'After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News': TV Review

Courtesy of HBO/WarnerMedia
Solid at 95 minutes, but might have been great as a documentary series.
3/19/2020

Andrew Rossi's exploration of fake news for HBO uses case studies like Pizzagate and Seth Rich's murder for a documentary that preaches to the choir and will surely make them angry.

Andrew Rossi's new HBO documentary, After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, isn't always cohesive or coherent, but it tells a story that would still be harrowing and relevant regardless of the moment in which it premiered.

Arriving in the middle of the coronavirus panic and a seemingly never-ending election cycle, the film is bound to make its target audience feel angry and validated. It also seems likely to be easily ignored by the viewers who could actually learn something from it. I guess that's part of the subtext (or even text) of the documentary, but it remains disheartening nonetheless. There's a self-fulfilling prophesy to this dark warning that actually made me more sad than angry.

The title, After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, tells you exactly what this is. Using a series of case studies, it breaks down how crazy conspiracy theories, sometimes gestated from a kernel of truth or suspicion and sometimes spun out of nothing, can go from the Internet fringes — your Reddits and 4chans — to places with a veneer of legitimacy to the mouths of pundits on high-profile news networks. And that can happen without any vetting or research or sourcing along the way, which is basically how myths and urban legends come to be treated as fact.

Rossi's background includes the hagiographic Page One: Inside The New York Times and the documentary's executive producers include CNN's Brian Stelter, its talking heads coming largely from the more august and austere hubs of the legacy media. That guarantees unimpeachable bona fides for one side of the political spectrum and quick dismissal from the other. This is a documentary made to preach to the choir and I have no clue whether that was even avoidable.

Rossi at least makes some effort to bridge the divide. It would have been easy for After Truth to be just a chronicle of idiotic lies Alex Jones tells his followers and belligerent half-truths perpetuated by Sean Hannity. And since neither Hannity nor Jones is an active participant here (Jones talks to the filmmakers briefly as part of a public protest), there would have been no dispute. After Truth is a lot of that, but not exclusively.

The dominant case studies will be familiar to most viewers, as Rossi tackles Pizzagate, the murder of Seth Rich, Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl's failed attempt to construct a sex scandal around Robert Mueller, and the myriad tall tales told about the Texas military exercise known as Jade Helm 15. Because those are all conspiracies generated by and disseminated through conservative circles, Rossi also dedicates time to the 2017 Senate race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones and the attempts by left-leaning organizers to stir up Russian-style disinformation campaigns around Moore.

I somehow doubt that that effort to be balanced is going to cause liberals to say, "We're part of the problem too!" or conservatives to say, "At least the documentary is fair!" but I know why Rossi tried.

My sense is that, at only 95 minutes, After Truth has more stories than it can adequately tell in the given time. Just like somebody at HBO would have been wise to tell the team behind McMillions that their story could have been told in two or, at most, four hours, After Truth is almost perfectly designed and structured to roll out as a six-part episodic exploration of fake news. That would have allowed for depth on each case study instead of making each story a partially developed sketch unified by a general indictment of Facebook, with no on-camera presence from anybody at Facebook — or acknowledgement of the even more serious consequences of Facebook's attempted fact neutrality internationally.

More than a few times I was left going to Google to get more information on certain stories or shady organizations and all I could think was, "Well, I guess that's being saved for the next documentary?"

To be sure, there's a feature in the exploration of how a DC-area pizza and ping-pong parlor became the nexus for a conspiracy involving a pedophile ring and Hillary Clinton. The confused candor with which Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis and several of his employees describe the impact Pizzagate had on their business and their lives is heartbreaking. If there's anything hopeful in the documentary it's how the community didn't abandon Comet even after an easily influenced consumer of fake news showed up one day with a gun and demanded to explore places the Internet told him were being used for child trafficking. For whatever reason, Rossi isn't able to get anybody to go on-camera defending the smearing of Comet, which points to a clearly intentional lack of direct confrontation on the part of the filmmakers. 

That just isn't Rossi's way. He's not Michael Moore. When hoax perpetrators appear in After Truth, they're generally allowed to hang themselves. Like when conspiracy-monger Jerome Corsi, a freaking Harvard PhD in political science, directly misinterprets the scope of the First Amendment, other subjects explain his error to us but nobody puts Corsi on the spot.

It looks like Wohl wouldn't sit down for an interview but was happy to be filmed, so Rossi just had to count on him looking ridiculous at every turn, a strategy that works. Wohl's partner in conspiratorial crime, Burkman, however, is more than content to stare into a camera and say things like, "Yeah, there's terrible, negative potential consequences, but so what? That's what I say. So what? What's the big deal?"

You may need a shower after watching After Truth. That, plus subscribing to a trusted newspaper and deleting our Facebook presence may be the most we can do.

Premieres Thursday, March 19, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.