White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shared a video Wednesday evening of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s interaction with President Trump and a White House intern to defend the White House’s decision to revoke Acosta’s press pass. A WIRED review of Sanders’ video reveals that it originated with conservative media sites and was presented in a way that makes the incident seem more dramatic than it was. Images from the video may not have been altered, but the effect is potentially misleading to viewers.
In releasing the video, Sanders said it offered proof of Acosta’s “inappropriate behavior” with the intern. But differences between Sanders’ video and an unedited version of the incident led to charges Wednesday that the White House had altered the video for political purposes.
What Actually Happened?
While Acosta was questioning President Trump at a press briefing, a White House intern attempted to grab his microphone. Acosta didn’t let go of the mic, and attempted to avoid her grasp. During the three-second scuffle, his wrist and lower arm appears to touch her arm. The White House calls this behavior “inappropriate” and has revoked Acosta’s press pass. Sanders posted an edited video of the event as proof.
Who Made the Video?
The video posted by Sanders appears identical to a video shared two hours earlier by Paul Joseph Watson, an editor-at-large at the right-wing media site InfoWars. Both videos were edited in the same way and had no sound. While the White House hasn’t responded to inquiries about the source of the video posted by Sanders, it seems reasonable to say that the chance the two videos were created independently is extraordinarily low.
While the first four seconds of Watson’s video appear to be from a C-Span feed, the true origins of the clip are a bit more complicated. It’s notable that neither Watson’s nor Sanders’ video has sound, as the source video for both appears to be a three-second GIF circulated in conservative circles moments after the actual event took place.
At 12:34 pm Wednesday, ForAmerica, a conservative group popular on Twitter, posted this three-second GIF of the press conference lifted from C-Span’s feed.
Twelve minutes later, the Daily Wire, a right-wing news and opinion blog, posted the same GIF. Both were retweeted by Watson, who was also live-tweeting the press conference.
Roughly eight hours later, Watson tweeted a 15-second edit of the GIF, which he confirmed in a tweet was made using the GIF posted by the Daily Wire. Two hours after that, Sanders included what appears to be the same video in her tweet. In a tweet, Watson stated that he did not edit the footage, but a screenshot he later posted of the editing track for the video indicates some edits may have been made.
Is the Video Accurate?
The video was altered in a way that is misleading and dramatizes events. It is extremely low quality, likely because it’s a combination of edits and reuploads. The raw video used to create the GIF was taken from a C-Span feed with an odd camera angle, which serves to make the whole affair seem more dramatic.
High-quality video from any of the other cameras present at the press briefing shows that, while there was contact between Acosta and the intern, it was not a strike or “karate chop” as some claim.
However, the main issue with the White House video is its editing. While the video itself is 15 seconds long, the only footage in the clip is the three-second GIF shared by ForAmerica and The Daily Wire. The GIF is shown in its entirety at the beginning of the video posted by Sanders; it’s the wide shot that includes the C-Span logo. This GIF is shown six times over the course of the 15-second video, with a variety of edits and zooms that serve to make the relatively inconsequential moment seem more dramatic.
“At issue here is how video speed and frame rate affects the human ability to perceive force,” said Britt Paris, a researcher with Data & Society studying audio-visual manipulation. “Context matters, and time and duration is an oft-overlooked part of context that helps us interpret the content of a video.”
Let’s break this down.
The first part of the video is the three-second GIF posted by various groups on Twitter. This is a wide shot that shows the scene in its entirety, including Trump and the other attendees at the press briefing.
This clip is the same three-second GIF as before, just zoomed in. It’s a mid-shot focused on Acosta and the White House intern attempting to wrestle away the mic. Notice the position of the hands: It begins at the same moment as the first clip.
This is where things start to get somewhat murky. From 0:07 onward the video transitions into a series of tight close-up shots focused on Acosta’s arm. These clips are shorter than the first two, somewhere between 1½ and two seconds, rather than three. It’s difficult to say whether this time difference is due to cut footage, the use of slow-mo or accelerating effect, or something else.
In a screenshot Watson tweeted of the editing track he used to make the video, there are two strange markings at the 0:08–0:09 and 0:10–0:11 marks that suggest a still frame or something else could have been added.
Watson’s screenshot indicates that the added footage or frame was introduced just before the 0:09 mark, the moment Acosta’s hand touched the White House intern’s arm.
Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College who specializes in digital forensics and image analysis, says that while he’s not sure how to interpret the screenshot shared by Watson, there were several still frames in the video. “This could have been done intentionally, but could also be the result of transcoding that changes the frame rate,” Farid wrote.
Paris, the Data & Society researcher, says that she’s not familiar with the Sony Vegas Pro editor panel that Watson highlighted, but the additions seem suspect to her. “It could be a clip that was copied from the original, the speed changed, then added back into the ‘reel.’ Or it could be something else,” she said.
Aymann Ismail, a video producer and editor at Slate, posted a side-by-side comparison of the shot and a clip from NBC News on Twitter. In a tweet, Ismail claimed that the comparison shows that the intern’s reach for the mic was slowed down while Acosta’s motion was sped up.
The shorter close-up shot of Acosta’s arm then appears to restart. It is also a bit shorter than the source GIF, which could indicate that it was either cut or slowed down. However, the low quality of the zoomed-in footage makes it difficult to tell.
Like the clip proceeding it, this footage appears to have an addition of some sort towards the end at the exact moment Acosta and the intern made contact (approximately 0:10.5).
The shorter, roughly two-second clip of Acosta’s arm restarts a third time. While this clip is also a different length than the source GIF, it does not appear to have any addition at its end.
The shortened close-up of Acosta’s arm begins again for a fourth and final time. Much like its predecessor, this version of the clip also does not appear to have any additions or still frames according to the editing track posted by Watson.