Nicholas Kristof wrote a fascinating couple of opinion articles for the NYTimes over the last two weeks, and the reason for some reader dissent and confusion in the first story appears to stem from a core misunderstanding — purposeful or not — about the image.

Here’s what Kristof wrote on February 22, 2014:

As an infant, Johnny was deaf but no one noticed or got him the timely medical care he needed to restore his hearing. He lives in a trailer here in the hills of rural Appalachia with a mom who loves him and tries to support him but is also juggling bills, frozen pipes and a broken car that she can’t afford to fix.

The first error Kristof makes — but has yet to apologize for, or clarify — is labeling Johnny “Deaf.”  Deafness is a cultural condition from which one does not get “healed” so the proper term should have been “hearing loss” since the “Deafness” was not actual, but imagined, by Kristof.

The real outrage aimed at Kristof was not over his inappropriate use of “Deaf” — but rather the way some of his readers felt he was celebrating a degenerate lifestyle of poverty in this image:

Here’s what Kristof wrote a week later on March 1, 2014:

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

Isn’t it fascinating Kristof’s readers chose to focus on a mother spending money on Tattoos — skin Art that could be decades old — and not the condition of the child born into poverty?

Then, in his second article, Kristof included this alternate image of Johnny and his mom that doesn’t highlight her tattoos as much and, I admit, the effect on the eye is likely less alarming to the mainstream, middling, mind:

I’m sure there are some readers who will contact Kristof this week to complain Johnny’s mother cannot afford to take care of feeding a dog or paying for an electric fan if she’s so poor — but there are always miscreants on the internet who live online just to help a troubled stew boil.

The more interesting question is what would have happened if the second image had replaced the first in the original article?  Would readers have still focused on the mother’s tattoos and not the medical condition of the child?

Images are powerful — they speak for us when we cannot — and images propagate emotions and thoughts that we cannot always control.  I’m sure Kristof is still stinging a bit that the NYTimes photo editor had more effect on his readers than the words he wrote, but that’s the way of a modern life where the ethereal outweighs the real, and internet outrage passes for critical thinking and thoughtful, considered, peer review.

4 Comments

  1. What a shame that a picture can detract so much from an intelligent debate about such an important subject. Sadly people are all to quick to judge on appearances only – but one I am very familiar with on a personal level – even to the extent of not reading the article accurately.

    The “moral high ground” is a wonderful place from which to pass judgement until you realize you are surrounded by mountains yourself.

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    1. Yes, that’s the point that Kristof learned the hard way in his second article. People find it easier to objectify and judge the poor than to listen to them and see them as real people in need of help and not pity or scorn.

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  2. Having a friend with many tattoos, I am aware of their actual cost — and how in the tattoo community, they can be extremely inexpensive or free if you have the right connections. My friend paid for maybe one of his tattoos — but the rest were done by the artist because she wanted to do so, or gifted the tattoos, etc.

    People make the most ridiculous presumptions when they see something that seems to smack of wealth without bothering to consider that there may be an explanation for it. They see a person paying for their food with food stamps but also has an iPhone? Must be ripping off the government! (Never mind that they were given the phone as a gift by a relative…) — as another example I see far too often.

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    1. Many of us were raised to believe first impressions matter — and if we’re expected to dress to impress, I think some tend to turn that around as a verifiable way to judge others. Sad, really. We only know what we’re indoctrinated to believe and anything outside or different is judged and distanced.

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