In the opening credits of the indie documentary “Unverified” is a well-known quote attributed to satirist Mark Twain: If you don’t read the newspaper you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.
For the filmmaker, Carrboro resident Bradley Bethel, those words served as a guiding principal that had both personal and professional undertones as he set out last year to set the record straight about his colleagues involved in the University of North Carolina academic scandal. It was a scandal involving student athletes that sent shock waves across the prestigious campus and made national headlines regarding preferential treatment for players.
But what Bethel – a former UNC tutor and reading specialist assigned to work with the university’s football players – found in the process of putting together his film is his stance on the media’s misrepresentation of the issue was as nuanced as the issue itself.
Bethel’s “Unverified” makes its Wilmington premiere Friday during the annual Cape Fear Independent Film Festival, which runs Thursday through Saturday at downtown venues. The documentary features Beth Bridger, a former UNC counselor who was fired from her new role as an academic coordinator in UNC-Wilmington’s athletic department in 2014, when the scandal reached its peak.
Bethel worked alongside Bridger and other learning specialists when he came on at UNC in 2011, just as UNC’s tradition of enrolling students in “paper classes” was coming under scrutiny.
In the fall of 2014, a report was released that pointed to a long-running effort among some UNC faculty and staff to push student athletes through fake courses, an effort that originated in the university’s African and Afro-American Studies Department.
The report – commissioned by UNC to the tune of several million dollars and compiled by federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein and an investigative team of lawyers – estimated that more than 3,000 students, half of whom were athletes, took such bogus classes over an 18-year period.
Bridger was one of the counselors named in the report as having helped enroll football players in classes they never attended in an effort to keep their grades up so they would be eligible to play.
Although an educator by trade, Bethel ultimately made his foray into filmmaking after watching colleagues like Bridger come under fire. Likening it to a child standing up to a neighborhood bully, Bethel said he reached a point where he felt the need to take a stand.
“I was seeing the effects that it had on my colleagues who I had a lot of respect for and were committed educators,” he recalled. “There came a point when I couldn’t stay quiet anymore.”
Bethel first started a blog – one that received thousands of reads – about what he saw happening on campus. But a documentary on another university scandal, “Happy Valley” about disgraced Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, inspired Bethel to take a similar approach.
He quit his job at UNC in February 2015, organized an experienced crew and launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $50,000 for the film. Hitting that goal in just 24 hours, Bethel ended up with $142,000. Last December, he launched a second campaign for finishing costs and received $25,000 in donations.
“I just felt like I had a unique take on this particular story that I thought would resonate with people. I wanted to challenge the popular opinion of this scandal,” he said.
And that “popular opinion” was one he believed originated with the media’s sensationalist coverage of “paper classes.” In “Unverified,” Bethel is seen getting angered by reading an article about the scandal between clips of news stories he saw as simply skewed or oversimplified. There are also interviews with Bridger and another counselor, Jaimie Lee, in which the two women discuss their shock at being fired and finding their names in the newspapers as complicit parties.
Bridger says contrary to media reports, she and her peers actually worked one-on-one with the students who took “paper classes” to help them succeed in other courses.
“It’s so far from the truth,” she said of the widespread perception. “I trusted the system…I felt like because I asked all the questions [about the courses] and because the person in charge of football knew about it, the person in charge of academics knew about it, the person in athletics knew about it, the dean of the college and arts and sciences knew about it. So I’m figuring, ok this is far enough up of people who are way above everything I do. Okay, well, it must be fine.”
In the process of shooting “Unverified,” Bethel hit reporters and news organizations hard, challenging them on what he saw as a choice of loaded, hot-button terms and phrases and a one-sided take that neatly, but inaccurately, packaged a complex issue as simply a call for collegiate athletic reform.
“As human beings, we’re all subject to confirmation bias. We’re likely to just believe things that seem to confirm what we already believe. A lot of us already believe, and justly so, that there are major problems in college athletics. So for the journalists and the media consumers it was just so easy to say of course this is athletic corruption,” he said. “So, they default to framing stories in this very black and white, good guy-bad guy narrative. The reality we live in is the world is much more complex than that.”
And, it turns out, so was Bethel’s own perspective.
He said his candid conversation with UNC journalism professor Adam Hochberg became a “turning point” in both the film and in his own take on who was to blame.
As Bethel tells Hochberg the media is responsible for people losing their jobs, the professor responds, “Journalists didn’t end anyone’s career.”
“He really challenged me and kind of forced me to see some things differently so I kind of extended my view on what the problem was. He basically said, ‘No journalist fired your friends; it was the university that did that to your friends,’” Bethel said.
From that moment, and at the prompting of Hochberg, Bethel begins turning toward a major source for the media: Wainstein’s report. The rest of the film, while still putting pressure on journalists, focuses on raising questions about the accuracy and integrity of the campus investigation and its findings.
“When we set out to make this documentary, we definitely had our ideas but we kept saying we have to be honest. So, this interview happened with this journalism professor and we have to include this and go in this direction,” he said.
As Bethel sees it, the real story is a widespread failure of research universities to adequately educate undergraduates and an instance of “low-level” employees taking the heat for decisions made higher up the ladder.
“I think it was a story of a couple of misguided people who were trying to help struggling students in general. ‘Paper classes’ should not have happened but…they were around for two decades and nobody did anything about it. It’s because teaching undergrads is not a top priority. As an educator, that concerns me. As an educator, I think something needs to be done,” he said. “But that story is not as exciting as athletic corruption.”
“Unverified” debuted in January in Chapel Hill and has since been shown in cities across the state, including Raleigh and Charlotte.
It screens locally at 7 p.m. Friday at Hannah Block Community Arts Center, 120 S. Second St. Tickets are $10.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.