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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The front pages of some major U.S. newspapers yesterday showed a photo of four Iranian missiles firing into the air in a demonstration of Iran's military might. That photo was distributed by Agence France-Presse, known as AFP, and it was picked up around the world. But apparently, only three missiles launched. The fourth malfunctioned. And here to talk about that photo is NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik, who joins us this morning from our studios in New York. And David, I'm sitting here, I'm looking at two newspapers - The Los Angeles Times and Britain's Financial Times - but there were others who put this photo right on the front page. It looks real - what happened?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, those papers were among many. What happened was that, as you say, Iran flexed its muscles, fires off these missiles. The Sepah, which is, if you can believe it, the PR arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, released this still photo. And you know, photo editors around the country - world, really, celebrate, because they needed something with that kind of clarity, not just sort of the fuzziness of a frame grab from a video shot. So, all over the country, Web sites, USA Today.com, New York Times.com - photo editors from Web sites and then photo editors for major newspapers also - put it on their front page to illustrate this saber-rattling occurring in the Middle East. New York Times photo editors questioned it, and challenged Agence France-Presse pretty hard, after they'd take a close look on it on Wednesday. And ultimately AFP sent out a corrective, saying that it appeared the photo'd been doctored.

MONTAGNE: Well tell us more about that, how was the fake photo caught?

FOLKENFLIK: Noticed, apparently, first by a blog called Little Green Footballs here in the States and then by photo editors at the New York Times. Wednesday afternoon, photo editor named Patrick Witty(ph), who handles foreign photographs for the Times, darted in to a meeting of senior editors and said this photo appears to be doctored. Then he and his boss, Michelle McNally and others at the Times, looked at it. And once they were looking at closely, they saw it had been doctored. You can see some of the clouds of smoke billowing on the second missile from the right have been taken from the first. And similarly, other parts of the image had been altered as well.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, they look a little like twins, but not quite, just a little bit different color.

FOLKENFLIK: Just a jump to the left.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Well, why would Iranians risk the embarrassment of releasing a doctored photo?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, this is a part of the propaganda game. The missiles being fired were not actually new missiles being shown, it was just trying to show the Iranians were willing to talk tough as they were concerned about, sort of, military tensions between Israel and also the U.S. and folks in Iran.

MONTAGNE: Which makes one wonder, how much can readers of even major Web sites and newspapers trust what they see with their own eyes?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I guess there'd be two key things. First off is, consider the source. You know, AFP distributed this, but it was really from an arm of the Iranian military. And so that has to be looked at with close scrutiny. Second thing in this day and age with Photoshopping, doctoring pictures easier than ever, and you have a lot of news organizations across the world working with people from different cultures who may not have American journalistic practices. And even sometimes American journalists. One LA Times photographer was caught submitting a doctored picture from Iraq. So, you know, always be careful.

MONTAGNE: NPR's David Folkenflik joined us from our New York City bureau. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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