The thought of a world where pictures, documents and other materials are edited by the government or those in power may seem like something out of the novel “1984,” but sadly it appears that it is starting to become more reality than dystopian fiction. This was especially clear when The Washington Post reported on Jan. 17 that the National Archives and Records Administration, which is a government agency tasked with preserving historical and governmental records, had edited a photo of the 2017 Women’s March to make protesters look less critical of President Donald. J Trump’s administration. The agency, which is technically independent of any president or political party, confirmed that it had blotted out some of the signs held by women in the image, changing “God Hates Trump,” to “God Hates,” or blurring out signs making references to female anatomy. In a statement, the National Archives indicated that it had altered the image, which is to be a part of its exhibition titled, “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Right to Vote,” in an effort to avoid engaging in political controversy. The irony of this was not lost on anyone, and after a swift backlash from the public, the Archives quickly reversed their decision, saying in a tweet that they had “made a mistake,” and that they would be replacing the altered image with an unaltered one. This may lead many to forget that such a choice was made in the first place. However, they would be remiss in doing so because the incident has a lesson to teach, and more importantly, is a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Some might argue that the National Archives were correct in choosing to alter the image. As the agency pointed out, according to Vox, one of the archivists that was supportive of the move to edit the image was appointed by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat. What’s more, The Washington Post says that the National Archives considers itself to be a non-partisan government agency, so doesn’t it make sense that they would choose to display images as being as neutral as possible? Not really. In fact, by altering the image the agency is not signaling that it is non-partisan at all, because a truly non-partisan move would be to allow history to take precedence over politics. In other words, if the Archives really wanted to highlight the fact that they are independent, they would have done so by allowing people to view the Women’s March as it happened as opposed to a sanitized version of it. By altering the photo, the Archives demonstrated a bias toward the Trump administration. Even though it was clearly the wrong move on their part, the decision was probably not made with a conscious bias or intent to protect Trump at all costs. Rather, it was probably done because of years of Trump and his allies shouting “fake news” at the top of their lungs or railing about “the deep state” whenever they are presented with information that they do not agree with or that paint them in a negative light.
Far from being unfair to Trump, contrary to what some of his followers may contend, government agencies appear to bend over backwards to appear to be fair to him, all while still attempting to be truthful. These are two goals which are about as mutually exclusive as they seem. Instead of the Trump administration pressuring the Archives to edit the images, the decision was likely made out of an abundance of caution, fearing that leaving the images as they actually are could have brought the wrath of Trump and his allies down upon them. There is also a widespread idea floating around some circles that to be fair is to be centrist, or moderate, which results in taking “the middle ground” on an issue even if the truth actually lies on one of the opposite ends. The problem with this strategy, though, is that that’s not how the National Archives is supposed to work.
The Archives, for its part, is tasked with documenting history, and history is inherently based on facts and reality, not interpretation. Lest we forget what its mission is, a section of the Archives website even reads, “Records help us to claim our rights as citizens, to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, and to document our history as a nation.” This means that the agency is supposed to document history exactly as it actually happened, not to change it whenever it might be politically convenient to do so. After all, if the agency were to avoid documenting or seek to alter every controversial thing that ever happened in history, there really wouldn’t be a point to having it at all, because history in general is rife with controversy. The silver lining in all this is that what could have been yet another example of our society devolving into an Orwellian dystopia has now been rectified. But the underlying issue of acting as if one needs to essentially erase reality to give the appearance of being fair is still very much alive.