CNN’s Stelter Warns ‘Dumb Fakes’ Like Doctored Pelosi Vids Demonstrate Our ‘Misinformation Mire’– But Who is In That Mire?


CNN’s Brian Stelter dedicated his opening remarks on Reliable Sources Sunday to the spurious videos being shared online over the last week, and to the broader point of both the problem of the fakes, and the problem of people believing they’re real or true.

The videos include one that was shared by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, which used video manipulation to alter the speed of Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s words to make them seem slurred, and the one shared by the President that wasn’t manipulated but was edited selectively. They were big news for several days, or at least the fact that Trump shared it, but didn’t make much splash in the Sunday morning talk shows.

Stelter addressed it, though, and classified these as “dumb fakes”, a term to replace the more familiar “deep fakes,” which he explained at the outset.

“Move over deep fakes, look out for dumb fakes,” said Stelter. “You’ve heard of deep fakes, right? It’s a term for sophisticated technology that makes totally fake videos look real. It is going to be a problem in the future.”

“But right now the bigger problem, quite frankly, are dumb fakes, like that doctored, distorted video of Nancy Pelosi that got everyone’s attention a few days ago. It was a dumb fake,” said Stelter. He described the video’s content, and said that “it’s dumb. It’s pathetic. But it was persuasive.”

“Some people were primed to believe it, or at least get a laugh out of it,” he said. He pointed out that after getting millions of views it was fact-checked and Facebook added a warning to the content. And he discussed why this made so much news.

“This gained a lot of attention in the news media was it was a crystal clear example of misinformation mire that we’re all in,” he said. He meant it when he said “all”, because he gave an example of a fake on the left (the preposterous “fake Melania” theory.)

Stelter then discussed the “mash-up” video Trump shared, carefully differentiating it from the doctored one. He noted that to the President and his supporters it’s a way of throwing back into Pelosi’s face, and the left at large, their own frequently stated questions about his fitness for the job.

Stelter classified it as a “I’m rubber you’re glue,” argument, which isn’t quite right, but is close. It’s more like “if you’re going to call me glue then I’m going to call you even more glue.” Or perhaps “He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!” You know, the Chicago way.

That is definitely part of the reason you see things like that, why you see Trump supporters repeating to Democrats things Democrats have said about Trump. Often ratcheting it up a notch. But it’s not the only reason, certainly not for President Trump, who tends to take at face value nearly anything said on Fox that isn’t a criticism of him directly.

The CNN host also suggested that a big difference between what Trump did and what Pelosi did is that she’s right and he’s wrong. That is, it’s good to question Trump’s mental health, but very bad to do so to Pelosi. Why that is the case is not clear, but it is a major feature of the #MAGA and #Resistance bubbles to believe that even when they have clearly committed the exact same crime, error, or act, it’s okay for them, because they are right.

A true classic.

Stelter concluded that the key for journalists to follow Trump’s backs-and-forths is to pick up on the pattern, rather than report on or obsess about every individual tweet. That’s just a good rule for anything.

The show moved to the panel next, without a specific view on how to handle the dangers of either deep or dumb fakes. But it became an especially relevant topic later in the day, after a Time columnist and professor, with a verified Twitter account and nearly half a million followers, sent an entirely made-up “quote” and attributed it to Trump. That fake, “dumb’ or “deep” depending on how you look at it, was hugely successful either way. It made a giant splash, it roped in prominent Democrats and a contributor to Stelter’s network, Ana Navarro.

Which leads to a second question that doesn’t seem to get nearly enough play on cable news, and especially in a media criticism show. Why do journalists keep falling for dumb fake news? Shouldn’t they be better at this? Smarter at this? Shouldn’t they have a nose for it? An inner voice urging caution?

That’s not to say it hasn’t come up on Reliable Sources, it has. But as with Sunday’s opening, which focused on the genuine problem of fake videos, the “it happens left and right” was a minor side note. And the fact that fakes rope in reporters… well that didn’t come up at all.

Having personally contributed more than a fair share of articles critical of CNN, it’s important to emphasize here this isn’t particularly damning. Brian Stelter was covering a worthwhile topic, one that didn’t get much play on the earlier Sunday shows, and it’s of concern to not just a lot of people, but a lot of CNN viewers.

But one must ask about, or be forgiven for longing for, a someday hour-long reckoning on a show like this that takes the lens off the Trump stage for a bit, off the Trump crowd, and turns it toward back of the rally, where the journalists sit and wait for something they can write negatively about it.

There have been, it is absolutely fair to say, a great deal more major media fails since Trump came along and started screaming fake news, than ever we heard about or even happened leading up to his adoption of the phrase. That is to say, the frequency of error is way up. When you’re covering the one guy who can make the absolute most hay out of your errors, shouldn’t you be more than abundantly careful about waving a flag of dubious provenance or that looks suspiciously confirming of your own expectations?

The answer is yes. There is no panel to go to here, so it is necessary to answer the questions raised. Yes, journalists should be better at this. And because they aren’t, someone, a journalist who covers journalists, for example, ought to look into why that is.

Still, overall, this was a worthwhile segment from Stelter. And the term “dumb fakes” is really growing on me.

Oh, wait, just one more thing. A lot of TV talkers did not, as Stelter did, differentiate between the digitally faked videos and the simply edited one sent by Trump. Many times on TV this past week they’ve said that the President tweeted a “manipulated” video. It is not a distinction without a difference. Sharing edited videos and questioning Pelosi’s “fitness” may be a scandal in the press, but it is not the same as sharing a video that is literally altered digitally to change the actual audio and visual qualities in order to deliberately make it appear that something happened which did not happen. The fact that there is now a sort of general idea in the public that Trump sent a “doctored” video is a problem, a failure of the media in its own right.

In a way, that, too, is a form of dumb fake. And once again, we should expect more of journalists. If I had a CNN show focusing on the media, I would highlight which anchors and reporters fudged over that distinction. But that’s just my two cents, from a blog post, not a TV show.


This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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