Photo manipulation leads to major media mess in Romanoff campaign

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A week that began as a victory lap for Andrew Romanoff’s Senate campaign dissolved into a morass of charges, counter-charges, apologies and backtracking over a doctored photograph on the Democrat’s campaign Web site. Fueled by bloggers and extended for days by the campaign’s own press releases, the story — which nearly everyone agreed wasn’t worth all the scrutiny it got — brought national attention to Romanoff’s primary challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet for a Photoshop faux pas when the candidate might have preferred to celebrate victories in county assemblies and discuss trade policy.

In this undoctored photo taken at his official candidacy announcement by The Statesman, an African American supporter is positioned perfectly between Andrew Romanoff and Jack Shaver. If Romanoff had used a photo like this, he wouldn’t have had to rely on photoshop.

Starting Wednesday evening — when Rio Grande County was handing all its state assembly delegates to Romanoff and following a Romanoff appearance unveiling a five-point policy on international trade —The Denver Post’s Lynn Bartels posted a story on the newspaper’s political blog pointing out that a banner photo on the AndrewRomanoff.com Web site appeared to have been “manipulated” to insert an African-American woman next to the candidate. The Photoshop sleight-of-hand was easy to spot because the original photo, taken at Romanoff’s campaign kick-off rally last September, displayed separately when the campaign site first loaded, showing a different woman standing next to Romanoff, facing away from the camera.

Turns out former Denver School Board candidate Andrea Mosby, the African-American woman who was cut-and-pasted into the banner photograph — which also stitched in other crowd shots from the rally — was at the event and didn’t mind that she’d been digitally moved closer to Romanoff. She told Bartels there was nothing wrong with the image manipulation. Romanoff campaign spokesman Roy Teicher agreed: “We’re not putting in someone who wasn’t at the rally,” Teicher told Bartels. “We do nothing that suggests the rally is bigger than it was.” He added: “The practice of using Photoshop is absolutely accepted under these circumstances.”

Romanoff’s campaign spokesman didn’t return multiple e-mails and phone messages from The Colorado Statesman.

The political Web site ColoradoPols.com picked up the story Wednesday night, dubbing the kerfuffle “Photoshopstroturfing,” and dug into its archives to detail the last time a candidate got in trouble for manipulating images — when Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman made himself appear taller in a photo taken with former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Bloggers hooted and hollered, but the story looked like one of those that catches some attention briefly and then disappears.

Enter Susan Greene. The Denver Post columnist, who has written columns critical of Romanoff’s primary challenge in the past, suggested in the next morning’s paper that the campaign’s practice called into question Romanoff’s “authenticity.”

“It’s one thing to digitally erase a zit from a candidate’s forehead or touch up his open zipper,” Greene wrote. “It’s quite another to literally cut and paste photos of people into the emblem of a political campaign, especially when that campaign has made a talking point of ‘integrity.’”

Greene also quoted Teicher uttering a phrase that would come back to haunt the press secretary, who took over for former campaign spokesman Dean Toda on Monday. “Those minority folks were absolutely at the rally,” Teicher said. “We were just simply moving around random people for aesthetic reasons.”

Overnight, too, political Web sites Talking Points Memo and The Hill’s Ballot Box ran with Bartels’ original post and brought some unflattering publicity to the Romanoff campaign. “Dem Senate Candidate Alters Photo To Include Black Woman, More Supporters,” TPM headlined the story. Later that day, The Hill added to its coverage by picking Teicher’s “those minority folks” line as its Quote of the Day.

Thursday afternoon, the Romanoff camp issued a statement from campaign manger Bill Romjue, who blasted the Bennet campaign and columnist Greene under the heading “Desperate campaigns make desperate decisions.” Calling the Photoshop flap a “sad distraction from the issues that matter to so many hard-working Coloradans,” Romjue suggested the ponied-up controversy was part of a string of low blows delivered by the Bennet campaign. He reiterated what Teicher had said earlier, that there was nothing wrong with what the campaign had done.

Not exactly the best response, the editors at ColoradoPols.com assessed. “Romanoff’s campaign just committed the cardinal sin of self-inflicted wound repair: Calling more attention to the story that has caused you so much trouble already,” the site opined. Probably not the best idea to pick a fight with a newspaper columnist, either, the Web site’s editors said.

But there was more to come.

Just after midnight Thursday night, a group of 25 Hispanic leaders — most of whom had already endorsed Bennet at an event last month — released to the press a letter they said they planned to deliver to the Romanoff campaign on Friday.

“‘These minority folks’ write to you today shocked, disturbed and outraged,” began the missive delivered by Joseph Salazar, a Thornton attorney. “Please allow this letter to serve as notice that we are NOT random people to be moved around for aesthetic reasons. We are NOT political pawns to be used when convenient nor do we accept being manipulated and repositioned when it serves one’s political motives. The ‘photoshopping in’ of minorities is not acceptable and falls far short of the integrity we expect of candidates running for the [U.S.] Senate.”

Salazar’s outrage simmered through the day Friday, ultimately leading to yet another statement from the Romanoff campaign, this time from the candidate himself. Saying he regretted the Photoshop controversy offended anyone, Romanoff said he had “removed the montage from our website,” and then turned his outrage on critics. “I take offense at any suggestion that our campaign attempted to deceive anyone,” he said. “That’s outrageous and false. I bring a lifetime of commitment to equality and opportunity, and I reject these attacks on my character. I am very proud of the diverse support we’ve already received and continue to earn every day.”

Case closed? Not before ColoradoPols.com got in yet another dig at the Romanoff campaign, charging the three-day story exhibited a sad lack of message control. “Who could have imagined we would still be talking about this?” a ColoradoPols.com editor asked by way of introducing a post that characterized Romanoff’s reaction as backing down on the Photoshop controversy.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com