Unflattering photo of Boehner was just bad luck, not a mugging

Two Saturdays ago, on the morning after congressional leaders reached an 11th-hour accord that kept the federal government from shutting down, our readers received two very different images of the man who played a key role in that agreement, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.The version they got depended on where they lived — or on where they bought their Plain Dealer that day.

People who live in the counties surrounding Cuyahoga, or people who bought their newspaper at a store or out of a box, got the one above, showing Boehner with a goofy grin, leaning to one side, his eyes rolling up in his head. But people who live in Cuyahoga County saw a more statesmanlike Boehner. They got the photo beneath it, with the speaker soberly addressing reporters from behind a bank of microphones.Unfortunately, as so often happens in situations like this, some readers smelled a nonexistent rat:

“My wife and I are both registered Democrats, but . . . this is so juvenile that I can’t stand it,” said one indignant caller, who got a paper with the first photo. “I’ve got to believe that there was a picture available to the editors that looked less offensive than the one I’m looking at right now.”

Another caller, who identified her self as an independent, called it cowardly. “This was a serious process, and this picture makes John Boehner look like a clown,” she said. “I am insulted, and I think every other voter should be insulted, too.”

I suppose it is a sign of the deep political divisions that characterize our society that so many readers would take one look at an unflattering photo of a political figure and conclude that it was selected deliberately by some editor with an ax to grind.

That is a distressing notion for newspaper folks, who prize their credibility above all else. It would require an editor, working under the kind of deadline pressure that would unravel most of us, wanting (and having the time) to search a stack of photos for the goofiest one he could find of someone he doesn’t like, and then put it at the top of Page One in Ohio’s largest newspaper.

It just doesn’t happen.

Here’s what did happen that night:

As editors readied the paper for publication that Friday evening, they were racing toward two deadlines: the moment when a budget agreement had to be struck in order to avoid a government shutdown, and the moment when all of the pages had to be at our printing plant on Tiedeman Road in Brooklyn so that the presses could start on time.

On both, time ran out at midnight.

All evening, News Editor Chuck Caton, who was designing Page One, had known that the budget would be his lead story and photo. He just didn’t know what it would say or display — a last-minute deal or a shutdown. His deadline for sending the finished Page One to the printing plant was 11 p.m., but as that time approached, he knew a deal was in the works, so he held the page until he got the first wire story on the agreement. That arrived at 11:05.

He put the story on the page, built around a big white rectangle where the first budget-related photo he received would go, and waited. At 11:08, an Associated Press photo arrived of Boehner stepping up to the microphone.

As soon as Caton saw it, he knew he was toast. Boehner, not the most photogenic of men, had that odd look on his face. But there was no time to wait for a better choice, so onto the page went the photo, and off to the printing plant went the page.

It wasn’t long before a better photo arrived. Caton grabbed that one and subbed it on the page for the following edition — but it was too late to help the 40 percent of our readers who got the first edition, whose papers were printed and gone before the substitute page arrived at the plant.

Each night, The Plain Dealer is printed in two editions. The first (identified by three stars at the top right of Page One) goes to press at midnight, and is trucked to areas that are the farthest from downtown. This edition is also taken to stores and newspaper boxes, so they can be placed there as quickly as possible.

A second edition, the four-star, goes to press about 1:20 a.m. and is delivered mainly to routes in Cuyahoga County.

In between, editors work to improve or update what they can.

“Every night between editions, our editors go over the paper looking for things that we can improve,” said Deputy Managing Editor Daryl Kannberg, who oversees Page One content. “In this case, our editors went looking for a better picture of the speaker, found one and replaced the old one. Unfortunately, this was too late for the early edition.”

Most of those fixes are in the realm of polishing and perfecting, not immediately noticeable to readers.

But at times they can be dramatic, as you can see in the accompanying photos, and from the reaction that the first one got.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 17, 2011.

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