Who Farted? An Investigation
In which Motherboard gets to the bottom of the Hardball with Chris Matthews beef.
Nov 20 2019, 2:55pm
Eric Swalwell alongside the wavelength analysis of the "fart."
On Monday, we all had a good giggle about something that happened on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews.
California Rep. Eric Swalwell was on the show, doing a standup interview live from Capitol Hill, to discuss Trump's impeachment hearings.
And just as Swalwell says, "...to ask the Ukrainians to help him cheat—" he pauses, and something that sounds a lot like a fart breaks into the sentence.
In a series of Twitter messages to Buzzfeed reporter Addy Baird, Swalwell fully denied having dealt it. "It's funny tho," he said.
A lot of people are putting the blame on Matthews, who is, allegedly, a notorious live-television air-biscuit floater. There are a handful of YouTube videos of moments viewers captured a suspicious noise cutting into the broadcast, like this one:
After the clip went viral, Hardball tweeted its explanation. "Sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theorists - it was the #hardball mug scraping across the desk."
I'm no conspiracy theorist, unless we're talking about the Sonic redesign. But I am highly skeptical of this explanation. Did a mug really make this sound?
I had to investigate.
Experiment 1: The Glass Tabletop
In 2014, Newscast Studio, a website devoted in part to documenting newsroom furniture changes, reported that the Hardball set updated its look, including a glass-topped host desk. That desk, according to extensive social media research by Motherboard EIC Jason Koebler, was still in use as of a year ago: The most recent Hardball Instagram featuring a desk is this picture from summer 2018, with Omarosa and Matthews sitting behind it.
They're both posing with Hardball Bistro-style mugs, which have a slightly tapered base, compared to the mug referenced in the explanation tweet. But when asked which mug made the sound, NBC Universal pointed me to the Hardball tweet, which claimed that the mug that made the fart sound was a standard flat, white one.
I floated the Hardball Fart and the official MSNBC excuse past Mark Lanza, president-elect of the Motion Picture Sound Editors and sound designer for Sony Pictures. "I feel that a mug on a glass table wouldn’t have enough friction to make this sound. If there was something on the mug or at least some moisture it might explain it."
We have a lot of flat white mugs like this at the VICE offices and a glass table. So, we tested it.
We tried dragging mugs across a glass table in the office, one empty and one with coffee, in case a liquid inside would somehow change the sound. Nothing.
Experiment 2: Audio Forensic Analysis
With my recreation experiment inconclusive, we asked VICE producer Ricardo Contreras to analyze audio of the Hardball Fart clip. Looking at the wavelengths of the audio suggests that the brrup-noise is most likely not happening in the room Swalwell is in (which appears to be an open hallway or room on Capitol Hill) but rather, inside a closed set, like where Matthews sits.
"Honestly the thing that cinches it for me is that it sounds too close to a mic for that to be him," Contreras said. "That room [where Swalwell is standing] is hella echo-y and the fart is very flat."
But is it flat like... an ass on a host chair? Or the bottom of a mug?
James Walsh, executive producer at Threshold Recording Studios NYC did tell me that it sounds to him like "a hard object on a hard surface, not flatulence." Interesting!
Experiment 3: Fart Expert Analysis
A few months ago, for research on a Motherboard Rule 34 column, I became an armchair expert on farts—specifically, fart porn. I listened to people cracking farts through every kind of leggings and jeans, pantyhose, on chairs, on dicks, standing and sitting and squatting.
At first blush, I thought the Hardball Fart was for SURE coming from Matthews, because the sound is very much like a fart compressed by sitting on a chair. If Swalwell was sitting, it would be more plausibly him, because of the way he pauses and jumps a little at that moment. (Swalwell denied to Buzzfeed having heard anything at all.)
So I asked fart porn performer Bunny Ratchet, the most preeminent fart expert I know, to lend her discerning ear.
"I would say there is no doubt in my mind that was a fart," Ratchet said. "One of my most admired qualities as a professional fart model is the sigh I give after the fart. In this video, despite a very deliberate effort to cover it up, you can hear the brief push in his vocals which is a clear indication he farted."
On the point of body language, Lanza agreed. "Lack of evidence of [a mug scraping] as well as his pause BEFORE the sound leads me to believe that this is the real deal."
After viewing the rest of the segment with Swalwell, Ratchet also noted that he was using a Lavalier microphone, which is usually clipped to a person’s shirt or jacket on their chest. In one of her videos, she experimented with putting a Lavalier mic in different positions to pick up a range of her own farts. In her judgment, the sound is the same.
"A Lavalier mic is designed to pick up sounds in close proximity, so it would understandably record a fart coming from his body, even if it the fart should seemingly be behind or under him," she said.
At this point, we've exhausted all avenues of experimentation and research without squeezing Chris Matthews himself. We can either believe what our fellow media professionals at MSNBC have claimed—that a mug made this sound, this very fart-like sound, and not their host—or live with the fact that our experimentation left us with inconclusive results. We may never know the truth. What's most important is we laughed at something like we haven't laughed since maybe Llamagate 2015. No matter the source of the rip, we should cherish that.
As Ratchet wisely put it: "Hey, we have all had that fart that was supposed to be silent."