My Letter …

Dear Ombudsman,

Thanks for speaking with me yesterday about the film Better This World which appeared on PBS on September 6th and that is currently on the PBS website.

Obviously, PBS has a long history of showing important documentaries by leading filmmakers and viewers (like me) have come to expect high standards. Unfortunately, Better This World utterly fails to meet this standard 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.

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 part in two different cities to trick the PBS viewer into thinking a meeting had, in fact, taken place.

Here’s my transcript of this section…

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

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 they asked where they could get certain supplies.

Video cuts to shot of Brandon Darby

“Where they could go to a Walmart.

This sequence 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 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.

2 Comments

  1. I just watched the documentary and I don’t agree with this analysis. I presumed all the film of Darby in beard and tee shirt was, as it was identified, from New Orleans. Graphic design 101 is to have successive pictures looking back and forth… Unless disassociation is the point, you’ll seldom see a sequence of photos with people looking away from each other. The film repeatedly sequences throug the three principals, interleaving McKay’s father, Crowder’s mother, the federal prosecutor, two FBI agents, other young persons. I did not find it confusing. The sequences are presenting or illustrating the narrative, not manufacturing meetings in person or exchanges between the speakers (or indeed mutual introductions between speakers.)

    Secondly, if Mr Stranahan is confident he knows the truth of anything that any of these people swore to, signed, or stated on camera he’s a better man than I. I have known foolish young men, policemen, lawyers and any number of activists, of many stripes. The clear intent of the film makers was to present a story containing an uncomfortable amount of ambiguity. For the record, I have served on two juries so far, and also count the time the judge came out and told us in the pool that we could take credit for the guy who we might have sat as a jury for, since he had just plead guilty while we were waiting to come in.

    Reply
  2. Did the meeting happen? No – it didn’t. Not only does Darby and the FBI say so but Crowder says it never happened. It’s nowhere in the original statements of anyone, including McKay. It never happened — that’s a fact.

    So — explain why the filmmakers would put in a scene that makes it seem like it happened?

    Reply

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