By its own account, the Atlantic executed some iron-butt enterprise journalism over the weekend. It hung around at Saturday’s conference of the National Policy Institute until after dinner, “when most journalists had already departed,” noted the magazine in a story on the event. An initial mission statement cited the imperative of studying “the consequences of the ongoing influx that non-Western populations pose to our national identity.” These folks are much in the news these days.
In a piece titled “ ‘Hail Trump!’: White Nationalists Salute the President Elect,” assistant producer Daniel Lombroso and senior editor Yoni Appelbaum describe how National Policy Institute President and Director Richard B. Spencer appealed to his followers: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” said Spencer. He also riffed, “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us,” the story quotes Spencer as saying. What sort of reaction did that remark trigger? “The audience offered cheers, applause, and enthusiastic Nazi salutes,” reported the Atlantic.
Driving the reportorial enterprise is the video embedded at the top of this post. It’s chilling, and it’s getting some rotation out there on the Internet. According to the Atlantic, it had the only “media camera” in the room at this pivotal moment. Among the outlets that have used the video: CNN, MSNBC, NBC, BBC, CNN, Sky News, AFP, AP, Telemundo, Al Jazeera, France24, NHK. The footage has been viewed 28 million times on the Atlantic’s Facebook page.
The millions of viewers who check out the video will notice something striking: The Atlantic blurred the faces of many attendees at the conference. Facial characteristics are difficult to make out.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked the publication: Why? It responded:
The three minute video was pulled from footage for an Atlantic-produced documentary about Richard Spencer. For such a project, we use common discretionary documentary practices, which include blurring faces of those who have not signed release waivers. While editing the footage for the documentary to run in December, Atlantic editors recognized its immediate news value, at which point we made the decision to share excerpts widely on our website.
Hey, how about using a little discretion to bag those “common discretionary documentary practices”? After all, this event took place at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. There were more than 200 attendees. The media was there. Who could possibly sustain an expectation of privacy in such a setting? Why not just let the footage speak for itself? Why provide anonymity to these conference-goers?
Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, sees quite clearly through the blurriness: “The video constitutes editorial content — not commercial speech or some advertisement for a product — about a truly newsworthy issue. The fleeting and incidental use of others’s images would be protected against possible liability for a claim based on appropriation because the video is newsworthy. Newsworthiness is a clear protection against claims of appropriation and right of publicity.”
Ted Boutrous, a First Amendment attorney with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, says the Atlantic “would have been on extremely strong legal ground to publish the video un-blurred and with no signed releases. The individuals were on public property in a large group and the video accurately captures their words and actions regarding highly newsworthy issues of intense public concern.”
Other experts pointed out that there could be other technical and legal reasons to blur the faces. When this blog raised those possibilities with the Atlantic, we heard the standard response — that the procedure in producing a documentary is to secure releases, though in this case it wasn’t possible to do so. Accordingly, it blurred the faces.
The great thing about technology these days is that what’s done can always be undone.