John Gfroerer: The art of manipulation

For the Monitor
Saturday, May 12, 2018

Okay, confession time: I am a professional manipulator.

This is probably something to be embarrassed about, even ashamed of, rather than lay claim to. But, sometimes you have to accept the facts about yourself. Own up to them, maybe even embrace them. Reality is reality; what is, is. If you walk like a duck, quack like a duck, swim like a duck, accept that you’re probably a duck.

Fact. I spend days in my office at the Capitol Center for the Arts moving around bits of image and sound, weaving them together in ways that will best influence anyone who ultimately sits down to watch. With clear intent, facts are reorganized for maximum impact. Chronologies get mixed up and re-arranged. Some bits of information are left out, while other bits may be expanded, perhaps distorted in how they are presented. Sometimes there might even be a lie in what a picture implies and what it actually is.

Shame, shame, shame on me. But wait, give me some credit for an honest confession. And surely you must know, there is nothing but the best of intentions in any manipulation I might thrust upon you. I don’t consider myself evil. Isn’t it human nature to want to change things around to suit your purpose? Like decorating a house, or how you wear your clothes. Don’t mess with my style. It might be manipulation, but it can also be craft.

Human nature also plays a role at the other end of what gets edited – how it is viewed.

Fact: Most people want to believe what they see. It is the rule of, “I saw it, it must be true.” While this is strongest when something happens right in front of you, it also follows through to what has been recorded and played back for you. Whether a still picture or a moving image, if presented as fact there is a general trust in the accuracy of what is offered for viewing.

Would that be weakness or a strength – trusting, wanting to believe? Because if it is the tendency of people to trust what they see, it would follow that being able to trust in general is human nature as well. You approach a stranger on the street because you’re lost. You trust they will help, and they trust that you are sincere in your request.

As a basic virtue of we who call ourselves human, trust enables us to live with a degree of peace and feel safe. It is liberating, because the more we can trust the less we need to fear. Trust is the foundation of a civil society.

Question: Because I have just admitted to being a manipulator, does that mean I can’t be trusted?

Answer: I hope not.

Fact: Manipulation gets a bad rap, but it is not always bad or meant to deceive. A case in point: Some years ago on a project we interviewed a guy who couldn’t go more than five words without injecting an “um.” It was, um, very, um, distracting listening to, aw . . . um, him. So in the edit room, I fixed him. I covered as much of his face as I could (so you couldn’t see the edits), then proceeded to cut out all the ums. Hmm, certainly a manipulation of sorts, but to what end?

The mission is not to deceive. The mission is to clarify. To recruit an overused phrase, cut away some of the forest to better see the tree.

Which brings up the importance of integrity. Might be getting a little deep here, but stay with me. Truth is, I am still back in my office moving around bits of visual and sound, and maybe a few, um, words.

Suggestion: Know the source before you invest in trust. Use the integrity model, look at past history. Are there patterns that reveal questionable motivation and intent. Be smart. Make sure you are among the people who can only be fooled some of the time, not all of the time.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)