Monday, November 17, 2008

Recognizable Is Not Always Reliable

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris maintains a New York Times blog, Zoom. The November 12 post meditates on, among other things, “the perceived reliability of the source,” a topic inspired by a reader comment. Very apropos for stories about recognizable images appearing in unexpected places, no?

Morris cites two very different examples to explore the idea of “reliability”: Colin Powell’s now infamous 2003 testimony during the UN Security Council, when he held up a vial that “could have” contained anthrax; the classic Ansel Adams photograph Winter Sunrise, Lone Pine, CA, a print that Adams took the liberty of spotting out an “LP” on a hillside because he found the Lone Pine initials a desecration of the natural environment. In both cases we as viewers believe the subject presented. With Powell, because he was, and is, a distinguished figure, an expert, etc., he knew what he was talking about; Adams’s reputation as one of the greatest nature photographers of all time results in viewers assuming that he always presented nature exactly as it stood before him when he snapped the shot.

The perception of a source’s reliability builds trust amongst those informed by the source. As Morris describes it: “The saddest thing of all is that without trust, civilization would be impossible. We can’t possibly ever know everything through first-hand experience. We can’t check everything nor hold everything up to scrutiny. We have to depend on others for information. In some cases, the dependence on others is not critical; in others, it is of crucial importance.”

Morris also mentions the human propensity for mistaking an image for the object itself, a notion dating back to Plato, which I cover in Madonna of the Toast and have discussed here countless times. He follows this thought with another question: “Why do we trust our eyes?” I don’t think it’s our eyes that need to be questioned, however, as they are only two surface parts of “seeing.” It is our brain that makes us trust, or distrust for that matter.

(Purported Jesus image on a laptop screen, which is being auctioned on eBay.)

Now, the stories that populate this blog are not of “critical importance,” but a great majority of them come to us via a media source, starting from a network affiliate covering a local happening, followed by rebroadcasts on other affiliates, sometimes inspiring a gathering where people gawk and pray, which in turn creates more media interest. People, at first, respond to the news report that relays the image of the image you may or may not get excited about, or believe. But, in the case of my recent Infotainment post, the news source didn’t even bother to report facts about an old Youtube video of a Jesus cloud. Yet, the report circulated internationally.

Here then, in such stories, the reliability of two sources comes into question, that of the discoverer and that of the report of the discovery. When someone sees a Virgin Mary stain on a window or the shape of Jesus in a tree stump, that is the story. Rarely do the media outlets do anything journalistic, they just pass along something they’ve been told and it becomes “news.” Ever since I began nosing around in these occurrences, I’ve been fascinated by the cultural ripples they create as perpetuated by the media. The recipients of these media-generated stories react in one of two ways: with utter devotion, or utter derision. Yet, either stance accepts the reliability of the two sources in question. People either see the face of Jesus in the stain, or quip that it looks more like Charles Manson or Jerry Garcia. I’ve never come across one of these stories where a news item concludes with evidence suggesting, or proving, that the image in question was manipulated.

Is it me, or in this realm is the reliability of a source unimportant, a non-issue? Why is that? In matters of global affairs and art, to name but two, it’s a huge issue, but with these stories reliability seems to get a pass.


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