The power of selective video editing is real and profound. Whether simple maneuvers like eliminating the inclusion of surrounding context, or more complex manipulations involving cutting, splicing, and merging, the ability of media to create a false narrative or misrepresent reality has never been so formidable.
Examples abound, but perhaps the most eye-opening illustration of it that I've ever encountered was this video project introduced to me several years ago at a media conference. Video-maker Peter Javidpour had taken snippets of the beloved family-friendly flick Mrs. Doubtfire and recast them perfectly to create the trailer for a modern psychological horror film:
Any uninformed audience could view it and never know that the movie was actually an uproariously funny, critically acclaimed, award winning comedy – one of legendary funny-man Robin Williams' best. It's the textbook depiction of the inordinate power of editing.
It's also the textbook depiction of why American citizens have to exercise extraordinary caution in believing what they see from those who wield this power. Take what recently unfolded on one of the most recognizable news programs in the country, the Sunday morning staple Meet the Press. Since the untimely death of respected journalist Tim Russert, NBC has struggled to find a worthy replacement that both deserves and earns the esteem of viewers across the political spectrum.
It's become clear that current host Chuck Todd is not going to achieve that status, and his foray into video editing on Sunday is a clear indication why.
Turning to a clip of Attorney General William Barr discussing the dropped charges against Michael Flynn, Todd teased panelist Peggy Noonan, "Wait until you hear this answer." He then played the same shortened segment of the Barr interview that had aired previously on MSNBC's Morning Joe program:
CBS Reporter Catherine Herridge: "When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?"
Attorney General William Barr: "Well, history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who's writing the history."
Todd went on to indignantly express exasperation at the country's chief legal officer apparently caring so little about the rule of law. In actuality, those watching should have been more amazed by NBC's chief political director apparently caring so little about journalistic integrity. This, after all, was the full extent of what Barr actually said in the unedited interview:
Barr: "Well, history is written by the winner. So it largely depends on who's writing the history. But I think a fair history would say that it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law. It helped, it upheld the standards of the Department of Justice, and it undid what was an injustice."
In other words, the very thing that Todd chided Barr on national television for not doing is what he explicitly did in the full, unedited video clip. He addressed the importance of the rule of law.
Two possibilities emerge, then. One, Todd actually didn't know that the clip had been edited and was merely operating from the information given to him by his staff. If that's the case, Todd is a woefully underprepared, disengaged choice to host a news program that boasts such historical gravitas.
The other possibility is that Todd knew the clip had been deceptively edited or even oversaw the planning of the edit as he prepared his script. This would fit with the overtly partisan reputation Todd has carved out for himself since taking over at Meet the Press. It would also be inexcusable and worthy of termination at any news organization serious about its own credibility.
Sadly, I'm highly skeptical that NBC even feigns any aspiration towards such high standards; this is the network that still gives the disgraced Brian Williams a paycheck after all. It's far more likely that the peacock network will assume that all is well after dispatching the Meet the Press Twitter intern to fire off this online apology:
Notice that this supposed correction suggests that they "inadvertently" cut the clip of Barr speaking. This wasn't a live interview where Todd cut him off mid-sentence. This was a recorded interview from a competitor's network that was viewed, selected, and clipped in preparation for the Sunday show. There is no one with a functioning brain that thinks the decision to end Barr's statement mid-thought was done without any knowledge of what he went on to say. To insult people's intelligence like that betrays NBC has no intention of taking this seriously.
It's an American axiom that we should love our country but distrust the government. In 2020, we must make sure we add a postscript to it to include "and the media."