sure it’s sleazy, but it holds to a proud tradition of sleaze

Look, I like Barack Obama, too. I hope he wins the nomination and becomes our next president. But this stuff about the Clinton campaign altering videotape of him to make him seem blacker is just crazy. Have we all really never seen a political ad before? Here, allow me to summarize the art form for you:

Grainy, black and white footage of Candidate A, stretched extra-wide or extra-tall. The camera slowly zooms in on Candidate A’s lips, which move in slow motion but without sound.

NARRATOR: Candidate A says he’s for [good things]. But according to [somewhat reputable news source] on [date] he said [nuanced opinion]. Maybe that’s why [neutral-sounding fringe group] called Candidate A “[outrageous smear]”.

(brief pause)

NARRATOR: Candidate A. [misleading interrogatory]?

Cut to wide shot of Candidate B. He is standing in a sunlit alpine valley, surrounded by adorable woodland creatures and an assemblage of attractive, multicultural children. They look up to him expectantly, hoping to absorb the wisdom of their elders so that they, too, might grow up and take their rightful places in the glorious unfolding story that is AMERICA.

Candidate B: I’m Candidate B, and I approved this message because [something other than “I owe private industry many favors”].

This is how things go. You jack up the contrast, distort the image, slow it down and screw around with the colors because it makes your opponent look generically creepy — not because it accentuates particular racial attributes. For some reason the kossacks are pretending that nobody has ever run video of their opponent through a filter. They’re either insane, dishonest, or haven’t been paying any attention at all. This graphical sniping is common enough that it’s been parodied on The Simpsons, for pete’s sake.

UPDATE: More from Kevin Drum and I hadn’t realized that the evidence being cited was coming from different video sources, and that one of them is YouTube, for chrissakes. It’s simply impossible to meaningfully identify the sort of subtle trickery that’s being alleged when the quality of the evidence is so poor.

With that in mind, a few good litmus tests to apply before opining on these matters: can you succinctly define gamma correction? Have you ever had to figure out what color space an image is using? Does this look at all familiar? If so, then by all means speak your mind. If not, allow me to gently suggest that you have some wikipedia-reading to do.

After that, get me digital stills from the debate and the ad that were recorded on the same hardware. Only then will it be possible to identify the alleged manipulation as genuinely existing — at which point my previous objections about the likely lack of racial malice surrounding the manipulation will resume applying. Seriously: this is laughably weak stuff.

5 Responses to “sure it’s sleazy, but it holds to a proud tradition of sleaze”

  1. Sommer

    Tom = smart.

  2. Tom


  3. Victor

    Your point about this tactic’s ubiquity is right on, but I think what the Obama campaign is objecting to is its use to pander to subconscious racism. The widening of Obama’s face is especially notable in this regard – point me to examples of attack ads featuring widened white candidates, and I’ll concede this one, but I’ve never heard of it. Even when OJ got the treatment from TIME, they stopped short of embiggening traditionally black facial characteristics.
    Calling out the manipulation is a political move, and a shrewd one, if what voters remember is that one candidate manipulated an image. Remember the subliminidable “RATS” ad of 2000 and how it made Bush have to try to pronounce subliminal?

  4. Tom

    Well, check out the 39th second of this video (the rest of it does the same more subtly). Or around the 20th second of this one (Bob Casey is squished rather than stretched, but you get the idea). And here’s another where the conversion/reformatting process has pretty clearly resulted in unintentional squishing. It’s possible that a format conversion somewhere along the production chain could have resulted in the slight widening present in the Clinton ad — I couldn’t say.

  5. Tom

    But, I should add, your point about this being potentially good politics for Obama is a valid one. Although I tend to think that he’s put himself in a position where he can’t make this sort of complaint directly.

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