summer rerun of the photo. A very distinctive building with a multi-story geometric pattern on its wall stands adjacent to the wreckage and was clearly visible in both photos. There is no other word than "negligence" to describe this kind of editing. The only reasonable alternative is "complicity."

Since the alleged indiscriminate and widespread bombing of Beirut is a cardinal propaganda theme of Hiz b'allah and its allies, repetitive use of the same photo as evidence of multiple attacks makes Reuters an ally of the terror group, fighting the information war on its behalf.

Experts in the field of public relations counsel getting on top of a problem when an organization is in a damage control situation. Staying ahead of your critics by quickly investigating and revealing the entire extent of the problem is the only way to go. Reuters has violated this well-accepted principle by refusing to admit that it has a serious problem with its photo editing.

Michelle Malkin examined Reuters' publicly-proclaimed quality assurance standards and found the following:

"Our policy is to send news to our customers only after scrutiny by a group of production editors who ensure quality standards are maintained across all our news services. When we get something wrong, our policy is to be honest about errors and to correct them promptly and clearly."

This clearly indicates a group of editors was fooled by a crude fake photograph. There can be no denying by Reuters that its organization is deeply flawed in terms of its ability to enforce elementary quality standards. And any client of Reuters which continues to accept photographic material from it is on notice that the organization is unable to stand behind the integrity of its photojournalism, and that it does not plan to do anything about the organizational failure to which it has admitted.

Apparently, these same editors are still unable to detect the obvious problems the outside analysts of the blogosphere have already uncovered. Any outside observer can justifiably conclude that a breakdown in basic quality assurance standards has occurred, and that the organization is unable to correct itself.

An independent outside panel is needed

In the interest of helping Reuters regain the credibility it has already lost, I suggested on Sunday that an outside panel of experts be appointed and funded by Reuters to review all of Reuters' photojournalism from the Israel-Hiz b'allah conflict. Come to think of it, the entire body of Middle East coverage ought to be reviewed.

Other internet journalists are supporting that call, and supplying concrete suggestions, including names of appropriate experts.

A full day after the fraud was admitted by Reuters, only a handful of mainstream media outlets, none of them in the United States, has picked up the story, according to a Google News search. (update: as of 7 AM PST today, Fox News Channel has picked up the story.) To stay abreast of the extent of the rot at Reuters, informed media consumers will have to rely on sites such as Little Green Footballs, Michelle Malkin, The Riehl World View, Ace of Spades HQ, and others, including The American Thinker.

If the past is any predictor, expect talk radio to play a key role in spreading news of the scandal to millions, and thereby forcing major media outlets (many of them Reuters clients) to cover it.

Karl Marx was right about one thing: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. You can ask Dan Rather.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of American Thinker.

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