Andrew Rossi on "After Truth," a new HBO documentary about the disinformation age
Hey welcome to this week's reliable sources podcast on a week. That is anything but ordinary. I'm your host Brian. Stelter is all anybody's talking about and thinking about there's such a need for accurate reliable information at this moment in time. Especially in that makes the menace of disinformation. All the more important. You know we've been seeing this on social networks propaganda campaigns and profiteers promoting lies and hoaxes involving the pandemic trying to mislead people about the threat posed by the corona virus. It is shameful but thankfully there are lots of journalists out there fact checking correcting calling it out and I wanNA start a broader conversation about disinformation and the real life consequences. I mean that's what we're seeing right now with people who maybe didn't take this seriously enough information has been with us for years. It's going to be with us for many more years to come and it's the subject of a brand new documentary that I happened to be the executive producer up. So hey surprise surprise I i WanNa tell you all about it. it's an. Hbo Film Titled After Truth. In the director is Andrew Rossi. He really is the one that deserves all the credit. So I've asked him to sit down with me here and talk about the film and give you a preview Andrew. Great to see you great to see you. Brian and we are still talking in person here. Despite the virus threat we've maintained a proper distance. I think we were going to have a premiere of the film in New York and then it was going to be at south by southwest and we were going to go to Washington now. All those plans are off but thankfully people are going to watch this film for themselves. Thursday nine PM Eastern time on HBO and then on demand anytime through HBO. So the film's title. Andrew is after truth. Disinformation and the cost of fake news to me. The most important word in the title is cost. This is about the real life cost. What stories anecdotes show and tell that cost? It's true we we look at cost because there's so many different angles to attack the question of false news. One of the things that Brian we talked about in the beginning when we were developing the movie was that it's a war and it's amazing that several characters in the film who are actually propagators of false news frame. The whole conversation as chemical weapons and among media war But in that dynamic you have people who are pushing the false stories and then you have people who are the subject of them and are actually victims and they are suffering a cost. Yeah so what we thought would be the best way to tackle this topic in a way. That's not explicitly political but is instead something that people can sort of understand on a human level is to look at the victims and the cost that they have experienced So the film is tracking several case studies from two thousand fifteen to two thousand eighteen. Some of the most trenchant lies that have saturated the the environment and those include The jade helm conspiracy about a military exercise in two thousand fifteen in the southwest states the pizza conspiracy which surrounded a pizza restaurant in Washington. Dc And then the seth rich conspiracy which is about a DNC staffer who was murdered in the summer of two thousand sixteen and whose death was actually Twisted into some sort of plot about Hillary Clinton and others trying to kill him because he supposedly leaked the DNC emails to wikileaks. Yeah it's nothing. But people buy into these theories. They spread viral on social media. And what I think is so special about this film and look. I know I'm biased. I'm a producer but what I think is so special about this film. Is You actually see the people that these things we talk about so academically clinically or or people make fun of Pizza Gate? Okay you can mock it. It's crazy but a guy with a gun showed up comet pizza and until you see the body camera footage from the police and you see the the proprietor of the restaurant. Take you through the restaurant. Show you around you don't you. Don't get the real life cost. I don't I think that's right. I think many people have a passing recollection of pizza. Data's as sort of like fake news jumping the shark. It was a big story in the lead up to the election of two thousand sixteen and then the actual shooting took place in December so after the election everyone was reeling. But if you go back and you sort of look step by step by what happened there. You actually find that. This set of e mails from John. Podesta to James Fantas The the owner of Comet Ping Pong which which these emails were released in the document dump from wikileaks Those emails were decoded by people on Fortune and on read it to try and tease out. Some sort of meaning to cheese. Pizza wasn't but they. It's like staring at a blank page long enough. And you imagine something's there yet. It's a sort of classic playbook of how misinformation evolves because it starting something real which are those emails that of course we're not supposed to be released and then they get twisted but on the basis of prejudices and biases and that's really what we think is the human cost you look at Pizza Gate The the restaurant Comet Ping Pong. That's at the center of. It is a safe space for queer people. James Elephants the owner of Comet Ping Pong is a gay man and people went into his instagram account and into his other emails to try and connect his identity to this plot of a sort of pedophile child. Sex Trafficking Ring it's it's the most Sort of grotesque inflation of prejudices with the most dark. You know sort of emotional thing that people would get upset about and so in fact Edgar Madison welts. Who is the gunman who actually went up? There drove from North Carolina. Had his own feelings about his own children and wanted to save children but somehow by being inspired by Alex Jones went with a gun and threatened the lives of other people in his effort to try and save kid. Right right could could have really hurt a lot of people so so. That's one of the case studies that we have in this film. Let's let's tell people about our history in how we came together for this project About ten years ago you made a documentary called page one going inside the New York. Times looking at how the Times was adapting to the digital revolution sometimes struggling to do so other times exceeding David car is seen as the star of the film is the heart of the film page. One popped up along with some other. I used to say I was. You were a very big Brian. Supporting actor in the film page one and it was so natural for you. I I noticed you know within a week you were following me around the newsroom and Just you know. I didn't even notice you. Were there any more? In many ways. You embodied the disruptive force that David and the rest of the Times was trying to wrap their heads around. I remember David Commenting in the film that you were. Perhaps a robot built in the basement of the times to come and take his job away. The big question with page one was how the Times could navigate the downturn in print advertising and competition from digital sources and. I think you as somebody who had started a blog and had a a young take on information and news were seen as somebody who could breathe new life into the media desk So it's interesting because after truth in some ways is a sequel to page one. Because we're still talking about the importance of quality journalism and keeping it alive but the stakes are even huger now. Yeah they are. I love how in after truth people see inside the New York Times. Washington bureau so page one was mostly set in New York. Now you have a interviews with several different times reporters mostly in DC for this new film. So we've come full circle. I I've gone from being a subject of one of your films to working with you on this new film Tell people about how. Hbo You know how this started. Because it was like early twenties. Seventeen when I started talking with Richard Butler who was the head of HBO at the time about doing something some sort of project about media in the trump age misinformation and thank goodness very early on. I don't know if it was Richard or one of his deputies. Nancy or Lisa who said let's let's call Andrew Rossi well it and thank you for forgiving me a call because I think all of us in the documentary world were really trying to figure out. How do you tell the story about fake news? And about the erosion of truth in a way that doesn't give oxygen to the people who actually spread the allies So I know we went back and forth in many different iterations as to how to tell the story I think I we started with the big lie. This idea that fascist governments trying advance lies. And it's something you see in different forms of government actually even in the United States moments when The president and the government have advance stories for certain national security interests that are false and for one reason or another. We pivoted away from that and actually started looking at hate the rise in hate online and working with propublica and and thinking about ways that we could tell that story even up to Charlottesville and what happened there and then I guess vice did a great job telling that story. 'cause that's a connection between hate and misinformation of fake news and precise that are the it's like. What are the fuels of this fire? Yeah and I think all of that development really helped to inspire the approach to after truth because our antennas were really ready to catch. Some of those emotional appeals and again you C with The Pizza Gate Story. You see it. Also with the seth rich story with the Clinton Body Count Which is another really sticky. Lie about the. Clintons being part of this deep state and it plays on so many fears That are again emotional nature. They really really are So throughout Twenty eighteen and twenty nineteen. You're interviewing the the people that make up the backbone of this film who are who are some of the subjects Of this film that that are important that that stand out to most will for sure. It's James Elephants took a lot of courage to revisit the story to talk to us. Aaron rich he gets all the interview requests and usually turns them down and even more so Aaron. Rich poor brother of seth rich has done practically nothing in terms of all those TV univer requests. It's true he hasn't he did. Speak to Michael ISIKOFF. I think by phone for his really fantastic podcast with all the great skulduggery But I believe that this is the first time. He's spoken on television. Since you know weeks after Seth Passed away so I you know the reason why those are so important. Is that these human testimonies there. These really personal stories that when you see them communicating them. I think you know even people who might believe the the. The fake news conspiracies or have an ambient awareness of them and they sort of cynically think they might be true. You see these people in mode on screen and it kind of breaks the bubble that a person can have when they're on social media you know swiping through fake stories it. I I really appreciate that. Both James and Aaron. Talk to us that being said I think there's also pretty spectacular material from Jack Berkman and Jacob Wall who are some of the the liars and chief. Yeah let's talk about them that Osborn by the way I got the name of the PODCASTS. Wrong it's Skulduggery is the podcast. the one involving the seth rich story is a conspiracy land. Excellent short foreign podcast. So we're not about the victims of fake news and certainly Erin Richards a victim of fake news but you also profile the perpetrators. That's where Berkman comes in. Jacob Wall comes in you know these these people who see as advantageous to spread misinformation. I mean that's where we get back to the initial concern about giving oxygen to people that I think. Many documentary filmmakers feared what I felt about the way that we captured this particular plot by Jack. Berkman and Jacob Wall is that because we're doing verite documentary filmmaking which is basically observational. We put a mic on Jack. Berkman End Jacob Wall and just let them do their thing We're able to see them. In real time spinning the lies and then in the context of a press conference where journalists like Oliver Darcy will summer and Adam Goldman from the New York Times are pushing back and literally fact checking them in in the moment and so I think that provides some interesting Evidence for for how these lies get spun and how these people operate but it very quickly tries to debunk it. And and Cast these characters for who they are which are liars right right Let's talk more about Some of the different sequences in the film after a quick break here on reliable sources podcast. Now we're talking about after truth our new. Hbo Film Premieres on Thursday March nineteenth and nine pm eastern time on HBO More With Andrew. Rossi in just a moment everyone poppy harlow here this week on CNN's boss files podcast we sit down with WNBA commissioner. Cathy Engelbert. She is the first woman to hold that title. Commissioner of the WNBA moved empowers women in professional sports. She opens up about her personal relationship Kobe Bryant and what he and his thirteen year old daughter. Gina meant for the future of women's basketball. We also get into the tough negotiations around the new collective bargaining agreement that has left players with higher salaries and paid family leave. She says players in the League are activists and take a stand on social issues. And then wait until you hear the story about her father and why he turned down an opportunity to play in the NBA. I hope you check it out. Subscribe to boss bows today. The wait is over coming to H. L. ED. All new episodes of forensic files follow the evidence and crack the case forensic files to Sundays at ten. Only on H. L. Ed. Hey welcome back to the reliable sources. Podcast I'm your host Brian stelter talking with Andrew Rossi who I've been working with on this new. Hbo Film on After Truth. Crosses the director of the film. And we're talking here in New York A few days ahead of its world premiere on television Thursday march nineteenth nine. Pm Eastern time on HBO so enter. We're sitting on this reliable sources set where I've had these debates with people about Alex Jones whether to pay attention to Alex Jones and whether he should have a platform on social media and he comes up a couple of times in our film after truth You see him Spreading misinformation confronting. Cnn's Oliver Darcy and trying to attack. Oliver why do you think it was important to include Alex Jones in the story? You know I have to say when we first started working on the film after truth. I remember being in our office. with my co producer. Adam McGill and actually my frequent collaborator and wife. Kate Novak And we were talking about this topic and we searched your name Brian on Youtube and one of the first clips. That came up. Was this this this clip of Alex Jones about me Attacking you in calling you. An enemy of the people drink children's blood. Yeah I it was. It was the most sort of disturbing and sort of like I can't believe this is on Youtube type of moment. Fast forward I guess about maybe sixteen months Adamant I were watching the livestream on periscope of Jack Dorsey testifying before Congress about twitter policies and Alex Jones was protesting there because he had already been deployed for by Apple. And he goes on this this rant this attack Berating Oliver Darcy the CNN media reporter and starts talking about his his physical features in in a way that was so threatening and also so vile like he had done to you on on on Youtube that it just it really crystallized again these these themes of hatred and demonizing group and then spinning lies. And so we knew that Alex Jones at Eh somebody who has told lies about the Sandy Hook families the pizza conspiracy. He literally is involved in each one of our case studies. Jade Helm and the South Ridge conspiracy that in a way the way that the the the corporations the platforms and the environment would respond to him would would signal a path forward and so in fact we see Alex Jones Platform by the end of the film. And it's it's it's kind of a climax you know. Alex Jones is based in Austin Texas. One thing that I'm I'm proud of you know about this film and again if for some reason didn't hear the first half I'm an executive producer of the films. I've got some heart in this is it's not just about New York and DC. In fact it's really not about New York and DC. This film starts in Texas and basically ends in Texas. You see stories from across the country from red and blue states to this is real and it's not just you know a conversation about facebook headquarters. I mean that's factor. What happens to facebook and twitter matters? But Sodas what happens in you know in Texas L. Country? It's such a good point. We filmed at a trump rally in Houston where one of the trump supporters says to us that you know CNN is in the dumper he doesn't trust CNN but that also donald trump is protecting his culture. This is literally what he says and that he understands. The politicians can play fast and loose with the truth but he. Donald Trump is trying to protect his way of life. And so you see that. The cultural divide is is is just critical to fake news. False stories Surviving and unfortunately they become a device that a tactic to protect one side for another. You know I interested in a lot of movies that and subjects that get us access to different subjects. The New York Times was one with with the film page one. I've looked at other institutions and initially. There was a thought. Should we try and get access to facebook but I think like do it from the inside out I I? I think this is one of cases where seeing the human cost talking to individuals who are not necessarily famous who don't have a big brand around them and don't they're not a draw that way that for theatrical film you might want that proved to be so much more productive than sort of playing the access dance with an institution like facebook or Google or others. The access dance. Let's put it. Yeah that's funny Tell me a little bit about the filmmaking process. Because you're early on I never been involved. You know trying to help out you know with. Hbo Like this. The way I did for this so early on. I remember you saying to me and I'M GONNA paraphrase and be blunter than you were Brian. You can't beat the interviews because it's going to affect the interviews there's a CNN guy. In the room some people are going to react differently. And I thought that was so and I realize we're right and that was so interesting. But it makes me wonder about your strategy for how you coax things out of people how you feel comfortable and how you share in ways that you know people don't always share cable news or or in a telephone interview so tell me about the interviewing process absolutely well you know. I think particularly in a case like the pizza story you know. We were very appreciative. To get access to film it Comet Ping Pong but the sort of the the scope of that access was going to be just about an hour shooting and then perhaps an interview and you feel comfortable. Well that turned into two days of shooting at the restaurant and getting to know the staff and making them feel comfortable. I mean I think this. Is You know when we were shooting at the time. The same thing when we first started When I first started shooting you because I was there myself you know I think you were. Maybe not sure whether to trust me and kind of where I was coming from. It was similar to that it takes. It takes a minute but I think also the staff at at Comet Ping Pong are even more at a heightened level of of of a fear but I was really proud of our crew which is actually pretty small. Brian Sarkin in is our cinematographer Again Atta mcgilla. My Co producer also shoots and me and it's just the three of us And we really try and get to know people and so then when we sat down with James Elephant is the owner on the second day. That we were Down I spoke to him from the heart and he really was ready to to talk to us in a way that you know. He cries several times and he gave a three hour conversation. Yeah he really does pour his heart out to you. He doesn't and I think he was ready to do it. He hasn't talked to a lot of other people. But it's also hopefully a reflection of our footprint whether I'm working by myself or again with just the the small band of of folks that we have Working on this film. It's all about connecting with people and representing our our ethics in our values in a way that makes people feel comfortable to share. So as I mentioned I've been plugging away. The film premieres Thursday at nine PM Eastern time on HBO You get to see the victims as well as the perpetrators and the investigators of these disinformation campaigns. 'cause WE GOTTA get a shout out to the to the reporters Craig Silverman's or the the will summers off from your interview about sleuthing. And finding this molly mccue David Folkenflik and many others Elizabeth Williamson as well. Who's reported on Alex Jones David Folkenflik from NPR? And you know and you are there in spirit also Brian. I think every day that you're doing the reliable sources show every Sunday that that it's it's it's fact checking in real time the messages that are coming at us and I think it's it's such a political stew right now that to make a film in defense of journalism is difficult but ultimately that is the subtext whether it is journalists or other experts or authority figures. We need to come together. And and understand the importance of objective fact based conversation discourse information sources and. It's almost like we need to renew the social pact and then agrees that facts are are the way that we should govern our life. Renew the social pact at a time. When we're talking about this Hannah's virus and social distancing the notion that we all have something in common something that we've got to work together on the at the forefront right now but it also applies this is is this issue of how healthy are information. Ecosystem is and whether people can trust each other and trust the sources they have. Are We after truth? Are we post truth? It's it's a terrible thing to contemplate but there really is an erosion of of truth. There there is. There is a a disturbing indulgence of the idea that we are and that in of itself I think is sort of after truth interesting. Yeah all the talk about. Being post truth is And and that's up the problem. Th that's been indulged it even just the conversation but but I think we can get back to it. I think that it's conversations like the ones that this film Provokes that we have in our schools. You know there's incredible work that's being done by media literacy groups like the one that Alan Miller is is directing and that we find in different pockets of of the of the culture that needs to be supported him all right so andrew give us the final plug tell people went over to watch final plug march nineteenth this coming Thursday at nine pm. The film will be broadcast but it will be available on demand ON HBO. Go and police tune in and share with with your friends and family and let us know what you thought. Afterwards Andrew. Where can people find you? How can they get in touch? I met On on twitter mostly and the handle is at a underscore ro SSI Andrew Rossi a underscore Rossi And also on. My website is Abstract PRODUCTIONS THAT'S OUR PRODUCTION COMPANY. And you can find us all there. That's right Enter thanks so much such a thrill doing this. But they'll thank you Brian for for all of your amazing leadership and guidance in making this film We couldn't have done it without you and it's been a pleasure to collaborate. I tell you there's So much news that I do five minutes time or newsletter form or on CNN dot com article But when you can take an hour and a half and put all this together is it is quite something after truth. Disinformation than the cost of fake news. Google it or look on. Hbo Dot Com and watch it on demand after it's TV Puma on Thursday night. Thanks for joining us on this week's reliable sources podcast policy on television this Sunday and every Sunday at eleven am eastern time at least.