National Archives' emails show little debate over altering photo of Women's March
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National Archives' emails show little debate over altering photo of Women's March
A printed statement is posted on the back side of the protest photo that was partially blurred at the National Archives Museum in Washington on Jan. 18, 2020. The museum has released emails about its decision to blur some signs in a photo of the 2017 Women’s March that were critical of President Donald Trump. Leigh Vogel/The New York Times.

by Maria Cramer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It did not take long for conspiracy theories and accusations of censorship to emerge after the National Archives and Records Administration admitted it had altered a photo of the 2017 Women’s March to hide disparaging references to President Donald Trump.

Doctoring the photo was “nothing less than Orwellian,” fumed the American Civil Liberties Union, which accused the archives of trying to hide criticism.

Historians and archivists said the agency had violated the public’s trust. March organizers called it an attempt to silence women.

And on social media, some questioned whether Trump himself had ordered the alterations, recalling his fury over a photo of his inauguration crowds.

But in dozens of emails released by the National Archives about the image, officials appeared more concerned about the costs of licensing the photo than the ethics of changing it. Although a few of the emails were heavily redacted, nearly all of the emails suggest employees at the archives were not worried about political fallout from using an image that had signs critical of Trump.

Nor do the emails, released in response to a public records request filed by The New York Times and other organizations, reveal that anyone at the National Archives considered that the decision could be seen as unethical, sexist or even remotely contentious.

“The decision to alter the image was made during an August 2017 meeting, as the records indicate,” the agency said. “We do not have any additional information with more specific language describing concerns about the words that were blurred.”

In a Jan. 5, 2018, email, Ray Ruskin, the museum’s exhibition designer, suggested any photo display in the exhibit may have to be scrubbed.

“I should warn you that we have been told by the Archivist that any images we end up using should be carefully inspected for offensive signage,” Ruskin wrote to four other people involved with the May 2019 exhibit, about the struggle of women to gain the right to vote. The archivist is David Ferriero, who was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009.

A senior account executive at Getty Images, whose photographer Mario Tama took the image, did not express any reservations when a National Archives official told her it would be altered.

“He’s just blurred some of the offensive words,” one archives employee wrote to the executive in November 2018.

In February 2019, Ruskin sent an email with the altered photo attached to Michael Hussey, who was then manager of museum programs at the National Archives.

“Attached is a small version of the ‘cleaned up’ 2017 march,” he told Hussey.

The image showed words referring to the female anatomy had been blurred from one sign and “Trump” had been blurred out of another that said “God Hates Trump.”

Anne Flanagan, a spokeswoman for Getty Images, confirmed that archives officials told them they only planned to blur out obscenities.

“Our editorial license does not allow modification of content,” she said in an email, saying that also applied to standard licenses for uses like a museum display. “We have no record of any requests to approve modifications to the image, with the exception of blurring of obscenities for public display.”

The archives had initially defended the decision to alter the images.

“As a nonpartisan, nonpolitical federal agency, we blurred references to the president’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy,” Miriam Kleiman, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement to The Washington Post, which first reported on the changes.

But following the burst of public fury, officials at the museum took down the photo and apologized.

“We made a mistake,” the agency said in a statement. “This photo is not an archival record held by the National Archives but one we licensed to use as a promotional graphic. Nonetheless, we were wrong to alter the image.”

In a reflection of the country’s highly polarized climate, the National Archives and other agencies that are usually seen as inoffensive have provoked criticism in their handling of records and photos — and in their efforts to avoid controversy.

This month, the National Archives issued a statement countering accusations that it was allowing for the destruction of millions of documents about the mistreatment of immigrants.

In 2019, the Library of Congress removed from an exhibit a large mural depicting protesters at the Women’s March because there were concerns the image might appear critical of Trump, according to The Post.

In an email to the photographer last May, Betsy Nahum-Miller, the library’s senior exhibition director, wrote that the photograph had to be removed because “there were a couple of anti-Trump messages that appear very clearly in the image,” The Post reported.

And after an employee at the National Park Service retweeted photos comparing the inaugural crowds of 2009 and 2017, Trump called the agency’s director and asked if he could produce photos that would show that the crowds at his inauguration were bigger than the news media had reported.

Many of the names in the emails from the National Archives were redacted, so it is difficult to know who else was involved in the changes of the photo. Other emails were also heavily redacted, including one written by Ruskin in which he sought to give his perspective in the days after the uproar.

A spokesman said Ruskin’s email was related to the agency’s internal review of exhibit policies and had “nothing to do with the changes to the photo.” The policies are under review and considered “to be deliberative,” said the spokesman, John Valceanu.

Louise Melling, a deputy legal director at the ACLU, praised the National Archives for releasing the emails.

“While it remains unclear why the National Archives considered it offensive to reference the president or women’s bodies, it is doing the right thing by hearing the public’s concerns, taking responsibility and being transparent,” she said in a statement.

The National Archives also released emails from officials in the days after the news media reported on the photo. The emails indicate the organization opened a review of its policies and procedures surrounding exhibits.

David Coontz II, who works in the office of the chief operation officer, said in a Jan. 22 email that he had searched online for ethics codes for archivists and librarians at different organizations.

“It is interesting to note that a search for ‘ethics NARA’ did not return any hits,” he wrote, using the archives’ acronym.

2020 The New York Times Company

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