The White House created a series of photo opportunities, each of which was meant to communicate a basic message of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, a classic example of ideological subtext being as important as the explicit message in words. The use to which different media put these photo ops reflects each outlet’s view of what were the important outcomes of the meeting.
For example, the September 26 front page of the regional daily newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, showed one formal pose of all the leaders and an informal pose of Michelle Obama with some of the wives of the leaders. The ideological subtext came in the positioning of the people in both photos, taken by Post-Gazette photographers but in formal or semiformal photo op situations, so the photographers really had no choice but to take what the White House photo arrangers wanted the world to see:
- Flanking President Obama were Brazil’s President Lulu and the Chinese President Hu Jintao.
- Flanking our first lady were the Brazilian and Indonesian first ladies, with Michelle turned to face Lady Indonesia.
These arrangements of leaders are never by chance: The administration wanted Brazil and the rising Asian economic powerhouses to be closest to Obama, because the G-20 is, after all, an economic, not a political body. There can be no doubt that Brazil and China and to a lesser extent Indonesia (also the country with the largest Moslem population!) will see the most economic growth and will serve as the fastest-growing trading partners for the U.S. over the next 20-30 years. Even the fact that China gets one flank whereas Brazil gets two sends a message. I imagine if this photo were taken circa 1875 that in one, Disraeli would be flanked by President Grant and the Russian Czar; a German would replace the Czarina in the photo with Queen Victoria.
By contrast, the front page of the New York Times of the same day took the political low road, showing the photo of Obama, flanked by Sarkozy and Brown, accusing Iran of building a secret plant for the manufacture of nuclear fuel for weapons. The ideological subtext of course was the united front of western military powers. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to predict that 20 years from now most people will agree that the ideological subtext of the local paper got it right, that the rise of Brazil and China is a more important story than the continuation of our spat with Iran. BTW, the Times photo of President Obama with Hu was very small and on page A-9 of the national edition.
On the same day, Yahoo!, the popular search engine and portal, had a “front-page” photo of Michelle with Carla Bruni, the glamour girls looking a little conspiratorial, as if they’re dishing the dirt about Carla’s former boyfriends. That photo links to a fashion slide show of all the first ladies in attendance. Let’s close by sadly noting that more people see Yahoo! than the Times and Post-Gazette put together.