At least a dozen people died in a mass shooting Wednesday night, yet much of the country was distracted Thursday by 15 seconds of video, thanks to President Donald Trump’s animosity towards the press. Despite speculation to the contrary, at least one forensic expert doesn’t believe the video was doctored. But the biggest concern should be not whether the video was altered, but how it’s being used to silence the free press.
On Wednesday, at a press conference where President Trump boasted about the “tremendous success” of Republicans in the midterm election, the president took his typical combative approach with reporters as they tried to ask questions. About half an hour into the press conference, CNN reporter Jim Acosta was asking the president about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties with Russia, and the president refused to answer, ignoring and interrupting Acosta and turning to other waiting reporters.
At that moment, a White House aide attempted to grab the microphone from Acosta, who tried to keep ahold of it, since he wasn’t done asking his question. There is some physical contact during this interaction, which Acosta apologizes for in the video, saying “pardon me, ma’am.”
That brief moment has become a lightning rod for controversy after the White House announced last night it was suspending Jim Acosta’s press pass for “placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job.” On Twitter, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders included a clip of the incident that slows down, zooms in, and dramatically replays the interaction:
People who agreed with the White House’s decision claimed the video showed Acosta “karate chop” the aide. Those who disagreed began to speculate that this video had been doctored to make the “chop” motion seem more dramatic and deliberate by slowing down the intern’s reach for the microphone, adding frames, and then accelerating Acosta’s motion at the moment of contact. A debate online went viral and then spiraled:
But Hany Farid, who studies digital forensics, human perception, and image analysis at the University of California, Berkeley, told Motherboard that he does not think the video was doctored. Though he agreed that the entire video was, of course, slowed down and zoomed in to focus on the moment of physical contact, he does not see any evidence to suggest that it was selectively edited to exaggerate Acosta’s motion.
“From my review of the various videos of the press conference, I believe that the video tweeted by the Press Secretary is misleading but I don’t see unambiguous evidence that it has been doctored,” Farid told Motherboard via email. “A combination of a reduction in the quality of the video, a slowing-down of the video, and the particular vantage point of the CSPAN video gives the appearance that there was more contact between the reporter and the intern than there probably was. In particular, if you look at original, higher-quality videos from other vantage points you can more clearly see that while there was some contact between the reporter and intern, he did not strike her as his hand comes down.”
Jeff Smith, the associate director of the National Center for Media Forensics at the University of Colorado, Denver, came to a similar conclusion. Smith told Motherboard via email that he could detect duplicate frames in the White House video, which could indicate it was doctored.
"There are duplicate frames at the moment of contact; 2 additional frames for no apparent reason but one could surmise that it could give the false impression of a split second more contact then there actually was," Smith wrote. "Otherwise, the video is not slowed down and doesn’t appear to be altered on the pixel level as many people in the twitter-verse are claiming. These many accusations also come as a result of the heavy compression and interlacing of the video."
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter if the video was doctored or not. The bigger issue here is that the President of the United States continually and aggressively ridicules and evades the free press in this country, to the point of suspending access to one of the nation’s most prominent journalists simply for asking a question. And the White House is using a few seconds of physical contact as an excuse to try to silence press they don’t like.
It’s important to recognize that Trump is not like a typical politician when it comes to press briefings. Lots of politicians dodge questions and obfuscate, but Trump also interrupts and berates reporters, calling them liars, fake news, and “the enemy of the people.” In doing so, he’s been able to keep the narrative focused on the media and has been able to get people to argue about minute details like the Acosta video, instead of the issues that actually affect people, like banning Acosta.
This behavior was on full display Wednesday from the moment Acosta stood up. He started by stating he wanted to “challenge” the president on his characterization of the migrant caravan moving through Mexico towards the US border as “an invasion.” Trump immediately interjected, sarcastically, “oh, here we go.”
Acosta attempted to continue his question, as the president further goaded and whistled at him saying “come on, let’s go.” Trump provided a few cursory responses about how he does consider the caravan an invasion and that it’s a difference of opinion, and then began bullying Acosta.
“I think you should let me run the country and you run CNN,” President Trump said. “If you did it well, your ratings would be much better.”
Acosta then tried to squeeze in one last question—par for the course in these briefings and something that’s typically tolerated—about the Russia investigation. This presser was just hours before President Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump has long derided for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. It was a timely, and prescient, question from Acosta, but the president continued to speak over and ignore him. This is when the aide went for the mic.
As much as we like to believe video is conclusive, we know that isn’t always the case (ahem, DeepFakes). People on both sides are going to see what they want in this video. But the bigger issue is the Trump administration’s attempts to silence, discredit, and block the free press from holding this president to account. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, having journalists barred from asking the president questions should send a chill down your spine.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the opinion of a second expert source.