I haven’t seen the ballyhooed Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” and, to be honest, I’m not sure I plan to. Based on the way the documentary presents the case, many people have been quick to assume convicted murderer Steven Avery is wrongly behind bars thanks to a corrupt investigation and prosecution, when the parties involved still actively dispute the truth.
Plenty of explanations for the events “Making a Murderer” concerns don’t fit our binary conceptions of guilty and innocent, such as the likely possibility Avery is still guilty even if the cops played it fast and loose and his trial was less than fair.
Letting media companies profit by stoking unfounded speculation at the watercoolers of America may be the worst reason I can think of to dig up old murder cases and try them in the court of public opinion. Viewers of the show demanding a pardon for Avery and his nephew have even managed force a response from the White House.
That the 129,950 who signed the White House petition didn’t realize the president can only pardon those convicted of federal crimes is exhibit A for why we shouldn’t turn the legal system—or any other consequential political, cultural, or economic dispute—over to the mob. If anything, the controversy over “Making a Murderer” does highlight a couple of very uncomfortable truths about the limits of documentaries that, despite loads of media hype, no one wants to talk about.
Documentaries Run Amok
Over the last several years the number of popular documentaries made by supposedly reputable filmmakers that have turned out to have serious factual problems is staggering. In fact, it should discredit very nearly the entire genre of filmmaking. But since this slew of troubling documentaries amount to little more than agitprop that reinforces the politics and cultural mores of urban liberal elites, no one’s talking about what’s gone wrong—even when those documentaries have real-world consequences.
(Interestingly enough, the problem is looming under the surface artistically. Acclaimed filmmaker Noah Baumbach just made “While We’re Young”—a movie about an older documentarian, played by Ben Stiller, who is personally and artistically adrift and ends up confronting a younger documentarian who appears to be making stuff up out of whole cloth.)
One important and legitimately impactful bit of documentary filmmaking in recent years has gone out of its way to hold itself to a higher standard. But since this documentary work cuts sharply against the left-leaning worldview of journalists and the urban creative class, it has been intensely demonized. I’m talking, of course, about the Center for Medical Progress’ undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood clinics exchanging fetal parts for money.
In no particular order, let’s just run through the list of documentaries gone amok. First, there is “Blackfish,” a documentary about the horrors of SeaWorld keeping orcas in captivity. I was one of very few journalists who took the time to examine the film’s contentions, and it was loaded with problems. After OSHA concluded SeaWorld was guilty of “willful” safety violations, Lara Padgett, the employee who led the agency’s six-month investigation of SeaWorld, ended up under internal investigation. That’s because photos of Padgett surfaced online showing her schmoozing at the Sundance Film Festival with the director of “Blackfish” and a number of former SeaWorld employees featured in the movie.
“’Blackfish’ was a complete ‘180’ from what was originally presented to me,” noted Bridgette Pirtle, a SeaWorld trainer who had worked with the filmmakers. “Now, it’s almost like my worst fears are unfolding in front of me.” The family of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer killed by an orca, issued a statement distancing itself from the film because it indulges wild speculation that SeaWorld deliberately spread false information in the aftermath of Brancheau’s death.
Further, the sources for the documentary were not exactly on the up and up. One was a SeaWorld employee fired for “multiple safety violations in the water with killer whales,” according to Pirtle. Another was a neuroscience expert who made the absurd claim that whales have a “sense of social bonding much more complex than other mammals, including humans.” It turns out she’s a member of a radical animal rights group that thinks whales are granted rights by the Thirteenth Amendment, but the movie did not disclose this and other ties to radical animal rights activists.
But what’s truly bizarre about “Blackfish” is that you don’t have to be a lunatic PETA member to make a case that keeping majestic creatures such as orcas in captivity for human amusement is bad. Three trainers at aquatic parks have been killed working with whales! The actual facts are compelling enough. The only reason to gild the lily here is to be as manipulative as possible. But it worked—in November, SeaWorld announced its San Diego theme park will feature no more orca shows.
Another damning example of dubious documentary work is 2010’s “Gasland,” which is about “fracking” for oil and gas. It was nominated for an Academy Award despite serious factual problems regarding the film’s contention that fracking is excessively bad for the environment.
The film’s pivotal scene, where they light someone’s water taps on fire because the taps have been allegedly polluted with natural gas, has been thoroughly debunked by Colorado state regulators as a naturally occurring phenomenon where gas sometimes ends up in aquifers. Still, “Gasland” has figuratively poisoned the well so badly that lawmakers are starting to pass regional fracking bans, despite the fact that the Environmental Defense Fund’s own senior policy adviser—no oil company stooge—has been rather dismissive about problems with fracking.
A little closer to the subject of “Making a Murderer” was HBO’s ballyhooed documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” That series ended with Durst, a rich New Yorker who has apparently gotten away with multiple murders, making what sounds like a dramatic confession.
The series’ finale aired last March, a day after Durst was arrested for murder based in part on evidence the filmmakers had unearthed. This should have been a triumph for documentary filmmaking. Instead, director Andrew Jarecki ended up cancelling interviews and dodging the press after it emerged that the timeline of events in the documentary didn’t match reality.
In 2014, a federal judge threw out a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for environmental damage in Ecuador. The oil company had presented compelling evidence of bribes and secret meetings with Ecuadorean judges. The whole thing was so conspiratorial that the judge concluded the plot against Chevron would “normally come only out of Hollywood.” Except in this case it kind of did. As reported in The Weekly Standard:
Chevron’s RICO suit against the corrupt attorneys came about in part because they subpoenaed the raw footage from an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who made a documentary about the case. It turns out that the raw footage—not included in the film—showed the plaintiffs’ lawyers engaged in dubious conduct. The outtakes even showed the lead attorney, Steven Donziger, talking about intimidating an Ecuadorean judge. The lawyer said it would be good if the judge feared for his life.
The documentarian in this case is Joe Berlinger, who made the documentary “Crude” about Donziger’s case. Berlinger is a big name in the world of documentaries. His documentary “Paradise Lost” kicked off a 15-year campaign to free the West Memphis Three—three men accused of killing three boys in an alleged occult ritual in Arkansas. (They were freed in 2011 on an Alford Plea.)
But here Berlinger is, sitting on footage of corrupt deals being struck with Third World judges that stand to enrich U.S. trial lawyers in the name of environmentalism. This appalling episode should call into question the credibility of his entire career as a documentarian. (For what it’s worth, emails in the Chevron case also showed celebrated Vanity Fair writer William Langewiesche had an incredibly unethical relationship with Donziger.)
Yet Berlinger weighed in “on the ethical conundrum of ‘The Jinx’” in the Huffington Post last year. “The selective withholding of information at the right dramatic moment … raises a lot of issues,” he said. You don’t say. The Huffington Post article did not mention his own problems withholding crucial information.
That brings us back to “Making a Murderer.” Most recently, Berlinger was quoted by The Wrap saying that Netflix’s documentary was a “watershed moment in the history of this genre.” Forgive me if I don’t consider that a ringing endorsement.
Apparently No One Wants an Honest Documentary
So how can you know that you can, in fact, trust a documentary, especially on a controversial political topic? Well, that’s where the Planned Parenthood mini-documentaries made by the Center for Medical Progress really threw down the gauntlet. Perhaps because they knew the horrifying information they presented would be challenged, CMP did something very nearly unprecedented: They released hours and hours of raw footage to show the full context of their edited videos.
The media, of course, almost completely ignored this context. When they didn’t, they got things badly wrong. Vox’s Sarah Kliff, whose sympathies toward abortion providers are not exactly a secret, wrote a piece claiming she’d “watched all 12 hours of the unedited Planned Parenthood videos.” But there were 17 hours of unedited footage, not 12 (and more hours of unedited footage have been released since then). Even the correction to her story made claims that footage didn’t exist when it clearly did.
Then Planned Parenthood, reeling from the bad publicity the videos generated, commissioned a “forensic audit” of the videos. Unsurprisingly, that audit alleged problems, and the media regurgitated this report uncritically. “Planned Parenthood Videos Were Altered, Analysis Finds,” was The New York Times headline. Politico went with “Report for Planned Parenthood finds sting videos manipulated.” However, even Planned Parenthood’s own audit concluded there was no “widespread evidence of substantive video manipulation.”
Further, neither the Times or Politico reported that the firm doing the “forensic audit” for Planned Parenthood was a partisan Democratic opposition research firm with a dodgy reputation and a history of harassing Republican donors. When the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, hired a third party with a credible reputation for handling legal investigations to audit the videos, that audit found the videos were “authentic and show no evidence of manipulation.” That report by the firm Coalfire received virtually no media attention.
Then the other substantial hit on Planned Parenthood came when viewers noticed two parts of one of the videos came from sources other than the Center for Medical Progress. First, there was the short clip of a video of an aborted fetus still moving in a specimen pan, notably mentioned by Carly Fiorina in a Republican debate. Then there was a photo of a stillborn used to illustrate the gestational age of an aborted fetus being discussed in the video.
In both cases, onscreen credits appeared while the images were being used, indicating the source of these images—the video of the fetus was from the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform and the still from a newspaper.
CNN Deserves a Big Black Eye
Despite crediting the source, the media relentlessly attacked the videos as being deceptively edited. This CNN report, in particular, was a doozy. Not only were CNN’s claims that the Planned Parenthood videos were egregiously edited baseless, I will now note that CNN bought the rights to “Blackfish” and aired it constantly in 2014. The “most trusted name in news” put its seal of approval on a documentary that was… accused of deceptive editing because it repeatedly used film from different contexts to illustrate what interviewees were discussing.
To name one example, in “Blackfish” a former SeaWorld trainer, Samantha Berg, talks about her first time getting in the tank to interact with the whales, saying she was unprepared for the event. “They just told me to go do it and I did it,” she says. As she’s saying this, the film shows footage of another trainer, Holly Byrd (who from a distance is a dead ringer for Berg), riding around with a whale.
Byrd was not happy about the misrepresentation, noting that she spent “two years of my career leading up to that point. . . . The one thing I want people to know after watching the movie is that it’s not true.”
CNN ran their expose of CMP’s supposedly manipulative editing under the banner “Keeping Them Honest.” If we’re being honest, I’d love for CNN to explain how the editing in their pet documentary isn’t much, much worse than the accusations they lobbed at CMP.
It seems pretty clear we have a serious problem with dishonest documentaries. And by the standards routinely accepted in documentary filmmaking, videos released by CMP showing Planned Parenthood dealing in fetal parts were a paragon of veracity.
Alas, I’m quite certain that Joe Berlinger and Andrew Jarecki aren’t going to have problems finding lucrative work. Studios aren’t going to stop bankrolling specious documentaries like “Making a Murderer” anytime soon. As long as they are well-marketed and do their level best to reaffirm liberal conceptions about politics and culture, their target audience will lap them up.
Unfortunately, the only real truth to be found in many of these documentaries is that people don’t mind being lied to if you tell them what they want to believe.