White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was strongly criticized on 8 November 2018 for using a notorious conspiracy theorist's video as an excuse to ban a journalist from the White House.
Sanders posted the video to the official White House Press Secretary Twitter account, using it to justify the revocation of a White House press pass for CNN's chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta shortly after Acosta had a tense exchange with President Donald Trump during a press conference:
We stand by our decision to revoke this individual’s hard pass. We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video. pic.twitter.com/T8X1Ng912y
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) November 8, 2018
The video was first posted by Paul Joseph Watson, a writer for the Alex Jones conspiracy trolling network Infowars, which has been banned by multiple social media platforms for hate speech and other violations.
Several journalist organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom advocacy organization, called upon the White House to immediately reinstate Acosta's credentials. Courtney Radsch, CPJ advocacy director, said in a statement about the incident that:
Journalists should be able to do their job without fear that a tough series of questions will provoke retaliation. The White House should immediately reinstate Jim Acosta's press pass, and refrain from punishing reporters by revoking their access--that's not how a free press works. In the current climate, we hope President Trump will stop insulting and denigrating reporters and media outlets, it's making journalists feel unsafe.
CNN responded by stating that the revocation of Acosta's press pass was a "retaliation" against him for asking tough questions and said the decision amounted to a threat to democracy. CNN also accused Sanders of lying, levying fraudulent accusations, and citing an "incident that never happened."
The White House News Photographers Association weighed in as well, saying in a statement that:
The White House News Photographers Association is appalled to learn that the White House spokesperson may have shared a manipulated video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s interaction with a White House intern during a news conference. As visual journalists, we know that manipulating images is manipulating truth. It’s deceptive, dangerous and unethical," she added. “Knowingly sharing manipulated images is equally problematic, particularly when the person sharing them is a representative of our country’s highest office with vast influence over public opinion.
We reached out to the White House Press Office for comment but received no response. On 11 November 2018, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway admitted the video was "sped up."
The incident took place while Acosta was questioning President Trump's decision to label a group migrants traveling in a caravan toward the U.S. from Central America an "invasion." During the contentious exchange, Trump tried to move on to the next reporter, but Acosta continued to press him to answer questions. As Acosta gesticulated with his left hand, an intern standing on his left side reached in front of him and grabbed the microphone he was holding in his right hand. As Acosta's arm moved in a downward motion, his wrist touched the intern's arm, while Acosta exclaimed "pardon me me ma'am" and continued to hang on to the microphone:
I was seated next to @Acosta at today’s press conference and did not witness him “placing his hands” on the young intern, as the White House alleges. He held on to the microphone as she reached for it. The @Reuters pictures below depict what happened accurately. pic.twitter.com/nO68Hf4eQM
— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) November 8, 2018
Watson has denied altering the video other than zooming in on the area of interest. He also stated his video was sourced from a GIF posted by the unreliable conservative website Daily Wire. Watson has a track record of publishing "a mixture of absurd and bigoted articles" on PrisonPlanet, a website associated with Infowars.
Video analysts we consulted said the angle and poor quality of the video, which probably resulted from transcoding or changing video formats, likely created the impression that Acosta's motion was more physically aggressive than it really was. In a statement provided to us through Sherif Hana of Truepic, a company dedicated to "fighting manipulated images, deepfakes, and disinformation," Hany Farid, a leading expert on image forensics, said:
From my review of the various videos of the press conference, I believe that the video tweeted my the Press Secretary is misleading but I don’t see unambiguous evidence that it has been doctored. A combination of a reduction in the quality of the video, a slowing-down of the video, and the particular vantage point of the C-SPAN 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.
While it is possible that the video was intentionally doctored, the simpler explanation is that the video was transcoded, reducing the overall quality and clarity of the video, which in turn made the interaction between the reporter and intern less clear and open to interpretation.
Cinematographer and forensic video consultant Dan Voshart told us it "boggles" the mind as to why a spokesperson for the White House would share a grainy video from a disreputable source. Nevertheless, he said, the video offered by Watson was poor quality and only had half the number of frames as the original source video, although it's unclear if that was done intentionally. "I can say for sure: the PrisonPlanet video is less accurate than the original C-SPAN clip. Someone with the powers and connections like the Press Secretary could get the uncompressed version captured by the camera."
An independent video expert who analyzed footage for the Associated Press said he believed the video shared by Sanders was purposefully manipulated:
[A] frame-by-frame comparison with an Associated Press video of the same incident shows that the one tweeted by Sanders appears to have been altered to speed up Acosta’s arm movement as he touches the intern’s arm, according to Abba Shapiro, an independent video producer who examined the footage at AP’s request.
Earlier, Shapiro noticed that frames in the tweeted video were frozen to slow down the action, allowing it to run the same length as the AP one.
The alteration is “too precise to be an accident,” said Shapiro, who trains instructors to use video editing software. The tweeted video also does not have any audio, which Shapiro said would make it easier to alter.
The issue with the White House's relationship with the press arose during increasingly perilous times for journalists. CNN, along with a number of prominent Democrats and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, was targeted with mailed pipe bombs in late October 2018. Meanwhile, Saudi journalist and Virginia-based Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. The Turkish government has accused the Saudi Arabian government of killing Khashoggi and dissolving his body in acid, while President Trump has been charged with using incendiary rhetoric that could encourage such attacks on other journalists.