A missile too many ?
Latest update at 3 p.m. Eastern Agence France-Presse has retracted the image as "apparently digitally altered." More developments at the bottom of the post.
As news spread across the world of Iran's provocative missile tests, so did an image of four missiles heading skyward in unison. Unfortunately, it appeared to contain one too many missiles, a point that had not emerged before the photo was used on the front pages of The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, The Chicago Tribune and several other newspapers as well as on BBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo! News, NYTimes.com and many other major news Web sites.
The Los Angeles Times, The Palm Beach Post and Chicago Tribune, among others, used the image on their front pages on Thursday. Our home page at 3:56 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday.
Agence France-Presse said that it obtained the image from the Web site of Sepah News, the media arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, on Wednesday. But there was no sign of it there later in the day. Today, The Associated Press distributed what appeared to be a nearly identical photo from the same source, but without the fourth missile.
As the above illustration shows, the second missile from the right appears to be the sum of two other missiles in the image. The contours of the billowing smoke match perfectly near the ground, as well in the immediate wake of the missile. Only a small black dot in the reddish area of exhaust seems to differ from the missile to its left, though there are also some slight variations in the color of the smoke and the sky.
Does Iran's state media use Photoshop? The charge has been leveled before. So far, though, it can't be said with any certainty whether there is any official Iranian involvement in this instance. Sepah apparently published the three-missile version of the image today without further explanation.
For its part, Agence France-Presse retracted its four-missile version this morning, saying that the image was "apparently digitally altered" by Iranian state media. The fourth missile "has apparently been added in digital retouch to cover a grounded missile that may have failed during the test," the agency said. Later, it published an article quoting several experts backing that argument.
Along with major doubts about the image, American intelligence officials had larger questions on exactly how many missiles were fired. One defense official said that "at least 7, and possibly up to 10″ had taken flight in all, though the intelligence data was still being sorted out. Only one of them was said to be a Shahab 3.
In a sentiment no doubt echoed by news organizations everywhere, an MSNBC editor acknowledged that the four-missile picture was initially welcomed with open arms. "As the media editor working the msnbc.com home page yesterday, I was frustrated with the quality of a fuzzy video image we published of the Iranian missile launch," said Rich Shulman, the network's associate multimedia editor. "So I was thrilled when the top image crossed the news wires."
Top, the image that Agence France-Presse obtained from Sepah News on Wednesday. Below, another image that The Associated Press received from the same source on Thursday, which appeared to be taken from the same vantage point at almost the same time.