Media Scramble to Fact Check Whether There Were Actual Crickets on Debate Stage


February 20, 2020

Media figures rushed to fact check a humorous, clearly edited video released by Michael Bloomberg's campaign on Thursday, with one CNN reporter comparing it to a so-called deepfake.

In the video, Bloomberg's question at Wednesday's Democratic debate about whether any other candidates had started their own business is met with 20 seconds of blank stares, complete with cricket noises, the classic sound effect during an awkward silence. In reality, the silence lasted a beat before Bloomberg moved on.

This drew the attention of reporters like CNN's Dana Bash.

"There is a video that his campaign tweeted this morning that didn't happen. It is a deceptively edited video," Bash said, before playing the clip.

While she acknowledged the campaign had pointed out it was meant to be humorous, she said it's an era where "we are so concerned about things that are doctored, deepfakes on the internet."

"Deepfakes" refer to a form of media where an existing image or video is replaced with another person's face or voice.

"It makes it harder to take the arguments that he's making seriously when he does something like this," Bash said of Bloomberg.

New York Times reporter Azi Paybarah compared it to a similarly criticized video put out by President Donald Trump's campaign after the State of the Union, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) was depicted tearing up his speech during its more poignant moments. Pelosi did rip up the speech, but only after Trump concluded.

Business Insider wrote Bloomberg's video was "incredibly misleading," and liberal outlet Talking Points Memo called it "doctored." NBC News fact checked the video, with reporter Maura Barrett calling it "manipulated."

A campaign spokesman was eventually forced to release a statement that "there were obviously no crickets on the debate stage."

The media's relationship with edited videos is complicated. While ones like Trump sharing a montage of Pelosi tripping over her words at a press conference were met with condemnation, celebrated journalist Katie Couric suffered no professional consequences when her 2016 documentary edited in nine seconds of silence to make gun-rights supporters look dumbstruck by one of her questions.

The outraged coverage of Bloomberg's video continued on Friday.

NBC News "dystopia beat" reporter Ben Collins told MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle that "without the crickets," people could take such a clip seriously.

"That's how disinformation sort of steamrolls, and if nobody is going to stop it, it could change narratives," he said. "It [missing word here--could?] change the outcome of an election. We've been there before."

The Washington Post Fact-Checker gave the ad "Four Pinocchios," its harshest rating for a political lie. It said it was taking a "tough line on manipulated campaign videos."

"Political ads can be fun and entertaining, but they shouldn’t be misleading," the Post wrote. "Anyone who had not seen the debate could have been easily misled into thinking the other candidates stood there in stunned silence for nearly half a minute."

In a 1,159-word explainer, Vox conceded "stretching the truth is a normal practice in politics" but said Democrats have to be wary about what is released in their name in an era of disinformation.

Emerson Brooking, "a disinformation expert" at the Atlantic Council, told Vox the ad was "deceptive and misleading." He scolded the Bloomberg team for not adding a disclosure it was produced by his campaign, although the video being shared was tweeted from Bloomberg's official account.

UPDATED: Feb. 21, 2:15 p.m.: This post has been updated with further information.