SHOT IN THE DARK: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch Uses a Corporate Photo to Promote the Safety of the Controversial Times Beach Dioxin Incinerator

April 20, 1994

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. But photographs don’t always tell the whole story. Take one that appeared in Saturday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example.
 
The aerial shot is prominently displayed at the tip of page 1 of section B. It shows the levee constructed around the proposed dioxin incinerator at Times Beach surrounded by water. The cutline states that “the water did not top the levee.,” which is the gist of the accompanying story. There is no credit line — no indication of who snapped the shutter or for whom.
 
When Steve Taylor called the Post photo desk Saturday morning to inquire about the photo, he was told that it was taken by freelance photographer Bill Stover. Taylor is a member of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), and as such was recently arrested for trespassing at the cleanup site during a demonstration against the planned incinerator.

 
Taylor then called Stover and politely asked him who commissioned the photograph. Taylor says Stover told him he was not at liberty to divulge his clients. When the RFT called the photographer on Sunday afternoon he had a lapse of memory. He couldn’t remember the specific photograph even though it was taken only a few days before. “I don’t know what photograph you’re talking about,” said Stover. “What I do for my business is my business,” he added.

 
Monday, the Post-Dispatch staff was a little more cooperative. The photo, it seems, was paid for and provided to the newspaper by Agribusiness Technologies Inc., according to Post photographer Gary Bohn. Agribusiness is a subsidiary of Syntex Inc., a giant pharmaceutical and chemical conglomerate that has been held liable by the EPA for the $116 million cleanup at Times Beach.

 
Gary Pendergrass, a spokesman for Agribusiness, says Agribusiness “took the pictures for our own documentation. … We just want to get the facts out.” But Agribusiness has more than a casual interest in the Times Beach dioxin incinerator. The preparations for the levee have been going on for years, as have the image problems associated with the cleanup. although federal and state agencies have given the green light, environmentalists and local elected officials are still objecting to the incinerator. Citizens of St. Louis County also voted against the construction of the incinerator in a non-binding election in 1990.
Besides all these public-relations problems, the planned incinerator would be located in a floodplain, one inundated previously. That’s why last week’s deluge offered Agribusiness such a positive media opportunity. What better way to prove the strength of their levee than trough providing photographs of it withstanding an Act of God? And who better to bear the Good News than the Post-Dispatch.

 
Bohn, the Post photographer, attributed the missing credit line to simple deadline pressure. Tom Uhlenbrock, the Pst environmental reporter who wrote the accompanying story, says the story was justified because of concerns over whether the levee could hold against such a big flood.

 
In a phone interview Monday, Uhlenbrock said that he inspected the levee early last week, and that he was told at that time that the company picture had been taken the day before. When reminded that his story didn’t run until Saturday, he corrected himself and said that he went to the site on Friday. The crest of the flood peaked on Thursday, which is when the photograph was allegedly taken, according to Uhlenbrock and Pendergrass. A for the helicopter service chartered by Agribusiness verified that the photograph was taken on Thursday.

 
But the cutline states that it was taken on Friday. The date is cortical to the accuracy of the photo because of the fluctuating river levels during the flood. The Meramec crested at 38.4 feet at Eureka on thursday, according to the National Weather Service. By Friday, it had dropped to 34.1. Earlier in the week the river was significantly lower.

 
Besides timing and attribution, the subject of ethics apparently never entered the picture, either. Uhlenbrock says printing company photographs “is not an unusual practice. We do that quite often..”

 
Bohn, the photographer, is in limited agreement. Using corporate photos is “not a common practice, but when it does help tell the story we accept photographs like that, says Bohn. “Our intent is not to make judgments on whether something’s ethical or not. Our intent is to tell the story in an objective way.”

 
Taylor doesn’t believe the Post’s actions were objective. “Pictures don’t lie,” says Taylor. “But you can lie about pictures. I want to emphasize that the floodplain is no the major issue. The major issue is corporate accountability and the whole question about the safety of incinerators in the first place.”

 
Taylor does see something else in the picture., however, something more subtle than a missing credit line. He sees the photo as a representation of the coverage the Post-Dispatch has chosen to provide on the dioxin issue. “I think it’s highly unethical that they would run a corporate photo with a credit line.”

First published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis)

–C.D. Stelzer (stlreporter@gmail.com)

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