Video Doesn’t Capture Truth

Like text and audio, it can be manipulated and interpreted for political ends.

Evan Vucci / AP

The White House has revoked the press pass of Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, after a testy exchange between the reporter and President Trump at a news conference on Wednesday. Acosta posed a question about the Central American migrant caravan, challenging Trump’s framing of it as an “invasion” meant to reap political advantage. An irritated Trump tried to move on, but Acosta resisted relinquishing the floor. When a White House press aide—a young woman—attempted to retrieve the microphone from Acosta, a light skirmish ensued, and was captured on film.

The White House called Acosta’s exchange with the aide an inappropriate physical contact. In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that President Trump “believes in a free press” but will “never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman.”

The original incident has exploded into shrapnel. Trump’s disdain for the media appears to have crossed over into suppression, only a day after U.S. midterm elections produced a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives—and with it the promise of intense new scrutiny on the president. Critics have also accused the White House of deploying false information about the incident. When White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted about suspending Acosta’s press pass, she included a video of the pressroom incident as evidence that supposedly justified the censure. But observers quickly pointed out that the clip she shared didn’t appear to be the original video, but a “doctored” version, which had been sped up in order to make the contact between Acosta and the aide appear more aggressive than the original footage had done.

Journalists and Trump opponents have sprung into action, investigating the doctored video, defending Acosta and the media, or even calling for a boycott on the part of the White House press corps. Though valiant, those efforts might miss the point. The incident shows how adept and deliberate politicians have been, for decades now, at deploying words, images, and video to advance their ends—even absconding with the ideas, words, and values of their opponents in the process.

Photographs and moving images have long been thought to record the world as it actually appears, capturing a scene or an event dispassionately and without bias. Unlike painting or writing, the photograph and the cinema camera are thought to have a special relationship to actual fact: They appear able to point at reality and capture it in an evidentiary way.

That capacity has come under fire in recent years. Thanks to machine-learning techniques, it has become possible to digitally manipulate video to construct new footage that never really took place. These “deepfakes,” as they are sometimes called, pose a threat to the trustworthiness of film.

Now that the public is attuned to the risk of technological manipulation of moving images, that great bastion of documentarian truth, it has become more attuned to the erosion of that truth. Sanders’s dissemination of apparently manipulated footage of the Acosta incident raised hackles in part because of that concern. But worse, the clip appears to be the same one that was first shared by an editor at the conspiracy website Infowars, which might have been created purposely to mislead observers.

At BuzzFeed News, Charlie Warzel dug into the creation of the Infowars clip, establishing that it was made by zooming in on a GIF excerpt from the original video. GIFs can drop frames when constructed, and video-encoding methods can introduce other changes. In the end, Warzel couldn’t decide whether the video had been doctored or not. Citing experts, Motherboard concluded that the video wasn’t doctored, but that it was altered—a distinction that might confuse as much as it clarifies.

But as Franklin Foer argued in The Atlantic earlier this year, advanced techniques like deepfakes are just the latest example of a longstanding problem. Trust in filmic reality was never as sound as it seemed. “Unedited video has acquired an outsize authority in our culture,” he writes. “That’s because the public has developed a blinding, irrational cynicism toward reporting and other material that the media have handled and processed.” Lens-based media were never really as impartial as people came to believe they were, even before digital alteration, and then artificial intelligence, made it easier to manipulate their contents outright. The Acosta clip only reinforces that state of affairs.

Before alteration or doctoring, photographs and videos impose many unseen prejudices, even before computational manipulation enters the picture. Filming strips acts from their broader context. The qualities of an optical instrument and the film or sensor used to capture a scene can change the way it appears. So can the framing of a shot, the perspective from which the scene is shown, or the way audio is captured for it. No computers are even required.

For example, the CSPAN footage of the Acosta incident is shot from two cameras, one behind Acosta and framed on President Trump, and the other from the side, showing a wider shot of Acosta in the front row, addressing the president. The latter shot is the one from which the interaction between Acosta and the aide can be seen. But because the two are close to one another at some distance, the image flattens the viewer’s perspective, making it difficult to tell how their arms and bodies are interacting as they grapple for the microphone.

When the aide finally lays her hand on the mic, her reach looks bold, although not combative, and Acosta attempts to defuse the situation: “Pardon me, Ma’am, I’m—” he attempts. Then the aide, having been gently reproached, physically crumbles before Acosta. She crouches to the floor between him and the president. She was probably trying to clear a line of sight between the two, but from side of the room, she appears meek or servile, subordinating herself to Acosta. In that moment, the wide camera shows the two men in profile but the aide facing the camera in the foreground. Viewed from the angle of a news camera in a slightly different position, she becomes the subject of the shot, and it becomes difficult not to empathize with her accidental embarrassment, now captured and broadcast globally.

A still from the press conference as seen from a CBS News camera. (CBS47 KSEE / CBS News)

Lens-based media are media of perspective. Whether or not the pretzeling of arms was “doctored” by Infowars, and whether or not it was knowingly disseminated in its manipulated fashion by Sanders, the video itself never captured “truth” anyway; it recorded a sequence of events in space at a moment in time, offering them as raw material for interpretive effort.

Interpretation is at the heart of this conflict. Before the dispute over the mic began, Acosta had been challenging Trump on his characterization of the migrant caravan as an “invasion” of immigrants. “Why did you characterize it as such?” Acosta asked. “Because I consider it an invasion,” Trump responded. “You and I have a difference of opinion.”

Trump knows that the visual and verbal rhetoric of an “invasion” has political utility. Invaders come to steal and ransack. Images of the caravan—also captures of “real reality” by the lens—can easily be selected to represent different views on the caravan, from a hulking mass of anonymous people, extending to the horizon, to the fragile desperation of an individual family. Acosta accused Trump of an interpretive act that can’t be defended. “They’re hundreds and hundreds of miles away,” he charged. “That’s not an invasion.”

But for Trump and his supporters, the idea of an “invasion” need not entail the literal seizure and occupation of a sovereign nation. Invasion also has a metaphorical connotation. All those immigrants, fleeing from worse fates to confront still bad ones, can be characterized as a threat to American sanctity even from far away. Yes, that threat is partly a racist one—the brown-skinned Hondurans sending affronts to a dying dream of a white America that never was. But that fact doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of calling it an invasion. And in the process of defending the idea, Trump managed to get Acosta to repeat the term several times, reinforcing its attachment to the caravan.

The GOP’s mastery of language for politics began in the 1990s, when the political strategist Frank Luntz started conducting polling and research for conservatives like Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich. Luntz was instrumental in Gingrich’s steamrolling of Congress, having helped author the Contract for America’s aggressive Newtspeak, which used previously off-the-table terms like sick, corrupt, and traitor to describe Democrats.

Luntz soon became the craftsman of specialized language for the GOP. For example, he urged his clients to use the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming,” and “death tax” instead of “estate tax” on behalf of the Republicans. Their purpose was to change the emotional content of issues. Global warming sounds threatening, but climate change? Some change can be good, after all. An estate tax sounds like it’s for the wealthy (which it is), but a death tax sounds like it penalizes everyone. Luntz’s terms remain powerful and effective even today—climate scientists now embrace the toothless term climate change even as it undercuts the threat of global warming.

You can see this same kind of thing in today’s political discourse. Take “fake news.” It takes a real threat that existed thanks to the internet—websites and Facebook accounts posing as news outlets in order to spread propaganda—and recasts it upon actual, non-fake news organizations whom the president or the administration doesn’t like. Trump parried Acosta’s invocation of the “invasion” with a “fake news” accusation during the press conference. But the press just leaned into it. Defending Acosta against Sanders, CNN vice president Matt Dornic called the supposedly doctored video of the incident “actual fake news.” His attempt to undermine the White House by calling them out for hypocrisy only reinforced the term’s connection to CNN. The statement played right into Trump’s hands.

CNN accused the White House of having done so “in retaliation for his challenging questions at today’s press conference.” It’s clear that Trump does want Acosta, CNN, and the press in general out of his business. That desire, and this act in service of it, is chilling. But focusing on those matters alone ignores another victory for Republican rhetoric: the White House’s clever, if ignoble, contortion of a #MeToo-style intervention as justification for revoking Acosta’s press access.

Acosta fell into the trap when he tried to defend himself against Sanders: “This is a lie,” he posted on Twitter, in response to the claim that he had “placed his hands on a woman” during the encounter. Acosta can’t really deny that he came into physical contact with the White House press aide. He could observe that the contact was initiated by her, not him, to put an end to his questioning. But that’s a losing move too: It casts a woman in a powerless position as an instigator of aggression, when she was simply trying to do her job. He could invoke his own right to offer an interpretation of the incident, but as a white man in his own position of authority— the chief White House correspondent for CNN—doing so also risks unseemliness. Acosta has no good options.

The same is true for his profession by extension. To journalists, Acosta’s attempt to keep hold of the microphone looks like good reporting—an attempt to press a man in power for satisfactory answers to reasonable questions. That’s what NBC News White House correspondent Jim Alexander seems to have celebrated when, after receiving the mic after Acosta, he defended the latter as a “diligent reporter who busts his butt like the rest of us.” But the same scrappiness that reporters celebrate as a virtue of their profession, and their civic duty, can seem like aggression and disrespect to some of the very citizens that reporters hope to serve.

That discord is made worse by the fact that the badgersome, persistent male interlocutor has become a figure of general cultural disdain—the guy who won’t let anyone get a word in edgewise, bumping and scrabbling to keep the floor. From that perspective, calling Acosta “rude,” as Trump did, not only squares with some people’s understanding of rudeness but also conforms to one of the left’s common positions on informal male aggression—men who talk over women or won’t cede the floor to them, men who take up more physical space than they deserve, men who think they always know the answers, men who use their more-imposing bodies in physical space to gain advantage, and so on.

These habits apply much more to President Trump than they do to Jim Acosta, both in this circumstance and in general. For those who want to exert strength to achieve a goal, hypocrisy just isn’t a concern. The White House managed to catch the left, and the media, in a trap they themselves had help set.

All of these examples show that unraveling the truth of the Acosta encounter isn’t so simple as determining if the video Sanders posted was doctored. Even the idea of “doctoring” the video is subject to interpretive slippage. And the irony of the doctoring controversy is that the White House might not even have needed a more aggressive-looking version of the encounter between Acosta and the aide to ground the position it eventually took in order to revoke his White House access for supposedly inappropriate behavior toward a woman.

That’s not necessarily because the Trump White House really believes in preserving the sanctity of respecting women—on that front Trump’s position of disrespect has been eminently clear. Rather, it’s because the idea of such disrespect, particularly as it has been focused and amplified by #MeToo, makes it easy to weaponize when the opportunity arises, as it did here.