News & Politics

A Bunch of DC People Are in a New Documentary About Fake News

Interviewees range from DC journalists to those involved with Pizzagate.

Photograph by Evy Mages

When a Pizzagate conspiracy theorist fired a gun into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue in 2016, it made national headlines for weeks

“I thought I knew the Comet Ping Pong story,” Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” says. “Everybody in Washington has heard of Pizzagate. But I don’t think anyone’s really heard [the owner’s] story, or the story of the employees, or the story of the reporters who discovered this insane conspiracy theory.” 

On March 16, “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,” will premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. It will later be available on HBO streaming platforms on March 19. Directed by Andrew Rossi (“Page One,” “Ivory Tower”) and executive produced by Stelter, the documentary dissects Pizzagate and other notable conspiracy theories of the last decade. From the de-platforming of Alex Jones, to the Jade Helm conspiracy theories in Texas, to the 2016 presidential election, Rossi’s film chronicles how misinformation has spread in the last decade and explains its human toll. 

This isn’t the first time Stelter has worked with Rossi: While at the New York Times as a media reporter, he starred in Rossi’s 2011 documentary, “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” Now, as producer of one of Rossi’s documentaries, “I’ve gone full circle,” Stelter says. 

Rather than just focusing on interviews with reporters, producers turned the camera on the victims of well-known hoaxes. Interviewees include Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis and Aaron Rich, whose brother Seth Rich’s 2016 murder spawned right-wing conspiracy theories that Seth was in contact with WikiLeaks.

Many current or former DC-based journalists appear in the documentary, including the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer and the New York Times’ Adam Goldman and Elizabeth Williamson. CNN senior media correspondent Oliver Darcy, Recode co-founder Kara Swisher, Texas Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey, and Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler also make appearances.

Buzzfeed media editor Craig Silverman is another star of the film. As one of the reporters who helped coin the term “fake news,” he’s seen the phrase take on a life of its own.

“It’s been a really, surprising, horrible experience,” he says. “I think the story of what happened to the term fake news also is kind of a lesson in how our media environment manipulated.” A phrase originally used to diagnose misleading stories took on new meaning when President Trump used it to describe CNN’s Jim Acosta in 2017. “[It’s] now being used to de-legitimize good reporting,” Silverman says.

Stelter says that he hopes this film steers the conversation about fake news in a productive direction, by focusing on the real-life consequences of a seemingly abstract concept. “Conversations about false news and hoaxes can seem clinical,” Stelter says. “When I cover this on CNN, I’m talking about it like it’s an academic issue … But this is a story about real people and real lives, real victims and real perpetrators. And I think this is the first film that captures all of that.”

Nora McGreevy
Editorial Fellow

Nora McGreevy joined Washingtonian as an editorial fellow in January. Originally from South Bend, she has worked for The Boston Globe and the South Bend Tribune. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame.