What is it about Super Bowl halftime shows that so insistently tests our First Amendment principles?
Nine years after Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” spurred an indecency battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, a new controversy has erupted around the much-watched annual performance. This time Beyoncé Knowles, who performed at the halftime show for Super Bowl XLVII in February, is at the center of a battle over who should have the right to take photos at her concerts.
It all started after BuzzFeed posted a photo essay titled “33 Fiercest Moments From Beyoncé’s Halftime Show,” featuring images of the pop sensation’s halftime performance captured by photographers at Getty Images, Reuters and elsewhere. Beyoncé’s publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure of the Schure Media Group, decided that seven of those photos should be taken down, and she fired off a letter to BuzzFeed asking that they be removed (from the Internet, as if that ever happens).
“I am certain that you will be able to find some better photos,” Noel-Schure wrote in an email.
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BuzzFeed had a better idea, and instead followed up its article with “The ‘Unflattering’ Photos Beyoncé’s Publicist Doesn’t Want You To See.” Gawker, the Huffington Post and other outlets followed suit, and soon the photos in question were being posted (and memed) all across the Web.
It’s a phenomenon known as the “Streisand effect,” named for Barbara Streisand, who in 2003 sued the California Coastal Records Project in an attempt to have an aerial photo of her Malibu mansion removed from its database. Streisand’s effort drew greater attention to the very thing she was trying to suppress, and the incident has since served as a cautionary tale for celebrities who cling too tightly to their public images.
It seems Beyoncé & Co. haven't learned from the past. In an apparent response to the halftime-show photo debacle, Schure Media Group has instituted a new set of press guidelines for Beyoncé’s 2013 world tour. Among them is the following passage:
“There are no photo credentials for this show. Local news outlets, including print and online, will be given a link to download photos from every show. They will need to register to access the photos.”
That restriction has angered the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), an advocacy group for photojournalists. Last week, the group’s lead counsel, Mickey Osterreicher, sent a letter on behalf of 19 news organizations -- including the Los Angeles Times, NPR, the First Amendment Coalition and others -- asking that the guidelines be immediately revised.
In a phone interview, Osterreicher said he believes the restrictions will ultimately harm, not help, Beyoncé’s image. “They’re already having unintended consequences,” he said.
Osterreicher said that at least one news outlet, Manchester Evening News, has already refused to publish the “official photos” sanctioned by Beyoncé's PR team. So what did the newspaper do in early May when the pop singer played the Manchester Arena? As you probably guessed, it published one of the “unflattering” photos that Beyoncé’s PR team had objected to.
Osterreicher, meanwhile, said he knows of no news outlet that has agreed to comply with requests to remove the Beyoncé photos from their websites. While he understands Schure Media Group’s desire to protect its client’s public image, he said banning photojournalists from high-profile music events sets a bad precedent. Putting aside for a second the fact that virtually every attendee at every Beyoncé concert comes equipped with a cellphone camera, Osterreicher worries that other large event coordinators will follow down the same path of restricting photos from the independent press in lieu of their own in-house images. He said sports organizations like Major League Baseball are considering similar moves.
“It just keeps chipping away at photographers’ ability to do things,” he said. “If Beyoncé doesn’t want press at her concerts, that’s her right. She can do whatever she wants. But then to say she has these photos that she’s going to hand out. It sounds to us like she’s trying to have it both ways.”
Noel-Schure did not return a request for comment, and Osterreicher said he has yet to hear back from her, despite repeated follow-ups. He said her ongoing silence is perplexing given the number of news outlets that have thrown their weight behind NPPA’s objections.
In the meantime, if you happen to see some photos from Beyoncé’s 2013 world tour, don’t be so sure they haven’t been Photoshopped. Unlike news outlets, most of which operate by a code of standards that prohibits such tampering, PR companies are free to enhance their photos as they see fit. Osterreicher said this is why news consumers -- perhaps more than they realize -- rely on professional photojournalists to present the truest and most accurate visual account of the news.
“I’m not saying we walk on water,” he said. “God knows photojournalists have fooled people and done unethical things. But we try to police ourselves.”
Read NPPA’s full letter here.