Here’s the part that’s NOT in debate about the May cover of Washingtonian magazine: Barack Obama looks pretty darned good in a swimsuit – especially for a president.
What IS being debated are issues of propriety and ethics. Was it disrespectful to display the presidential pecs – alongside a headline calling the chief executive “hot”? And, in a separate journalistic flap, was it wrong to alter the colour of his swimsuit from black (or dark navy) to a bright red?
Before you ask the obvious – why would they WANT to change the colour? – let’s first recall the photo, one of those paparazzi shots that surfaced on the web in December during Obama’s preinaugural trip to Hawaii. The president-elect wore dark sunglasses as he strolled in his swimsuit, water bottle in one hand, what looked like a bunched-up T-shirt in the other.
At the time, some thought the photos from the Bauer-Griffin agency unseemly – and wondered how the photographer managed to get them. But there was also plenty of praise for, well, the state of the presidential bod. This wasn’t exactly the rotund William Howard Taft we were talking about: “O!” was the succinct headline on the Huffington Post website.
On Thursday, when news spread that the photo graced Washingtonian, a monthly geared to affluent residents of the capital, the chatter bubbled anew.
“I don’t care to see my President in his swim trunks, any more than I would care to see my Senators or my doctor,” wrote one reader, Amy, on the magazine’s website. “I think it’s inappropriate, and disrespectful to President Obama,” wrote another, Kathleen.
“I think the photo is great,” wrote another, Summer, from Germany. “Moreover it has to be mentioned that it looks sexy!”
The magazine’s publisher said the whole thing was meant as a compliment – and to capture a feeling that, she said, is sweeping Washington.
“Washington’s in a golden age,” Catherine Merrill Williams said in a telephone interview. “We thought this cover captured the energy this president has brought to the city.”
It also hasn’t hurt, Williams noted, that “our website traffic is through the roof. We love that!”
And as for that altered swimsuit colour? “We changed it so it would show up against our dark background,” Williams said. “Also, we were trying to convey the concept of love, and red is the colour of love. And it’s hot!”
That didn’t hold water, hot or cold, with some commentators and academics, who felt the magazine should have adhered to a central tenet of photojournalism: You don’t alter photos. Period.
“There needs to be integrity to a photo,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Otherwise, what are your boundaries? Where do you stop?”
Media critic Howard Kurtz, who hosts CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and writes for The Washington Post, agreed.
“Journalistic organizations shouldn’t doctor photos of the president of the United States,” he said in an email message. And besides, he asked: “What, the black swim trunks weren’t alluring enough for Washingtonian?”
Williams argued that her cover was different from news photos that must document a specific moment in time. “We’re a lifestyle magazine, doing a feature article,” she said. “This is not adding another missile to a photo from Iran. We were trying to get across a bigger concept.”
She was especially taken aback by the accusation that Washingtonian hadn’t just changed the swimsuit colour, but had actually adjusted the colour of Obama’s skin. “The sun striking Obama’s chest makes him appear more golden, almost glistening,” wrote Susan Moeller, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, on The Huffington Post.
Williams was adamant that the skin had not been changed. “The colour may appear different because of the background we used,” she said. “But we definitely did not change it.”
There was no immediate reaction from the White House. But this is hardly the first time Obama has been the subject of flattering but possibly over-intimate treatment. During the campaign, the racy and ubiquitous Obama Girl video – “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama,” the song went – was seen by millions.
Although Obama made clear he didn’t approve of the gyrating, bikini-clad Obama Girl, many speculated she helped him win at least the attention of some young voters, in a competitive Democratic field. Likewise, the Obama swimsuit photo probably doesn’t hurt.
“It shows that he’s youthful, he’s fit and he’s vigorous,” said Jamieson, an expert in political communication. But she’s troubled by the invasion of privacy. After all, Obama was in a private place, accompanied by his young daughters, who were also photographed.
And unlike Ronald Reagan, who allowed himself to be seen lifting weights to offset worries he was too old, or Bill Clinton, who often jogged publicly in (very short) shorts, Obama clearly didn’t intend to be photographed in his swimsuit, Jamieson said. Otherwise, traditional news outlets would have received the photo.
“Where do you draw the line?” she asked. “If they had a lens trained on his private living room or bedroom at the White House, would editors use the shots?”
Williams, though, was adamant in her defence of the cover, saying in an email to staffers: “I strongly believe that people, and especially our readers, are able to distinguish the difference” between a traditional news photo and a creative magazine cover.
And, she added in the phone interview, Washingtonian readers are able to understand something else, too:
“We believe they’re capable of appreciating that our president is hot.”
On the Net: http://www.washingtonian.com