Baby-snatching eagles: why video has lost credibility

Jesse Brown on why video can't be taken at face value

Before photography, newspapers hired illustrators to draw the news. Seriously, illustrators weren’t artists, they were reporters. Readers took drawings for truth. Why else would they be in the newspaper?

Then along came photography, which instantly discredited drawings as works of journalism. After photos, the only reason to bother drawing something was because it didn’t exist in reality. If it did, you’d just snap a picture of it and have proof. Suddenly, drawings were for lying. And so illustrators became liars (artists), instead of reporters, and the comic strip was born.

Of course, photos lie too. They always have. I’m not even talking specifically about dark-room trickery. Different lighting, angles and compositions tell different stories. And for every photo of an event that sees print, there are usually dozens that don’t, because they suggest a different truth than the one chosen.

Photoshop, as cartoonist Art Spiegelman observed, didn’t turn photographers into liars — it just made lying with photos super easy. He “outed” the medium as being as subjective and as easily-manipulated as any other. Today, if we see a photograph of Barack Obama giving a fist bump to Osama Bin Laden while throwing up a Sieg Heil, we recognize it as fake, regardless of how real it looks. We can’t surrender our judgement to photographs any more. We now have to actually think about what we’re seeing.

But video? We still trust video.

The mass proliferation of smart phone video cameras only increased video’s credibility. A written report of a politically explosive event will be instantly scrutinized and questioned. If a written report can’t be discredited and debunked, it will be spun. But video? Think about Romney’s 47 per cent clip or Obama’s “cling to their guns” video, or the Hussein execution — yes, they all turned out to be real, but nobody doubted them for a second.  The shakier the footage, the poorer the lighting, the lower the resolution, the more “real” it all seems.

That’s why yesterday’s hoax was so great. When a Hollywood director blows a million dollars a minute on a CGI scene, they make damn sure we can see it.  The footage is bright and glossy and sharp, the monster or superhero placed in the center of the frame.  The baby-snatching eagle video is brilliant because it all looks so amateurish, just like “real” homemade video. The students behind the clip are being praised for their animation and compositing skills, but their handle on cinema aesthetics is what truly sold the shot.

From now on, we’ll play a fun game with viral videos (and hopefully, with news videos too). Something incredible will make the rounds, and instead of dropping our jaws, we’ll knit our brows. Self-appointed video experts will analyze shadows and angles and search for traces of green-screen noise.

The rest of us will just have to use our brains.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

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