The adage at Newsweek magazine must be: a picture is worth a thousand complaints.

Newsweek’s current cover will likely bring that many objections from Hillary Clinton alone. During her lengthy tenure in the public eye, Clinton has been depicted in more than her share of unflattering photos – even without any consideration of the pantsuit thing. But Newsweek’s cover image on the May 3rd issue may be Clinton’s worst yet, and it brings into focus the power of photo editing, even in a medium that supposedly never lies.

Hillary Clinton Newsweek unflattering Obama Bad Cop

The photo in question, credited to Charles Ommanney via Getty Images, was taken at a NATO conference in Estonia, which may explain Clinton’s tense expression and apparent fatigue in the fairly tight close-up. It is used to illustrate Newsweek’s report titled, “Obama’s Bad Cop,” or, as the cover line describes the Secretary of State, “the president’s steely messenger.”

Imagine you’re Newsweek’s photo editor, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of images of Hillary Clinton from which to choose. Is it journalistically proper to hunt for an image that looks particularly “steely”? Would it confuse readers if someone called “Bad Cop” was smiling?

A full-page photo by Alex Wong, used by Newsweek on an inside page, shows Clinton with an equally stern expression, but because of a favorable angle and softer focus it is considerably more flattering than the cover image.

The very act of snapping a photo requires editorial judgment about such things as focus, lighting, exposure, angle and background. The process only gets more complicated when editors must crop, position, and even retouch the image, while deciding if it is appropriate to the accompanying story and also fair to the person depicted.

The unwritten rule among news professionals is that reasonably flattering images are used when available, unless the subject is a hated criminal. It’s too easy to find unflattering photos, if that’s the objective, especially when it comes to politicians and celebrities who are photographed thousands of times.

Newsweek’s editors seem to enjoy challenging this convention. Last November they used a photo of Sarah Palin from Runner’s World magazine on the cover, angering some critics who felt the image of Palin in jogging shorts was presented in a misleading context. During the ’08 campaign Newsweek ran a Palin cover photo that was enlarged so much it seemed to intentionally draw attention to unwanted facial hair, pores and wrinkles.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how celebrities are depicted in magazine photos. Seems politicians hope to look better, while some entertainers are now willing, if not eager, to look worse. In an odd bit of pushback against photo enhancement, Jessica Simpson appears on the May cover of Marie Claire magazine without retouching or makeup; Kim Kardashian is similarly unretouched in the May Harper’s Bazaar.

There’s no evidence to suggest that Newsweek’s editors added wrinkles to the Secretary of State’s face for the current cover, but they didn’t remove any either. Washingtonian magazine was kinder to Clinton’s boss last year, but out of line, when it depicted President Obama in a beach scene, with Photoshop-enhanced skin tone and swim trunks changed from black to a sexier shade of red.

It’s unethical for magazines to alter news images without full disclosure to readers. It’s less clearcut, but nonetheless troubling, if editors intentionally opt for unflattering photos when better alternatives are available.

So what’s fair and balanced when it comes to magazine images? Not much. Photos never lie, but that doesn’t mean they always tell the truth.

Footnote: For illustration purposes, a small version of the Newsweek cover is running with this column. Shrinking a photo tends to remove wrinkles and facial flaws. I’m sure Clinton would love the magazine cover if it were the size of a playing card.

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©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail [email protected].

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He’s also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com.