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PBS Ombudsman

Were Activists, or Viewers, Entrapped?

The headline above relates to a 90-minute documentary film titled, "Better This World," that was honored earlier this year at film festivals in San Francisco and Sarasota and that debuted on the long-running PBS series POV on Sept. 6.

The film focuses on the story of two young friends and activists, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, both from Midland, TX, and in their early 20s—who were accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN—and a third man, Brandon Darby, another activist who was initially well known for co-founding Common Ground, a relief group in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but who then became an FBI informant.

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

The film has attracted a lot of attention, including reviews in The New York Times, the New Orleans-based nola.com, Mother Jones, film sites such as Variety and Hammer to Nail, and some conservative web sites such as American Power.

I confess that I had not seen this film when it made its debut on POV, which stands for Point of View, and I had not received any emails from viewers about it. My attention was drawn to it first by a telephone call on Sept. 22 from Lee Stranahan, a writer and filmmaker who was sharply critical of the film. I asked him to email me the specifics of his complaints, which he did the next day, and he also posted his email to me on his web site.

On his web site, Stranahan says he was formerly a blogger for the HuffingtonPost.com, but now writes for BigJournalism.com and BigGovernment.com, which were established by conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart.

Stranahan claims that the POV presentation "utterly fails to meet" PBS's high standards "through deliberately deceptive editing and the insertion of footage that is designed to bolster the provably false story of the convicted criminal liar who is the hero of the film," referring to one of the activists, David McKay.

Stranahan goes on to say, "filmmakers with an agenda and no regard for the truth tricked PBS viewers. This breach of trust represents a real disservice to them and it's actually only one example, blatant example, of how the filmmakers deliberately and with malice got the facts completely wrong."

So, Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, How Did You Like the Play?

This is obviously strong stuff. Here's what follows:

I begin with an apology. This column gets quite long because I've included the main elements of Stranahan's email and a response from the film's directors, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega. These exchanges deal with specific segments and techniques, and are hard to summarize.

I also highly recommend watching this film if you haven't seen it. It is well worth it. The charges and counter-charges below are complex, spanning events from New Orleans to St. Paul, undercover informants, disputed meetings at which filmmakers obviously could not be present, jailhouse and FBI interviews, and people behaving under extreme stress. So it may be hard to follow this column without watching the film and forming your own opinion. I give mine at the end of this column.

Here's Stranahan's Detailed Critique:

Even PBS's description of the film helps create a false impression…

The story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, who were accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, is a dramatic tale of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal. Better This World follows the radicalization of these boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, under the tutelage of revolutionary activist Brandon Darby. The results: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and a high-stakes entrapment defense hinging on the actions of a controversial FBI informant. Better This World goes to the heart of the war on terror and its impact on civil liberties and political dissent in post-9/11 America.

As proven in court, there was no 'radicalization…under the tutelage of revolutionary activist Brandon Darby.' That was David McKay's defense and when it collapsed under the weight of facts, McKay admitted that he had lied under oath and pled guilty. The 'high stakes entrapment defense' was based on McKay's lie about a supposed meeting between McKay, Crowder and Darby.

The Better This World filmmakers deal with this meeting in a short but crucial scene that deceptively cuts together footage that was shot years apart in two different cities to trick the PBS viewer into thinking a meeting had, in fact, taken place.

Here's my [Stranahan's] transcript of this section:

Starting at 31 minutes into the film…
Crowder (?) "And when we had a meeting later…"

Video cuts to shot of Brandon Darby looking to left on screen.
"…Brandon was provocative and hysterical."

Video cuts to shot of David McKay looking to the right then back to Darby looking left.
(Brandon says "This is what…this is where it gets interesting.")

Video shows a pan around from the room showing an empty glass bottle, like would be used for a Molotov cocktail - then cuts to David McKay

FBI Agent : "And at this meeting…"

Video cuts to shot of Brandon Darby then to shot of FBI Agent being interviewed.
"…Crowder and McKay must have made the decision to do something else. Because it was at this meeting."

Video cuts to shot of Brandon Darby.
"…they asked where they could get certain supplies. Where they could go to a Walmart."

Stranahan Continues:

This sequence [above] represents a significant breach of journalistic /documentary ethics. It was intended to create a false impression in the mind of the viewer, when the filmmakers are completely aware of the real facts. "This meeting" is a major part of this story because it was a lie that McKay told in his first trial, which resulted in a hung jury. McKay was later forced to admit this when it became clear that there was ample evidence to prove that he had made up this meeting. The entire premise of the film rests on whether Darby entrapped McKay and Crowder and 'this meeting' was McKay's proof of said entrapment.

This is from Page 7 of David McKay's guilty plea…

At trial David McKay described a three-way secret meeting where only he, Brad Crowder, and the informant were present and it was supposedly at this three-way secret meeting on August 31st, after the seizure of the shields, that Darby, Brandon Darby, came up with the idea to make Molotov cocktails. Darby, of course, testified at trial there was no secret three-way meeting. There's a call here where Brad Crowder says the same thing.

In this sequence, the filmmakers used the following methods to fool PBS viewers.

1) By cross-cutting between footage of Darby and McKay, the filmmakers give the deliberately false impression that the viewer is seeing a meeting between them that relates to making Molotov cocktails
2) They include dialog from Darby 'This is where it gets interesting' that seems to relate to the events in Minnesota.
3) But the footage of Darby is not from anything related to Minnesota but is, in fact, from years earlier. It was shot during Darby's work in New Orleans, years before he and McKay had ever met.
4) The skillful, artful editing was designed to deceive - note how they cut to a shot of Brandon Darby when the FBI agent mentions 'this meeting,' which creates the impression that the FBI is suggesting Darby was at the meeting that McKay, in fact, made up. Note also the cut to the empty bottle.

In short, filmmakers with an agenda and no regard for the truth tricked PBS viewers. This breach of trust represents a real disservice to them and it's actually only one example blatant example of how the filmmakers deliberately and with malice got the facts completely wrong. I hope PBS will consider taking immediate steps to correct the false impression left by this film.

The Response from Directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega:

In the specific scene that Mr. Stranahan mentions, he argues that we use footage from two different places to deceive viewers into thinking that we had footage of an event that he says didn't happen. This is not true, and there are two things wrong with his analysis.
First, he is confusing two separate incidents. After the shields were seized by police, there was a 'consensus meeting' attended by Brandon Darby, David McKay, Brad Crowder and others in their group. At this meeting they discussed what to do going forward. Brad and David say that Brandon was very upset and angry in this meeting over the seizure of the shields, and Special Agent Christopher Langert of the FBI says that this is when David and Brad first asked where they could 'get certain supplies, where they could go to a Wal-Mart.'

Later, during David's trial, David tells the court about another, [emphasis theirs] separate meeting between only him, Brad and Brandon where David claimed that Brandon came up with the idea to make Molotov cocktails. This was a lie, and it is a critical moment in the film. We show how David's lie about this supposed meeting was key to the hung jury in his first trial, that it eventually put Brad at risk for more prison time, and that it did lead to David receiving more prison time in the end. It is a key plot point that we address head-on in the film.

Mr. Stranahan's error is that he conflates these two separate things—the very real meeting between Brandon, Brad, David and others, and the made-up meeting that David lied about in court. In the film, during the scene of the actual consensus meeting, we use separate shots of Brandon and David talking in order to create a mood and to help tell the story as we hear our subjects talking about this actual meeting. Mr. Stranahan says that this constitutes a dishonest attempt to deceive viewers that we were there filming this meeting. We feel strongly that this is not true. We used this technique a couple of times in the film—showing our characters talking (sometimes these were candid moments before or after our formal interviews; we also used footage of Brandon in New Orleans) —to help paint a visual picture of things we are hearing about on the audio track. Other times we use artful, abstract reenactments to put viewers in mind of what actually happened. There was absolutely no intent to deceive the audience, and we don't believe we have.

We are open to talking about the pros and cons of using these techniques and others in our film and in other films. As filmmakers, these are issues we take seriously, and we welcome honest debate over filmmaking methods and narrative strategies. We were very careful to make the film as accurate as possible. Every moment, every frame of our film was vetted, legally and otherwise. Every technique was discussed multiple times. Responsible filmmakers must be aware that there are some instances where audiences 'get' different information than the filmmakers intend, and we were aware of that possibility. But we have screened the film in front of thousands of people where we have been personally present, and no one has expressed confusion over this particular technique.

My Thoughts

First, as a viewer, I found this film to be very powerful; riveting, in fact, to use a film reviewer's term, and valuable. It was one of the most fascinating and nuanced documentaries I've watched in terms of domestic security issues, the legal and personal complexities surrounding these cases, the wide array of sources and access to documentation, the lengthy on-screen interviews with the jailed activists and FBI officials, and many others who shed light on this case. So, I'm grateful to Lee Stranahan for calling this film to my attention.

I do not, however, share his more sweeping and harsh conclusions about this program. The film leaves the viewer with no doubt that the FBI informant, Brandon Darby, did not tell the two activists to make the Molotov cocktails. Both Crowder and McKay confirm this on camera. McKay also admits that he lied in court about a three-way conversation about making Molotov cocktails between Brandon, Brad and him that never took place.

As a viewer, it also seemed clear to me that there had indeed been some kind of a meeting after the protesters went back to their trailer and discovered that police had broken into it because Crowder says "When we had a meeting later, you know, Brandon was provocative in the circle." And FBI agent Christopher Langert says, "And at this meeting, uh, Crowder and McKay must have made the decision to do something else…"

It is the visual presentation on the screen at this particular time however—about 31 minutes into the film—that Stranahan calls attention to in his critique and that does, indeed, turn out to be problematic and misleading after someone calls your attention to it. Is it also deceptive? Yes, but not in a way that undermines the whole film and the array of subjects that are illuminated, as Stranahan's broader critique attempts to do.

An Important Flaw

Still, I think Stranahan hits on an important flaw in the film's editing, one that none of the reviews I read picked up on. The filmmakers obviously could not have been at this meeting so they apparently use, as Stranahan points out, old footage of Darby in New Orleans, separate frames of McKay, and some lines from Darby such as "This is where it gets interesting," that probably have nothing to do with events in Minnesota. I would add: This is where it gets disturbing.

According to the producers, Darby would not agree to be interviewed for the film, and in an interview with Mother Jones, Kelly Duane de la Vega says, "One thing is, a series of key events in the film took place when we weren't present, and so we had to get creative in terms of bringing those moments to life." The film is creative in its extensive use of surveillance camera film and recorded prison phone calls and other things. But one would have liked to have known more about how that meeting scene in particular was created and that Darby declined to be interviewed.

So, a bad flaw, but not fatal to an otherwise exceptional effort examining the role of government informants and prosecution strategies, the complexities of an entrapment definition and defense, of youthful yet dangerous protest, of the surveillance regime that is so widespread in many cities, and of the way "terrorist" cases are reported on television.

The two young men who would wind up in jail, although they never did use the eight Molotov cocktails that they made, are very articulate and reflect the tensions between American civil liberties and the tradition of protest, versus the post-9/11 domestic security reality in the country. The film probably induces sympathy for these young men, but it also provides unusual and extensive access to FBI officials explaining their approach to this case and, in the end, it is clear that Crowder and McKay had used bad judgment, crossed a dangerous line by actually preparing Molotov cocktails, and that McKay had lied in court.

The focus on Brandon Darby, the high-profile post-Katrina activist who suddenly turns FBI informant, is especially intriguing, and the film ends with a couple of powerful quotes and twists.

In one clip, it shows film of Darby that also seems to be from his New Orleans days but has an audio recording of what must be an actor reading lines about the St. Paul episode, since we now know that Darby wasn't interviewed by the filmmakers. In the audio, Darby is quoted as saying: "I don't feel 100 percent certain of anything. It depends when you ask me. Sometimes I feel bad enough for them that I don't go to sleep. They made their choices—you know. I made my choices, and we both have to live with them." That's a dramatic statement, but there is no indication in the film where that quote comes from (maybe from FBI questioning of Darby?).

The film ends with one of the more bizarre twists in this story. Darby appears on a radio talk show hosted by G. Gordon Liddy, the former Watergate break-in chief who spent four-plus years in federal prison. Here's the audio.

G. Gordon Liddy: "And it is I, G. Gordon. All right, ladies and gentlemen, joining me now is Brandon Darby, a very prominent radical leftist who had an epiphany and who now works attempting to defend against left wing radical violence in this country."

Brandon Darby: "Good morning, Mr. Liddy. It's an honor to be on your show."

Liddy: "Brandon, tell us, if you will, some of the—uh—details of this plot to assassinate people at the Republican National Convention in 2008."

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