Time Magazine’s misleading President Clinton cover

April 4, 1994, Time magazine chose to run this cover during the investigation of President Clinton’s Whitewater investment scandal and bankruptcy of Madison Guaranty Savings.

Time cover, April 4, 1994

The photograph was real and not doctored. The caption was current and accurate. However, the two don’t go together.  The context was fake. The photograph simply showed the President with his Senior Advisor, George Stephanopoulos during a routine White House meeting a year earlier.

Time justified their decision by saying they wanted to show “the close working relationship between these two men. We chose it…to convey a mood”.

Is this fake news? A routine photo of the President deep in thought, apparently stressed about something, and the somber look on Mr. Stephanopolous’ face (not to mention the glare apparently at the photographer),  paired with a damming caption.

This wasn’t the birth of deception in photography, or news, for that matter. Deception has paralleled photography since it was invented in the mid-1800s. Yet we continued to ascribe truth and reality to photographs unequivocably,  despite sporadic setbacks like these, up until the digital revolution reversed the credo. Today we view practically all photos with the underlying assumption that something has always been modified from the original, even if it’s just to improve saturation.

So do you think TIME was justified? Is the “mood” just as real, or even more important, to convey than the facts of the particular case?

Should our expectation of reality from news sources like TIME, CNN, BBC, etc. hold them to different standards than other magazines or media? Or, put a different way, would this cover be more acceptable on magazines devoted to more subjective, impressionistic themes such as Vanity Fair, New Yorker or the tabloids?

13 Replies to “Time Magazine’s misleading President Clinton cover”

    1. 0boy52–You are partly correct. Media can still be sued for libel, which is not protected by the First Amendment. See my response on Mar 3, 2016 for btascher:

      Excerpt: “Often the decision to go with it rests on the legal line between libelous statements of fact versus an “opinion” of the company or writer (which is protected under First Amendment free speech). There were no false facts shown in the photo or caption, so the inference of a “mood” by the photo was real.”

  1. If people believe the drool on Fox News and the tabloids, they get what they deserve. The Time cover is pretty benign IMHO. It doesn’t show that Clinton was guilty, just that he was worried. That’s nothing compared to the accusations thrown around on the tabloids.

  2. I don’t trust politicians. I don’t trust the media. What difference does it make if fake media publishes stories about fake politicians?

  3. Gets right to the point. More people need to think about what they see in the news. Behind the news , it’s just people making decisions, and they have their biases.

  4. Time could have been more honest and just put a more current pic on the cover. Or they could have said the picture was a year old but probably represented Clinton’s concerns about Whitewater.

  5. I would have to say that yes, this is fake news. Like it said in the post, “the context was fake”. They obviously meant to be misleading. Whether they do it with a misleading photograph, or caption, or a combination of the two, it is still fake. I don’t trust Time anymore.

  6. I think if Time had admitted what they did in the caption, it would have been OK. You see it all the time nowadays when magazines say that the photo is a composite, or something like that.

    1. Megan99 — Yes we do see more accurate captions these days. The problem lies in the fine line between legal and moral liability. Posting a caption that admits the photo is a composite, or, in this case, not related to the headline, may shield them from legal liability, but in the court of public opinion, it is still misleading. Most people will see the cover and not the caption, wherever it may be “hidden” inside.

    1. btascher — Hard to say. News magazines like Time, Newsweek and others have had their share of “transgressions”, and still maintain a healthy readership. I would have loved to be in the editorial offices while they discussed the pros and cons of whether to run the photo and caption.

      Often the decision to publish a photo (or text) pivots on the legal distinction between libelous statements of fact versus an “opinion” of the company or writer (which is protected under First Amendment free speech). There were no false facts shown in the photo or caption, so the suggestion of a “mood” by the photo was within legal bounds.

      The loss of readership by those who may have objected was probably minimal compared to the number of issues sold because of the cover that week.

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