Yesterday, in Donald Trump’s first press conference following the midterm elections that swept a number of Democrats into Congress Tuesday night, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta had a contentious interaction with the president. Those few seconds have, in the intervening 24 hours, launched a nationwide conversation about doctored video.
“They’re hundreds and hundreds of miles away. That’s not an invasion,” Acosta said, referring to the “caravan” of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. that Trump had demonized in the run-up to the elections. “I think you should let me run the country, you run CNN. If you did it well, your ratings would be much better,” Trump replied. As Acosta tried to ask another question, a White House intern went to grab the mic from him — “pardon me, ma’am,” he said — and the next two seconds launched an entire news cycle. Acosta blocked the aide from grabbing the mic. Trump called Acosta “rude” and a “terrible person,” apparently in response, and later that day revoked his press badge.
That four-second exchange — in which Acosta moves his hand to push away the intern’s arm —was captured by C-SPAN and other news outlets, but two additional versions were shared: one from Infowars and one from Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
— NBC News (@NBCNews) November 7, 2018
We stand by our decision to revoke this individual’s hard pass. We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video. pic.twitter.com/T8X1Ng912y
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) November 8, 2018
Many outlets reported that the videos had been doctored, and how, including The Washington Post and Fast Company. Something was certainly different, but with all the speculation it was difficult to understand exactly what made them different. So I got in touch with a friend of mine, video producer Jamison Hermann, to get a better grip on it.
At first glance, he says that “they sped up the clip to emphasize the motion” — the video speeds up when Acosta’s hand makes contact with the intern’s arm. “You can see the hand raised in the background moves more quickly, an and her face turns more quickly, and the guy on the left drops his mic down to waist level more quickly,” he explains. Overlaying the two videos in the same frame, he says, is the best way to demonstrate exactly how it differs: the Press Secretary’s video clearly speeds up at the moment Acosta’s hand touches the intern’s arm.
“This is not just frame blending, which would happen if you transcoded from different frame rates,” Hermann said. “it’s a sloppily-done speed change on the footage itself.”
The Verge’s design director William Joel agrees. “I can’t say for a certainty that Infowars sped up or slowed down their footage, but it is suspect that when the two clips are overlaid the only time we see a discrepancy is during the moment in question,” he says. “If this was truly a result of ghosting or some frame-rate difference from varying source materials, you would expect to see the same ghosting over the entire clip, not just during one specific moment.”
While the video the government shared does indeed appear to be doctored, given this administration’s track record with lying without the use of visual aids, it didn’t really need to be. The real problem here is how Sanders and the president boldly lied to the public — and everyone in the room last night — to bar a reporter they didn’t like from questioning them directly. It was raw power exercised in the service of expanding their control.
The video Sanders shared was a lie, and had Infowars and Sanders made the same allegations against Acosta using the exact same clip C-SPAN and NBC did, their supporters would likely still have believed the government’s claims. President Trump has proven virtually unable to give a speech without getting in at least a few falsehoods about his enemies or about his achievements, but what’s stunning in this incident is how far Sanders is willing to stretch a lie on the president’s behalf. The technical details of the video, whether it was doctored or not, were a pretext for Trump’s continued attacks on the press.
There’s a conversation to be had about this in the era of deepfakes, when cheap and easy image manipulation means that seeing is believing is no longer gospel. Half a century ago, images from the Civil Rights movement — of protesters being attacked by dogs and sprayed by firehoses — could convince President Lyndon Johnson and the American public that granting the full franchise to black Americans was the right thing to do. Donald Trump, on the other hand, appears bent on eroding the public’s trust in what they see in order to consolidate his power as president and cow citizens into accepting his increasingly brutal policies. What’s often misunderstood about propaganda is its intent: the point isn’t to misinform — it’s to get people to question what’s real, what’s provable. It is meant to divide.