Every famous person has an idiot picture. That’s the picture that the news trots out to illustrate any story in which they want to make you look like an idiot. And when you are famous, that story always happens. I was reminded of that by seeing Jack Welch’s idiot picture on Business Insider.
I’m not picking on Jack. Every famous person has an idiot picture. Here’s my idiot picture that appears all over the Internet whenever I am quoted out of context to look like an idiot or a douchebag.
The story behind my idiot picture is that years ago a photographer for Playboy told me to “act” as if I were talking to someone in an animated way. They needed four pictures of that sort to put in series at the bottom of the first page of my interview. I was still a rookie at the publicity game and I played along, making exaggerated faces while gesticulating wildly. Little did I know I was inadvertently posing for my idiot picture that would live on the Internet until the end of time.
Eventually I got smarter about how I allow myself to be photographed. Now when I’m asked to do something that will make me look playful in the right context but a douche bag in the wrong context, I decline the offer.
The key to picking a good idiot picture to accompany a celebrity hit piece is that you need to mismatch the photo to the content. In the Jack Welch photo he was obviously having a good laugh about something, and if you imagine that to be the context he just looks like a fun guy who enjoys people. But if you pair that picture with a story of how he made a probably-wrong-but-not-ridiculous assumption about some job statistics, the same picture makes him look like a wild-eyed loon.
My idiot picture usually gets paired with manufactured stories that use my words out of context to show that I must be a secret creationist, a secret holocaust denier, or a secret hater of all women. I say secret because most of those stories can be summarized this way:
“He didn’t say anything we disagree with. But the way he says the things that we totally agree with leads us to believe he has bad thoughts in his head.”
On its own, that sort of argument would fall flat. But humans are visual animals, so pairing my idiot picture with a report that I must be thinking idiot thoughts is quite compelling. There can’t be that much smoke without fire! If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck!
I worry that when I complain about the news industry manufacturing celebrity news that you think I am imagining it. You might not realize how systematic it is. The idiot picture is one of the most important elements of manufactured celebrity news. Start looking for it and you’ll find yourself laughing at those stories from now on instead of believing them at face value.
I’m a big fan of Business Insider and I don’t think they got the story wrong about Jack Welch. The story was worth reporting. But was that the fairest picture to accompany it?
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com
Author of the second-best graduation gift ever.