Since this is the internet, I feel the need to post a “spoiler alert.” This blog post is about the documentary film “Unverified,” and may “spoil” things for you if you have not seen the film. Read at your own discretion.
Last week, Bradley Bethel, former University of North Carolina academic adviser in athletics turned documentary filmmaker, released “Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal.” The film’s website heralded the documentary’s purpose as such:
“Beginning in 2011, the story of UNC’s 'fake classes' made national headlines as a massive athletics scandal. Caught between university deans unwilling to accept responsibility and news media eager to implicate athletics, UNC’s academic counselors for athletes found themselves accused of complicity and without the means to defend themselves. Bradley Bethel was a reading specialist for UNC athletes and was outraged by the way the press portrayed his colleagues. Refusing to remain silent, he set out to defend those falsely accused and give them a platform to tell their side of the story. In the process, he realized the problem was even bigger than the media. Following Bradley over the course of a year, UNVERIFIED challenges the headlines and tells a story more complicated and heartbreaking than the one we’ve heard in the news.”
Bethel approached me several months ago about my willingness to watch the film when it came out and “review” it on my blog. (I feel that calling this a “review” gives too much authority to me.) I want to emphasize at the outset that Bethel made zero qualifications about the type of review I should write or its content. The thoughts in the following post are completely my own.
Previously, I wrote about Bethel and how I was disappointed in a Daily Tar Heel editorial about him and his film. The disclaimer at the beginning of that post is still appropriate here (in short: I am a UNC alumnus, love UNC athletics, and still have not met Bethel outside of the internet, overwhelmingly Twitter).
For most people, Bethel first entered the conversation about the UNC Scandal with a blog post titled “Truth and Literacy at UNC.” In that and many subsequent posts, Bethel attacked the veracity of claims made by Mary Willingham, a former reading specialist in the UNC athletics department, and Jay Smith, a chaired professor of history at UNC. (An independent investigation with external reviewers later demonstrated that Willingham’s claims about athlete illiteracy were false.) Bethel took on other people as well, but Willingham and Smith drew the majority of his fire.
Perhaps the cruelest cut in Bethel’s film is that Willingham plays an exceedingly minor role and Smith, even if pictured, is not mentioned at all. By failing to give Willingham and Smith significant roles, Bethel effectively marginalizes the role the two played in the whole ordeal. E tu, Brute?
The film was, in all honesty, not what I expected it to be. While I anticipated a film that probed the media’s treatment of the UNC scandal—which it did in many ways—what Bethel produced is actually a much more personal film. If you are expecting a documentary that does nothing but dissect media inaccuracies over and over, this is not your film. (For a primer on the scandal, even if it is one whose facts Bethel somewhat disputes in his film, see here.)
Early on in the documentary, Bethel recounts a story where he failed to stand up to a childhood bully and how he has felt guilty about that his entire life. He vowed as a child that, if presented with an opportunity to defend his friends again, he would not run from the bully.
Much of the film, then, is about following Bethel as he interviews various figures and defends his friends and fellow academic counselors Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee, and to a lesser degree former senior associate athletic director John Blanchard. Bridger and Lee were terminated for their supposed role in UNC’s paper class scandal, and Blanchard announced his retirement in 2013 during the midst of the scandal. Bethel is, however, most certainly the central character of the film. At one point, he states, "I know of good people within or associated with athletics whose integrity has been questioned and for some whose careers have ended because of being mischaracterized." The film is his chance to tell his friends’ side of the story and defend their integrity.
For the most part, Bethel handily succeeds at this goal. He skillfully presents a variety of viewpoints (including many current and former athletes) from those involved in all aspects of the scandal, excepting the media and UNC’s current administration, who we are told all refused to be interviewed (more on that later).
The points the film makes over and over again: How could those in athletics have known what was actually happening in the African American Studies Department? Moreover, why would those athletics folks have ever thought to question anyone in academics, let alone a department head? (ESPN analyst, lawyer, and former dook** basketball player Jay Bilas especially makes this second point in the film.)
These basic questions and others eluded UNC administrators and Kenneth Wainstein (the former federal prosecutor paid $3.1 million to investigate the scandal), “Unverified” contends, because it was easier to blame athletics, low-level employees, and protect academics. The media tied into this by not questioning their sources appropriately (especially Willingham), and presenting a sensationalist view designed to get clicks on the internet. It is, after all, easier to sell a morality play to the public than to present nuanced stories with fewer clear villains and heroes.
The film thus starts off talking about the media’s sensationalism and ends up being more about questioning whether Kenneth Wainstein and those in power at UNC were fair to everyone involved and exhibited due process. As UNC journalism professor Adam Hochberg points out in the film, anyone terminated with cause because of the scandal was fired by the university and not the media.
The documentary’s central point ends up being that Bethel thinks his friends Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee lost their jobs not because they did anything wrong, but because they were easy targets. Firing low-level support staff who make $40,000 a year is a lot easier, he contends, than asking tenured full professors and UNC deans why they did not have a better control over their academics. (Former UNC Chancellor James Moeser even says in the film that the AFAM department got a bit of a pass because nobody in the administration wanted to be seen as being harsh to the “black” department—my quotations, not his.)
Bethel ends his film with the revelation that the NCAA’s notice of allegations (where the institution laid out its interpretation of UNC’s wrongdoings) did not mention Bridger, Lee, or Blanchard at all. The film is, therefore, really about trying to tell a narrative that gives back power to normal people who had their power and careers wrested away by large bureaucracies and the media. (Bridger claims that she was actually fired without cause just because her name appeared several times in the Wainstein report.)
In this way, “Unverified” is a complete success. It tells a nuanced story and gives voice to normal people (even if it does not always ask those normal people the hard questions). While media outlets often only play short clips of interviews, the film frequently lets the camera roll, giving aggrieved parties a chance to vent their frustrations and explain how they feel they have been misrepresented. But the documentary deftly avoids becoming a “gripe session,” and instead moves with pace to focus on a larger narrative (though that narrative focus seems to switch halfway through from focusing on the media to focusing on UNC’s administration and Kenneth Wainstein.)
One especially nice moment that probably best illustrates Bethel’s point about media sensationalism comes during his interviews with former football player Deunta Williams. Williams claims that ESPN’s show “Outside the Lines” misrepresented him and his comments, and he was especially upset that “Outside the Lines” took a lot of film of him in his home, driving around, and said they would use this show how successful he was. When the show aired, however, it only called Williams a “fast food worker.”
In reality, Williams is a restaurant owner, high school football coach, and real estate investor. He has several employees and seems to be doing well, from the documentary. Unlike ESPN, “Unverified” does show Williams walking around his house and working hard, and does show him driving around town in his new Audi. Where the media “talks the talk,” Bethel shows, he and his movie “walk the walk.”
While in general I was impressed with “Unverified,” I did have some concerns or critiques. Bethel makes it clear that various media outlets sensationalized or reported falsehoods about the UNC scandal, but this is not done in as focused a way as I would have expected or liked. Instead, we get references scattered all over the film. (Although, to his credit, Bethel does make two media inaccuracies clear: (1) the UNC scandal was academic, not athletic in nature; and (2) his fellow academic support counselors have been misportrayed.) If you were not fairly familiar with the UNC scandal going into this, you would not necessarily get some of Bethel’s finer points. A short segment at the beginning correcting inaccurate media claims would have been helpful.
Also, at times I wondered whether the focus of the film was really about “The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal” or instead about Bradley Bethel. I am not at all suggesting that Bethel comes off as arrogant, narcissistic, or self-aggrandizing. But there were times—such as both his interviews with Hochberg—where it almost felt like the viewer was intruding on Bethel’s therapy session. While focusing the film on Bethel helps tie some of the documentary’s larger narratives together, it also means that viewers get a lot of Bethel and his seemingly inner thoughts.
And, finally, one awkward scene occurred when Bethel called Joe Nocera, the New York Times reporter who wrote about the UNC scandal. On speakerphone (and on camera), Bethel asked if Nocera wanted to be interviewed for the film. Nocera was dismissive and somewhat rude, but he emphatically declined to be interviewed for the film. So, why was that speakerphone call taped and included in the documentary? If Nocera did not want to be in the film then his wishes should have been honored.
These are, in the end, fairly minor complaints. “Unverified” is a good documentary that ultimately is about how people in power get to make decisions that influence the rest of us. It is about authenticity and narrative in journalism, and how, while the connection is nebulous, the media can greatly affect seemingly innocent people in profound ways. And the movie is about standing up to entrenched power structures that can bury “the little guy” because standing up to those power structures is the right thing to do.
I think two tweets from Bethel sum up his thoughts and general perspective after completing the film:
Who could argue with a desire that journalists—and by extension all of us—were more open about the biases and perspectives that we all carry?
My final thought of the film is this: anyone who watches “Unverified” will be happy that Bethel gives voice to those who have been stripped of their dignity and reputation by large, bureaucratic organizations that frequently seem more concerned with protecting their own power and authority than doing what is right. In that way, the documentary is especially a job well done. Moreover, all viewers, no matter their thoughts about the scandal, will finish with a more nuanced view of what happened and a keener eye toward recognizing both media sensationalism and how they fit into the power structures in their own lives.
**As a unrepentant Tar Heel, I just cannot bring it of myself to type out the most commonly accepted spelling of that university in Durham, NC.