In a world of fake news, misinformation, and mal-information, does it matter that, in Britain, Kate, Princess of Wales, doctored an anodyne photograph of herself and her children over the weekend, or that here in New York, the city-controlled FDNY wants to punish firefighters for heckling state attorney general Letitia James at a ceremony last week? We all want to look our best, and it harms no one if a convalescing princess Photoshops her family, or if an elected official expects decorum during a speech. But reality—not Photoshopped or compelled-speech reality—matters. It often takes rude behavior, whether that of aggressive paparazzi or of boorish city workers, to make sure the news consists of what is really going on, not propaganda.

The Princess of Wales, the former Kate Middleton, has been the subject of public and press speculation since January, when Kensington Palace announced that, due to a scheduled abdominal surgery, she would be off work until at least the end of March. The princess and her family asked for privacy, and the British press has given it to them. Mainstream outlets, including the tabloids, refrained from investigating the nature of Kate’s surgery. Earlier this month, the U.K. press also declined to publish an unauthorized paparazzo photo of Kate being driven in a private vehicle by her mother.

The Royal Family could have maintained this veil of privacy until the end of the month, or even longer, with Kate staying away from public events until she is ready. Instead, over Britain’s Mother’s Day weekend (earlier than in the U.S.), Kate and her husband, William, Prince of Wales, posted a cute photo to social media. Taken by William, the snap shows Kate surrounded by her three preteen children. The photo quickly became news, picked up by mainstream outlets and viewed tens of millions of times.

But it wasn’t a news photo. Even a cursory glance shows that something is off. Sure enough, Britain’s Royal-mad amateur Internet detectives began pointing out problems: the sweater sleeve on Kate’s daughter, Charlotte, is unnaturally cut; Charlotte’s hair suddenly disappears; blurry parts and clear parts don’t go together. (The Times of London has helpfully pointed out 17 inconsistencies, most identified by the public). Within hours, global news agencies from the AP to Reuters “killed” the photo, directing news outlets not to run it as a news photo.

The lesson is illustrative. A photo provided by a source or a target of news is not news. In this case, Kensington Palace’s goal conflicts with the public’s interest in knowing whether Kate, married to the heir to the throne, is recovering well, as the palace maintains, or whether she is gravely ill. If this were not a matter of public interest, then nothing that the Royal Family does would be; and, in that case, the press should cease covering the family altogether. The palace-provided photo purported to show that Kate is recovering well. But because it was doctored, it ended up showing no such thing.

The only evidence, then, that the public has of Kate’s physical state is the unauthorized, grainy paparazzo photo of last week. (A newer, supposedly candid photo, also of Kate in a car, with an unclear level of authorization from the palace, has itself become the target of speculation).

Yes, it takes a special kind of jerk to take a photo of a woman in a car who doesn’t want to be photographed. But jerks taking photos—that is, the actual free press, and the part of the free press that everyone dislikes—have provided the only public evidence thus far that an un-Photoshopped Kate is at least well enough to sit in a car. It’s also rude to take pictures of children fleeing a school shooting, rude to take pictures of people starving to death in a famine, rude to repeat a politician’s gaffe. This is called covering the news, and the point of the news is to depict reality.

This doesn’t absolve the media of exercising judgment, of course. The British press shouldn’t chase Kate around, shouldn’t behave recklessly or illegally to obtain a photo, and shouldn’t demand a daily health update from her.

But the British press was exercising judgment—in not running the earlier sensitive photo of Kate in the car—before the Royal Family tried to manipulate reality. Actual news photos are an antidote to that manipulation.

Back in New York, city officials want to suppress another type of inconvenient public information: dissent. Last week, some firefighters and family members booed State Attorney General Letitia James and shouted pro-Trump comments during her speech at a firefighter-promotion ceremony. (James had brought the civil fraud case that recently stripped Trump of his right to do business in New York State, as well as of significant assets in New York.) Now, the city’s FDNY leadership, appointed by Mayor Eric Adams, is “hunt[ing] . . . down” the dissenters—to do exactly what to them, is not clear. The city is embarrassed at the crowd’s treatment of James, a guest.

But James has no role at all in the FDNY, so she was there either in a personal or a political capacity. And the city’s civilian leadership seems not to have realized that a firefighter-promotion event is not a stage-managed political rally. It is a publicly covered event, and partly a personal event for the firefighters being promoted (that’s why they can bring their families).

City government cannot pick and choose the kind of speech allowed at such events. The FDNY did not decree in advance that nobody could clap or cheer James, or smile or frown at her. If people had the right to cheer and clap, as they generally do, they also had the right to boo. If they had a right to shout support—presumably, nobody would have been hunted down for shouting “Good job, AG!”—then they also had a right to shout disapproval of her case against Trump, which is disapproval of James’s official actions in office, not political speech. Attendees also had a right not to engage in compelled speech—that is, not to be dragooned into a show of support for James.

Nor has the city government ever maintained a broad historical practice of cracking down on spontaneous political speech from a boisterous crowd of government employees. Does Adams plan to “hunt down” and discipline any city employee who shouts at an official government event that he deserves four more years as mayor? Just as with James, where is the line?

The city invited James to speak because it wanted to provide her with the illusion that the city’s uniformed workforce supports her. Instead, the city got a dose of reality: that some people, at least, don’t support her or her case against Trump.

New York wanted to create a fiction around James; Kensington Palace wanted to create a fiction around Kate. But the actual news surrounding any public figure is the reality, not a stage-managed version. Real public life is messy. The public and the press must always remember: whether lovely people or prickly ones, well-intended or ill-minded, sympathetic or disliked, the public targets of free press and free speech will always try to doctor reality.

Photos: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images (left) / Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images (right)


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