Did Reuters Mislead About 'Bathroom' Note?

September 15th, 2005 1:49 PM

Wilking's picture
Did Reuters photographer Rick Wilking falsely imply that President Bush asked permission to go to the restroom during his trip to the United Nations?

Yesterday, as I noted here at NewsBusters, Wilking took a picture ("destined to become one of the most joked about photos of the month" in the words of Editor & Publisher) of a note allegedly being written by President Bush. Here is the caption which Reuters assigned to the photo according to Yahoo News:

U.S. President George W. Bush writes a note to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a Security Council meeting at the 2005 World Summit and 60th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York September 14, 2005. World leaders are exploring ways to revitalize the United Nations at a summit on Wednesday but their blueprint falls short of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's vision of freedom from want, persecution and war.

With the caption worded as it is, the casual observer (including me last night) is very likely to conclude that Bush was asking Rice for leave to go to the men's room.

Upon closer examination, however, this does not appear to be the case. Was it written by two different people? The first part of the note which includes the text "I think I may NEED a BATHroom break?" appears in a thick block script while the other phrase which reads "Is this possib" is in a different writing style.

Looking at a second photo which Reuters released in which one can see the head of a man who appears similar to the president, it seems very likely that Bush wrote the second part of the note. This conclusion is further bolstered after looking at several online samples of the president's handwriting (1, 2, 3, 4, 5); the resemblence of the latter part of the note is quite striking.

Did Bush write the first part of the note? It's possible but there are several problems with that hypothesis. The first and biggest is the difference in handwriting styles. Why would Bush take the time to write in two different manners in a little note?

The second problem is that the phrase ends with a question mark. More than likely the president, being the highest-ranking American official in the room, would tell someone to set it up, not ask if it were possible for him to go. It seems more plausible that the first phrase was written by a close aide asking Bush's permission to leave.

All that said, it doesn't rule out the possibility that President Bush did indeed write the note. But why on earth print such a non-newsworthy and unfair photograph?

Hat tip: NewsBusters commenter "fatchumby" who noticed the discrepancy earlier today.

UPDATE 14:51. Was the aide Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice? I initially thought so until I looked at this note that she and President Bush exchanged last year. I'm no handwriting analyst, but it looks quite different from the style of this year's UN note. Unfortunately, I haven't found any other samples of her handwriting online. If you find any, please post them as a comment on this entry.

UPDATE 15:11. For a fuller context look at the situation yesterday, see this Yahoo listing. FYI, these results will only be valid for about a month.

UPDATE 15:32. I just got off the phone with handwriting analyst Sheila Lowe who had this preliminary remark: "The bottom part of it certainly matches his handwriting. I haven't seen his printing so I can't say conclusively about the top half."

UPDATE 16:31. Lowe emails back: "At a quick glance, the printing is consistent with the cursive writing." She's off for a while but says she'll email with further analysis. I've also put the question to some other handwriting experts. We'll see what their conclusions are.

UPDATE 16:37. E&P followup quoting Reuters photo editor Gary Hershorn: "Rick had no idea what he was shooting, or what Bush was writing. If Rick knew what he was writing we'd have 25 pictures of this, not two."

UPDATE 18:03. Handwriting expert Sheila Lowe on the note:

The word "think" is definitely his. I suppose it's possible that someone could have cut and pasted a couple of words in, but I can't make a better judgment without seeing some of his authentic printing to compare to.

If it is all his writing, the emphasis on certain words (Bath) would suggest, perhaps, a certain . . . urgency? It's pretty much guesswork on that.

On why if the entire note were written by the same person why he/she changed writing styles:

Switching styles mid-note is generally a sign of inconsistency and unnevenness of temperament or behavior. This is often seen in someone who blurts out what they're thinking, or acts out without due consideration.

UPDATE 18:39. Photo District News reports:

Wilking shot about 200 images and sent two memory cards to the press room at the U.N., where Hershorn was working. Hershorn looked at the images on a computer and initially decided not to send any of them.

But a few hours later, he started to wonder about a note that Bush was seen writing in three of the pictures. Out of curiosity, he zoomed in to see if he could read it.

Once he saw what it said, Hershorn decided the note was interesting and worth publishing. The white parts of the picture were overexposed, so a Reuters processor used Photoshop to burn down the note. This is a standard practice for news photos, Hershorn says, and the picture was not manipulated in any other way.

Around 4:30 p.m., Reuters transmitted two versions of the photo, including one that was tightly cropped around the note and Bush's hand.

UPDATE 19:41. My colleague Marc Morano spoke with a Washington-based Reuters editor who says employess are not supposed to edit shots in the manner Hershon described above. "We have corporate rules against that and anybody who did that would be, would be fired immediately," Jim Bourg is quoted as saying.

This story will no longer be updated. See the NewsBusters front page for more news.

UPDATE 09-17 17:43. OK I lied about the update. While I was out and about Friday and Saturday, the New York Post (rr) talked with Condoleeza Rice; she confirmed my suspicions that the photo was authentic:

The usually unflappable Rice was wide-eyed when she was shown a copy of the photo yesterday during a meeting with The Post editorial board.

"Oh, my goodness . . . there are no secrets," she said, laughing.

Rice explained that when Bush handed her the note, she told him all he had to do was get up and go, and that she'd take his seat while he answered nature's call.

To conclude: The pic was real, President Bush needs better penmanship habits, and Reuters needs to determine whether its photo editor Gary Hershorn violated internal rules about editing news photos.