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?


Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of the second-best graduation gift ever.




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May 2, 2014

[Your 'idiot picture' looks fine. I don't know why you're embarrassed about it.]

That was the very first thought that appeared in my head too, but based on Scotts blog I gather its not the picture but what story they put with it. Imagine that pic in a story about what celebs think of starving African villagers.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 2, 2014
"Start looking for it and you'll find yourself laughing at those stories from now on instead of believing them at face value."

Face value - good one!
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
May 2, 2014
Your 'idiot picture' looks fine. I don't know why you're embarrassed about it.
May 2, 2014
One of the biggest problems about the new media today is the lack of cynicism in its consumers.

Sure, there are people here and there that treat this or that news source as if they are run by the devil, but those people usually have another news source that they trust implicitly. All news from any source should be evaluated with a critical eye. Does the author or reporter have a bias or agenda? Is this just sensationalism because it's a slow news day? Is there an alternative context to the elements of the story that is presented in other news sources? Is the story being repeated from another source without any additional fact checking?
May 2, 2014
I really think that this picture of the former Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, takes the cake.


Hint: His Grace is the one on the left.
May 2, 2014
Just look at any picture of the President or his wife on Drudge Report. Drudge has a gift when it comes to finding idiot photos.

Also, I have a cousin who reflexively forwards anti-Obama emails to me. I've seen Obama's photo from his Sandy Hook shooting speech reused about 20 times, always in some context of "I screwed up again".

However, you've got to admit that John McCain's tongue-sticking-out photo at the debates is the all-time greatest idiot photo.

May 2, 2014
All my pictures are idiot pictures.

It's just a matter of taking everything out of context. The media love those moments where they can hit someone with a "gotcha" moment and you get 3-5 seconds of awkward facial expressions.

My favorite is when any politician is doing some kind of positive photo-op, shaking hands and smiling and some reporter pops up and tells them their wife, kids and puppy were just horribly killed - and the politician is smiling insanely into the camera while his brain tries to figure out what to do.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 2, 2014
The Los Angeles Times has been using photo assassination forever.
They use glamor photos for Democrat candidates and nose picking photos for Republicans.
It's hilarious when the photos are side by side.

In other news articles, you can guess how the article is presented by the photo accompanying it.
May 2, 2014
I believe all business photographers have a sadistic streak. I had to pose for a trade magazine article and had a similar experience where the guy asked me to make some pretty ridiculous poses, and of course those are the ones they used.

I used to be a fan of Business Insider, too, until every headline was about something "Amazing", "Unbelievable", etc. Amid the 10% really good content, there seems to be 90% clickbait.

+8 Rank Up Rank Down
May 2, 2014
"Start looking for it and you'll find yourself laughing at those stories from now on instead of believing them at face value."

That's already how I respond to roughly 90% of what I read / see / hear in the news. Nearly every news report on a subject that I have first-hand knowledge of gets even the most basic facts wrong. Sometimes it's oversight, other times it's an intentional effort to sensationalize things. Either way, it's ridiculous.

Just one example: http://seattlebubble.com/blog/2010/10/29/local-media-misdirects-massive-foreclosure-freak-out/
May 2, 2014
my favorite was a story back in the late 90s on Bill Clinton speaking about breast cancer research. I can't find the exact photo (or more accurately I don't feel like digging through hundreds of images) but it was something close to this:


only his hands were more cupped, his eyes wider & his mouth more open...
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