BY Orit Gat in Opinion | 15 NOV 18

A ‘Doctored’ Video of Trump’s Clash with CNN Reporter Goes Viral; a Desperate Search for Truth Ensues

An altercation between a White House correspondent and the president becomes a visual question: what is it that we see?

BY Orit Gat in Opinion | 15 NOV 18

In Stephen Spielberg’s noir-sci-fi film Minority Report (2002), Tom Cruise plays a cop in the Washington DC police precrime division. Precrime, meaning, Cruise sees offences before they happen and rushes to stop the action prior to it taking place. The intel is received from three ‘precognitives’ – mutants who foresee the crimes – and their knowledge is transmitted to Cruise via a computer with a huge glass screen. Cruise’s performance involves his cop character conducting these images across this futuristic user interface, putting on special gloves that allow him to shift between images produced by the precogs, explore and zoom in on the background to see a mailbox, or a clock on the wall, and know the time and place where violence is about to happen. The images and short videos are grainy and poor, to communicate the fact that these are reflections of the future, but Cruise still gets to magnify them, or close in, and get all the information he needs.

Steven Spielberg, Minority Report, 2002, film still. Courtesy: Dreamworks

Forget the precogs, the precrime – the future that hasn’t arrived from Minority Report is that ability to see what we need to know in images. In the year 2054 of the film, Cruise spreads his gloved fingers to close in on a detail; in 2018, we watch the same short video again and again, trying to see what we missed, to make sense of the world via repetition, hoping some clarity will emerge. Last week, a six-second video of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta at the White House press briefing room attempting to keep Donald Trump answering his questions as a White House intern tries to take his microphone away from him, drew endless discussion of whether it was somehow altered. Commentators watched the scene again and again, comparing versions and angles, posting the same poor video, trying to find something else in it.

In case you haven’t watched that scene, it’s cringeworthy. At a press conference following the midterm elections, Acosta addresses the president, who says to him, ‘that’s enough.’ Then a young female intern in a wine-colored dress approaches and attempts to get the microphone from Acosta. Acosta’s arms are flailing and one ends up touching the intern’s arm (I initially wrote ‘resting’, since I watched these few seconds so many times, in my mind they’re almost in slow-motion). Acosta keeps speaking, the intern is still there; she ends up almost kneeling in front of him, attempting to play a smaller role in the moment, to take up less space. That same evening, Acosta posted a short video from outside the White House where he was denied entry. The White House has revoked his press clearance, saying they would not stand for a man touching a young female employee as she tries to do her job.

That’s the origin of the hot take – did he, did he not. And how the current moment of #metoo arguments can be flipped and used as a pretext for the White House to limit access to what the president has referred to as ‘fake news’ purveyor CNN. Pundits blamed the White House for doctoring the video to make Acosta’s contact with the intern more intentional. The results are countless versions of the same video circulating on Twitter, at different speeds and focuses, zoomed in and out, silent or featuring the two men’s voices (the intern never said a word).

There’s an MSNBC version of the event in which Acosta approaches the intern and says, ‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ as he holds strongly to the microphone. The version press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted (then deleted) was taken from alt-right website Infowars and is at the centre of a contested argument about whether it was sped up and cut in order to make Acosta’s gesture seem more violent. In a New Yorker article, reporter Joshua Rothman reached out to a computer science professor at Dartmouth, Hany Farid, to ask if the video was, indeed, doctored. Farid’s analysis was that the video was blurrier than the original feed on C-SPAN, and that certain frames were repeated. British far-right YouTube personality Paul Joseph Watson, who uploaded the Infowars version of the video, claimed the alterations were simply because the video he uploaded was transcoded from a gif of the event he found online.

Donald Trump and Jim Acosta, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Jim Watson

The struggle between a White House intent on controlling the message communicated via the press and the press room itself, is encapsulated in a visual question: What is it that we see?  Watson, finding himself in the centre of attention (and clearly enjoying that position), posted a video titled ‘Trump Defended Me’ to YouTube, in which he collaged numerous snippets of late-night talkshow hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers referring to the Infowars vid as doctored (enter hypnotical repetition of the word ‘doctored, doctored, doctored’ until it loses all meaning) and then the President’s denial of it being modified. Asked about the debate, Trump said that ‘they made it close up. They showed it close up. When you say ‘doctored’ you’re a dishonest guy.’ (He doesn’t explain who ‘they’ are.)

Watson’s numerous videos about this case befit his millennial brand of alt-right – they all shift speed, with words repeating like a pinball of claims: ‘that’s just a lie, just a lie, just a lie.’ Watson clearly just wants to keep the story alive. Joining the hot take, the Guardian posted a short video history of Trump and Acosta’s relationship. Editing together all of the two men’s press briefing room struggles, the video is repetitive, with text screens showing the month, and then short snippets of Acosta versus Trump, or vice versa. The texts delineating the time linger onscreen, the scenes themselves are quick and short. All you as a viewer need to know, is that this sense of conflict is repetitive.

Steven Spielberg, Minority Report, 2002, film still. Courtesy: Dreamworks

This kind of viewing, the familiarity of speed and repetition colliding, is something internet users are accustomed to from gifs. We look at the same thing over and over again, we can’t look away exactly because speed, repetition and recognition are the visual language of contemporary distribution. In Minority Report, the scene where Cruise works at the glass screen is intense, quick. He summarizes information to his second, he tells him what to do, ‘check in with neighbours, see if they know where they went…’. The scene’s soundtrack, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, grows in intensity. In my apartment, I sit in front of a twelve-inch laptop, watching a snippet of video embedded in a tweet. I’m squinting my eyes, I’m looking for something we don’t get to have: an image we can hone in on, that will tell us what we need to know with the certainty of the future.

Main image: Donald Trump and Jim Acosta, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Mandel Ngan

Orit Gat is a writer and art critic. She is a contributing editor of The White Review and Art Papers.