“Wither Conspiracy Theories in American Public life, A Video Essay Proving Beyond A Shadow of a Doubt That You Can Spend 12 minutes Watching A New York Times Video and Learn Absolutely Nothing New.” We are referring to a video on the homepage of the Times website. The real title of this thumb-sucker mini-documentary is “Conspiracy’s Grip”. It took a whopping 19 people to produce it. Just read the credits.
(Did the Times not get the memo that you don’t do long, pompous lists of credits for short, online videos? Online videos do not need credited “directors of photography” or “coordinating producers”. Perhaps the Times is still traumatized by the Rick Bragg scandal and wants to give credit where credit’s due, but listen, print people, that’s not how video works.)
The New York Times has always produced really bad video. It goes back to the days when the peripatetic producer Vivian Schiller (who was later fired from NPR amid accusations of grotesque liberal bias), ran the paper’s digital efforts with the stolid, wooden hand she brought with her from CNN. Despite a succession of leaders for the department– many of whom were cast-offs from the print side — things have hardly improved.
Video is the one part of The New York Times digital product for which a subscription is not required (they want as many ad views as possible), and you would certainly not want to pay for this dross. Unless you fancy a nasal voice going over old ground on the theories about the Kennedy assassination. Or perhaps a Northern European academic accent literally reading a text story and slapping some file pictures on it. Sometimes there are worthy and potentially interesting stories such as “Hotel USA,” about the New York airport motel where some refugees landing in the U.S. spend their first night. Except you could spend the night waiting for the story to begin. The proper title might be “How We Spent a Long Time Opening Our Room and Looking Through Our Luggage. Geez, Toothpaste Can Leak in Transit.” The emotional journey? The anxiety? The back-story? Zilch. Indeed the video takes place almost entirely inside a dimly lit hotel room and, according to the credits, required a crew of 10, including a Director, Composer, and Digital Artist.
Someone probably told these Times guys that video stories can be done as a “journey” but forgot to point out that 1) something has to actually happen on the journey 2) the medium is about emotion, human drama, and great moments 3) the Times doesn’t have enough money to pay the audience to stick around before sleep is induced.
It’s 2017, and who knows how many dozens and dozens of people work on video at the Times, and yet a good portion of the stuff still looks homemade, worse quality than millions of great amateur docs on Vimeo and Youtube.
And with all that’s going on in the country, and the concern about journalistic credibility in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the earnest folks at the Times video unit thought that former CBS anchorman Dan Rather would be the right person to interview in that long documentary on conspiracy theories we mentioned at the top.
In this age of blathering of TV airheads, Rather does have a certain gravitas that’s kind of like watching the actor who played Jock Ewing on the TV show Dallas get cast in the remake. Even if you didn’t really love the show, or remember it, it’s comforting, in a way, to see a guy keeping up the fight. But the paragon of journalistic integrity he ain’t. Some people may remember 2004, when Rather was disgraced and later fired from CBS because of his own conspiracy theory gone wrong. In this case “a bold fabrication about President George W. Bush’s long-ago service in the Texas National Guard, intended to damage him in his campaign for reelection against John Kerry.”
Rather’s scandal wasn’t caused by some mysterious boogey man, some idiots spewing venom on Youtube, or the lightening fast culture of social media, which the ever-so-deep Times expounds upon in its cutting edge documentary. Mr. Rather was the face and voice of that theory, and he was forced to acknowledge that he failed to really do the reporting himself. Oh, and he put the whole thing on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Which is all just fine for the Times, aka the country’s self-proclaimed standard bearer of quality journalism.
We did see one video that seemed promising for its production value alone. At first it’s kind of lovely, if not pretentious. It features some incredibly cute, very young girls asking questions such as: “How does life live?”, “Do I have a vagina?”, “Why are some things special?”, and “Where do ants come from?”. The problem is that the three minute “film” starts with the narrator (their mom) asking the girls to repeat the questions she gives them. Then you sort of realize that the whole piece bares a striking and weird resemblance to the famous “Daisy” attack ad from the 1964 presidential campaign. For three minutes two gorgeous blonde children ask questions. Made up by their mother. A fake art film labeled as an “op-ed.” The additional credits include Executive Producer, Coordinating Producer, and Supervising Editor. At least they’re transparent about the team effort.