Saturday, August 29, 2015

Planned Parenthood, Fusion GPS, and the Smokeless Gun

The big story this week is that Planned Parenthood hired Fusion GPS to take a look at the Center For Medical Progress's unedited videos to see if they were truly unedited. To the surprise of no one, the group Planned Parenthood hired to exonerate them exonerated them. The story has legs - my Facebook feed is full of gleefully overhyped headlines.  However, there is much more to the story than meets the eye.

First, its' worth noting that this is the same Planned Parenthood that a mere six weeks ago apparently faked a hack on their own website and blamed it on extremists. I felt very comfortable not accepting the news reports at face value - which is why I studied Fusion GPS's report of the videos for myself (more on this later). 

Second, very few news sources are pointing out that Fusion GPS is a remarkably partisan organization. "Objective" is probably not a world that applies to themI don't care if Planned Parenthood hires them, and they could be accurate in spite of their bias. But isn't this the kind of coziness that normally makes people - particularly reporters -  skeptical? What if a fracking company hired a clearly sympathetic organization to do an environmental impact study and found that fracking could be done at no risk? Would you take both at their word, or would you have cause to think their conclusions might be just a little skewed?

But I digress. On to the smoking gun!

Or not. Fusion GPS reached some remarkably uncomfortable conclusions - at least for Planned Parenthood. They found "no evidence that CMP inserted dialogue not spoken by Planned Parenthood staff," and they found no “widespread evidence of substantive video manipulation.” They notes clear edits, but conclude they were likely over “irrelevant content.” Yet that same report also concluded that the video evidence was so compromised that it was basically worthless as evidence. That struck me as an odd conclusion after having read their report (yes, I read it).*

So I decided to look up some of the edits they noted. I am glad I did. The following examples cover the video edits noted by Fusion GPS. They offered no direct citations for their transcript criticisms, so I did not track those down. Perhaps I will do that later. Meanwhile, I encourage you to double-check my claims about the video edits and look up the rest on your own.

1. In “Intact Fetuses 'Just a Matter of Line Items' for Planned  Parenthood TX Mega- Center,” the first long break occurs at 7:46:47 shortly after some other people enter the office while the recorded conversation is taking place. Apparently, the guy behind the camera has a headache or allergies. A nurse brings him Allegra and they talk about a potentially bad reaction. Shortly before that, the lady being interviewed had mentioned a tour she was going to give the interviewers. This is when the half hour jump takes place.

Of all the edits I looked at, this is the only one that does not have a clearly stated reason for a break. It could very plausibly be an allergy break or a tour; critics say it was a half hour to prime the conversational pump. Whatever the case, there’s plenty of material on either side of the break to establish conversational context. 

In the second long break (which starts at 12:58:43), they all clearly agree to take a break, gather some material and use the bathroom before meeting again in a conference room. When the camera starts back up again…they are meeting in a conference room. 

2.  In “Planned Parenthood VP Says Fetuses May Come Out Intact,” there is a half hour missing as well as several cases of 2–10 minutes. The small ones all take place behind the scenes inside the clinic. Here they are in the order Fusion GPS listed them.

  • Before the half hour break at 7:46:47, the person with the camera clearly says she wants a break to take notes. She leaves a busy snack room to go somewhere quiet to do this. The camera stops, then starts again in a hallway as she reengages with others. It’s a logical reason not to record, and it's a logical place to start again. There’s not even an attempt to make the transition smooth when the video starts up again. It’s a pretty obvious edit jump for an organization trying to be really sneaky.
  •  Before 11:24:49, when the first short break begins, the guy with the camera clearly says, “I am going to send a picture.” He notes he is taking his gloves off so he is no longer sterile, then leaves the room. The camera records a blank cabinet as he is apparently sending a picture, then stops. It cuts back in a few minutes later (once again not smoothly) when he apparently re-enters the sterile environment. Pretty basic.
  • At 11:36:47, the video stops when a doctor says he has to back and see a patient. He leaves and the video stops. There is a clear - not hidden - jump in location and time, picking up several minutes later in the lab where people are working with fetal tissue. 
  • At the ll:41:44 spot, the doctor they are recording walks out of the room, so the video stops. It starts several minutes later when a doctor walks back into the room. It then continues to roll as they follow her down a hallway.
  • At ll:45:46, the doctor ushers the camera operator into a small room, apparently to wait until he can observe something later  (the doctor had just mentioned a minute earlier that it might be about half an hour). The break in the footage totals thirty-five minutes. When the camera resumes, they are all walking out of the room they walked in to when the camera stopped. 

C) In “Planned Parenthood Uses Partial-Birth Abortions to Sell Baby Parts,” far too big of a deal is made about a stop and skip sequence starting at 14:32:07. 

First, there’s been two hours of video already recorded that nobody claims is cut. That’s a good context, and that's where the controversial material is found.  If the edit bothers you,  you could cut the video when the break starts and just deal with the previous two hours.

Second, the edit is remarkably innocuous. The guy recording clearly states he needs a bathroom break. Since he was recording up to this point, the camera view switches to the girl’s viewpoint. (You can continue to overhear the conversation between the two ladies but not see them because of the camera angle). The 14:38-14:41 break starts when the lady leaves to go to the bathroom and ends when she comes back. Her departure and arrival are clear. A switch is made back to the guy's camera during this time. 

D) In “Second Planned Parenthood Senior Executive Haggles Over Baby Parts Prices,” the splice happens mere minutes into a 75 minute video. All three of the people in the video are just settling into their booth; the serious conversation that provides all the controversy hasn’t even started. When this early break happens, the guy recording clearly says he has to go to the bathroom; when the jump to a new camera occurs, a new voice says to him, “We’ll be here,” and you see the guy walking away. Sneaky, I know.

Shocked? Me neither. The pattern is clear: whatever editing is done is neither substantive nor widespread, and it does not effect relevant material. The cut-and-jumps are so obvious (they left the time and counter on the videos, for heaven's sake) that one would have to think CMP is the worst conspiracist organization ever if they were really trying to fool people.

After viewing all the edits for myself, I am baffled at Fusion GPS's conclusion. They claim that the videos "have no evidentiary value in a legal context…the videos also lack credibility as journalistic products." That's an odd conclusion after leading with the claim that there is "no evidence that CMP inserted dialogue not spoken by Planned Parenthood staff," no “widespread evidence of substantive video manipulation,” and no edits over relevant content. The language within the report is duplicitous at best. Observing the videos in question makes clear why Fusion GPS struggled to bring a coherently condemning message: there's nothing there to condemn. 

There are two scandals to be found in this report, and neither involves the Center For Medical Progress. The first is that Fusion GPS's  findings are biased, duplicitous and presented in a way that poisons the well so strongly that most people won't check for themselves. The second is that so many reporters and journalists did not check for themselves, but eagerly took the self - contradictory word of a highly partisan company hired by Planned Parenthood to make Planned Parenthood look good. It's disheartening. 

So check for yourself. Don't take my word for it either. Do the work so many journalists and reporters are refusing to do. Go to Fusion GPS's site and look up the video editing they highlight, then watch the CMP video on Youtube for yourself. You will find that this is not a smoking gun. This is smoke and mirrors that allows people to look away from reality.


Here is an more detailed response from the Center For Medial Progress.


  1. This is a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing it, Anthony!

    I loved this line: “To the surprise of no one, the group Planned Parenthood hired to exonerate them exonerated them.”

  2. I wish I had the time to respond to each of Fusion GPS's criticisms just so the review was 100% thorough. However, based on the ones I checked out, the pattern so far is clear: this is much ado about nothing. I suspect that the media outlets trumpeting the results have not bothered to do their own analysis.