The Fake News

Sat in on a class today discussing ethics in documentary filmmaking and was reminded twice that, as the cliche’ goes, nothing is as it seems. First was a five-minute excerpt from a NOVA special about a firefight and rescue operation in Kentucky in the 90s. It all seemed very intense and scary and educational and all that. Afterwards we were asked what the problem with it was. No one had any idea. Turns out that all of the rescue scenes of a downed firefighter with a crushed pelvis being pulled out of the area by a brave team and a helicopter were totally faked. Staged. By NOVA. One of the most respected long-form documentary/science shows running.

The second example was the opening sequence to Ken Burn’s “The Civil War,” which revolves around the person who signed the papers to put an end to the war (neither Grant nor Lee, I forget his name). They showed old pictures of his house, they showed him, they showed the people who were there. Except that they didn’t. Burns couldn’t find any pictures of this guy, or his house, or anything. So he found pictures that would convey the mood and intentionally misled the viewer into thinking he was seeing accurate historical photographs.

Burns is one of the most respected historical documentarians we’ve got. If we can’t count on Ken Burns or Nova to give us the truth even when in documentary mode (where the journalist ostensibly has the time and resources to do it right), are there any journalists or institutions we can count on for the truth? How would we know? Even in the context of a class on the very subject, we didn’t have enough context to know we were watching something tantamount to lies. How much worse is it for the general public watching your average evening magazine or Fox News or CNN coverage of event XyZ?

Music: Deerhoof :: Trickybird

11 Replies to “The Fake News”

  1. But even genuinely historic pictures can be fake.

    I don’t remember if it was the handshake between American and Russian soldiers, or the well-known picture of GIs raising the flag over the rubble – but I do remember that at least one of these two pictures had been staged after the fact.

    “Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future.”

  2. Exactly Lars. You’re thinking of a flag raising in Vietnam, I believe. Reporter arrived 20 minutes too late for end of battle and asked the general to raise the flag again. The general obliged. The history the nation saw was staged.

    Not sure what you mean by “But even genuinely historic pictures…” the flag raising staging is not genuinely historic at all. It’s the same level of fake as the examples I cited.

  3. Interesting post, especially after the recent critisim of Michael Moore’s latest film and book, which some accuse of going too far with artistic license — some say outright lies. As a fan of Moore these accusations came as a surprise. I expect this kind of forgery from Ann Coultre or Bill O’Reilly, but not from Mike! I would like to hear what he has to say about this (now seemingly common) practice of stretching the truth in documentary making.

  4. ‘genuinely historic’: the best I could think of for ‘actually taken at that place and around the time the event happened’.

  5. photographers stage. it is just something that we do. We stage images to look more genuine by our placement in the crowd, by what we do and do not show, by our angle and proximity. We stage by being present (everyone acts for the camera). We stage directly, asking and prompting subjects. Our editors stage by editing, placement and text. The even…photoshop.

    Photography has always been this way, no matter what they tell you. Everybody staged things. The modernist journalists denied it, but records show that they all did it very intentionally at some point.

    I don’t know if there is a truth in images. I think it is wiser to read them as a document, coming from one point of veiw, and reinforcing a set of beliefs. This may sound negative, but every photo is a story and not a fact.

    I don’t know about film/video but I suspect the same may hold true.

  6. Jenn, there’s a *huge* difference between the kind of staging you’re talking about, which is really just another way of saying “point of view” and outright or near-lying, which is what some of the examples I saw were.

  7. what’s the big difference? Dorthea Lange poses a migrant mother, sets up the shot and holds back the curtain. Ansel Adams retouches grafitti on one of his mountainscapes. A nature publication by a famous photographer turns all the elephants around in photoshop because they are migrating the wrong way. These are very active lies. Journalists pay people to take their pictures. They rearrange fallen bodies. This is part of the game. It is not just point of veiw, it is narrative, not fact.

  8. You mean Cyndi Crawford has zits?! What’s this world coming to?! Heck, Scot Hacker might even be a woman!!!! Woa 3 times!!!

  9. >>as the cliche’ goes, nothing is as it seems.

    “Things are seldom as they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.” — G&S

    >>are there any journalists or institutions we can count on for the truth? How would we know?

    If by “count on” you mean “accept the word of blindly, unthinkingly, and unquestioningly”, sadly there are none.

    The “some” to whom mrgrape refers are Tim Blair:
    and Ben Fritz:

  10. Mark Odell, the lnks to the anti-“Bowling for Columbine” articles were interesting, thanks for posting. Although I found them both to be incredibly nitpicky and mean-spirited, so focused on (mostly) inconsequential inconsistencies as to miss the larger point, missing the forest for the trees.

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