25 WAYS TO DISTORT THE TRUTH
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The Bush campaign has come up with a new twist on how to distort and deceive. As evidence, let us consider an ad from Bush-Cheney '04, Inc. called "Tell the Truth."
It is one of several television spots that can be viewed by visiting www.georgewbush.com. A few tips on video editing techniques should allow anyone to see through this ad and recognize the remarkable hypocrisy it took to make it.
Let us begin with a brief synopsis of the full spot, followed by a more detailed consideration.
John Kerry is giving a speech: "So I'm going to try and change the discussion and just tell the truth to the American people. I never ran one negative advertisement against my opponents in the primaries. And I haven't run negative advertisements yet."
Immediately following, there is a text screen accusing Kerry of running attack ads against the president since September, 2003.
The next part is apparently supposed to convince us that Kerry has been going low: We see a small picture inset on black background. It is Kerry speaking about the loss of American jobs under the Bush presidency. Soon another mini-screen with John Kerry pops up alongside the first mini-screen, and soon the whole television picture is filled with 25 mini-screens while a jarring, incomprehensible babble fills the sound track.
There is more text accusing Kerry of spending large amounts of money on attack ads, then cut to, "John Kerry's 21 Negative Advertisements have run more than 28,285 times… More than 28,285 times…"
Finally, we come back to the original shot, showing Kerry saying, "Tell the truth to the American People." This short phrase is repeated three times in all, followed by, "And I haven't run negative advertisements yet. My advertisements in this race are positive."
If you look at this advertisement carefully, you will begin to understand how manipulative it actually is. Let's start with the opening clip of Kerry speaking. The ad doesn't tell us where or when the speech was given (although the web site attributes it to a speech given on April 23, 2004). As Kerry finishes the phrase, "And I haven't run negative advertisements yet," he starts to turn his head, and as his head comes to look straight at the camera, the editor freeze frames the picture and holds it for approximately two seconds. Perhaps Kerry was about to begin another sentence (we don't know), because his mouth is slightly open. As part of a video sequence, this would look nothing out of the ordinary: careful viewing of earlier frames shows the same facial expression. But in the freeze frame, he looks peculiar, a little stupid even.
If we think about the technique that was used here, we begin to understand: In daily life, we are not used to seeing other people speechless, with their mouths open, for any prolonged period of time. John Kerry didn't do this either, it's just a trick of the video editing. You could make Albert Einstein look like an idiot using the same technique.
From the Kerry freeze frame, the picture fades to black as the audio goes deathly quiet. Onto the black background comes the text message, "September 3, 2003: John Kerry releases his first advertisement… an attack against the President." In sepulchral silence, the text cuts to, "57% of John Kerry's Ads have directly attacked the President…"
This transition was very carefully composed to do the worst possible damage to John Kerry without actually having to defend, much less state explicitly what it tries to imply.
Kerry was left on his freeze frame having said, "I haven't run negative advertisements yet." The slow fadeout to black, followed by the white lettering on black background is designed to look somber, funereal even. It is the visual equivalent of a deep voiced narrator reciting words in quietly muted yet shocked outrage. And what words are these, that are meant to call John Kerry a liar?
They say that John Kerry's ads have directly attacked the president.
Wow. The Democratic candidate for the presidency has expressed political differences with his November opponent.
Political disagreements are not "going negative" in the traditional use of the term. To go negative as generally understood means to engage in personal attacks, to tear at the character of the opponent, to chisel away using innuendo and questionable assertions. It does not refer to stating the number of jobs lost during the current incumbent's term.
If this were a formal debate and President George W. Bush had accused Sen. John Kerry of going negative because of the reference to the jobs loss number, the audience would find it laughable.
The problem is that we are dealing with two different languages here. One is standard English. The other is the language of pictures and words as edited together on-screen (film scholars refer to it as the language of narrative cinema).
That slow dissolve to black from Kerry's speech to the on-screen silent text communicates to the viewer that the latter contradicts the former. In reality it doesn't, but the mind does not have time to process the message quickly enough to recognize the real world illogic inside the cinematic story line.
There is nothing new about this technique. It is just an updated form of the old technique called montage. Film historians like to point out how the films of Serge Eisenstein used montage in communicating Soviet era propaganda.
But enough about this. The more interesting part comes after the text messages.
We see this little television screen, sort of a picture within the picture. John Kerry is speaking from some podium, telling the crowd about the job loss figures under President Bush.
Here is what is so remarkable about this shot: The video editor has carefully distorted the sound so that we do not hear the actual number of jobs lost. It is sort of like this: "Screech click (sound like phonograph needle being whipped across the grooves) million jobs lost, too many of them in the heartland. That is an astonishing failure, and if I am president I will blow back the Bush tax cuts."
It sounds like an interesting speech, one I might enjoy hearing, but the video editor has another surprise in store for us. Next to this little inset screen, another screen pops up with another picture of Kerry at some other event. His voice begins to drown out the original Kerry.
Within seconds, the screen is filled with 25 of these mini-screens. The original Kerry voice has been substituted by an irritatingly loud buzz of humanity, sort of like the angry crowd sound in a bad movie.
Logically, this section of the video proves nothing about Kerry's advertisements. How could it? It is intentionally made incomprehensible.
At another level though, it makes its point. We have been told that Kerry engages in negative attack advertising, even as it is left to the imagination what that might be. The implicit message is that Kerry is irritating, because the experience of watching this segment of the ad is irritating.
In reality, there are not 25 John Kerry's all speaking on top of each other. There is one John Kerry who seems to speak very well, based on the few seconds we have been allowed to see him in an unmanipulated context, but through creative video editing the Bush campaign portrays him as incoherent and (illogically enough) negative.
The rest of the spot continues, using manipulative techniques from the old school. The thrice-fold repetition of the Kerry remark "tell the truth to the American people" is meant to suggest dishonesty, but is by now such a moth-eaten technique that many will find it silly. The text message pointing out that Kerry has run a lot of television spots is definitely worthy for inclusion in the "pot and kettle" club.
This ad falls into the category of accusing your opponent of what you yourself are most guilty of. President Bush has just spent one-twentieth of a billion dollars on attack ads against John Kerry; many of them fall into the "going negative" category for sure.
At the logical level, the ad fails utterly to demonstrate its claim. About the only attack we hear from Kerry is the line about job loss figures, clearly a legitimate line of inquiry for a political campaign and not even remotely within the "going negative" category.
Unfortunately, the ad works its damage at a certain level through its deft use of montage and by that 25-screen picture-in-picture monstrosity.
What is amusing about this ad is the underlying attitude that any criticism of the president is now somehow unacceptable. It's also amusing that the Bush campaign couldn't bring itself to allow the viewer to hear Kerry speak the job loss number. Couldn't they find any better Kerry clip to use in this tawdry attempt at vilification?