Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Is the Wall Street Journal Trying to Say about Elena Kagan?

Posted By on 05.13.10 at 12:48 PM

The Wall Street Journal publishes, on its front page, a 17-year-old photo of Elena Kagan playing softball. She's at bat, but we don't see her swing. Is the Journal alluding? Is it innuendoing?

Politico's Ben Smith samples reaction to the Journal's choice of art. Much of it is skeptical. "The question from a journalistic perspective is whether it’s a descriptive representation of who she might be as a judge," says a former spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Have you ever seen a picture of Clarence Thomas bowling?"

This comment raises two questions. Why are there no photos of Clarence Thomas bowling? What's that about? What's he hiding?

The second question is more technical, and I'm asking it from a journalistic perspective. What sort of photo of Ms. Kagan would do the job as a descriptive representation of who she might be as a judge? How do you capture that? Does the photographer line up his camera and then say, "OK, do something judgelike?"

The photograph chosen by the Journal does say this: "She will be the sort of judge who when she was younger liked to play softball." That's worth knowing. We don't know if Clarence Thomas is the sort of judge who when he was younger liked to bowl, and as a result we kind of doubt it.

If, beyond giving us this smidgen of information, the Journal was alluding or innuendoing instead of simply asking — well, who is simply asking?

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