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The First Five Minutes...

by Glenn T (writer), Las Vegas, NV, November 27, 2006

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I like watching videos on the internet at work. There. I said it. And for the record, I don't mean the streaming videos from news sites. No, I mean, the horrifying raw footage found at YouTube - which I can now substitute for sitting in front on my TiVo and watching those ridiculously hosted X-TREME VIDEO shows that seem to have all landed on Spike TV.

For whatever it’s worth, “viral media” is here to stay. Camera and video cell phones, digital cameras and camcorders have gone from luxury items to staples of the middle-class and moderately tech-savvy, and there may never again be an even marginally significant event that isn’t caught on video (albeit shaky and poorly shot video). Lately, the major news-media outlets have been clambering all over themselves to celebrate the citizen empowering aspect of this technological revolution, as if they had any choice. The well prepared video montage is being rapidly replaced by amatuer-shot YouTube snippets, and the dot-com boom taught us nothing if not the timeless truth of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

I have to admit, I am mildly amused at watching the HD-broadcast, network, flawlessly-primped evening news team cue up a video shot from a cell phone that makes the Blair Witch Project look like Citizen Kane. And, in fairness, I nearly got caught up in the mob-mentality outrage surrounding two recent incidents of alleged police brutality that were “caught on tape” and brought to us in just such a way. But then I remembered my problem with the recently-replaced sound-byte-obsessed get-all-your-news-in-five-minutes version of the news, and realized that this new media revolution has the exact same shortcoming, wrapped in the self-serving and ultimately falso platitude, that media by the people necessarily means media for the people: you still aren’t getting the whole story.

The video of two Los Angeles police officers subduing a previously-convicted drug dealer is short and still difficult to watch. One officer is kneeling on the man’s neck and then, during the man’s protestations regarding his inability the breathe, the kneeling officer strikes the man in the head repeatedly. Now, I’ve personally been trained in hand-to-hand combat by the Marines and also been in my share of scraps – and although I’m not an “expert” per se, my experience tells me that when you’ve got your knee on someone’s neck, the “fight” part of that fight is pretty much over. But I don’t know all the facts: maybe the man was reaching for a weapon, and maybe the officer’s position didn’t allow him to safely reach for his pepper spray, etc. The single camera angle doesn’t allow me to see the scene in its entirety. But if I had to pass judgment on the situation, which I will likely never be called to do and am not attempting to do here, there’s something else I’d like to see on tape: the first five minutes. What did the suspect do before being thrown on the ground? How did the whole thing start? Was he known to be armed? Could he still have been dangerous even while being held down? These and many other questions remain unanswered, even in the midst of decided public outrage.

The video of a UCLA student being tazered in the campus library is even more disturbing, and as it turns out, even more poorly shot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the kid who shot it, I can’t even get my cell phone to shoot a still picture that doesn’t look like I shot it mid-seizure, let alone a six-minute video, but it’s tough to get a clear picture of what’s going on when you’re dodging the motion sickness that the video unintentionally induces. But as I understand it, from the subject video and the subsequent articles written thereupon, a student was refusing to leave the library after failing to produce proper identification during a routine, late-night ID check in the subject library. After repeated refusals, the campus police used their tazers to subdue the student and place him in wrist restraints. It appears that, subsequently, the officers asked that the student walk out under his own power, and when he refused their insistent and repeated requests to stand up and walk out, and warnings that they would do just that, he was tazered an additional three times. It is not easy to listen to someone scream like that, especially not four times. But the video also raises a lot of basic factual questions, even in the first impression, because as much as I’d like to be able to see the entire scene of the time period that was shot, as the video starts with the student already screaming in protest, what I’d really like to see is the first five minutes. Was he really singled out for an ID check? Was he belligerent from the beginning? Was he physical with the campus officers? These and many other questions remain.

Despite the fanfare surrounding the freedom that “viral media” is supposed to give us, I think it is plagued with the very same problems as its predecessor. No matter who shoots it, pays for it, produces it, or owns it, every video has an editor – even when it’s simply someone who decides when to start and when to stop shooting. This “editor” has enormous control over the impression that we form from watching his or her video. Who can’t think of situation that would look totally different with the omission of the first five minutes? Perhaps it’s an easier exercise to try and think of a situation that would NOT look different with the exclusion of its initial five minutes. And although it’s easy to attach an evil agenda to the large corporate entities which control the major news outlets, we must also be careful to impugn the motives of the individual videographer – no one accidentally shoots these videos.

If hyper-edited “reality” shows have taught us nothing else, they (along with their “what really happened” post-production gossip) have taught us that we rarely know the whole story – and anyone trying to sell us said “whole story” is usually the person most likely to be deceiving us. As a fast-food instant gratification society, we are constantly searching for quick fix to pacify our need to understand the world around us. Why go out and explore if you can get the Discovery Channel (in High-Definition no less!)? Why experience relationships if you can vicariously endure someone else’s emotional trauma with Oprah’s infallible guidance? So I suppose it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of us have latched on to the idea that more cameras, in the hands of more people, make for more complete stories. As a result, we have rushed to judgment in cases where we are arguably less informed than had the story been broken by the traditional news media.

The point of all of this is to remember that one person’s point of view, be it recounted eyewitness testimony, recorded video footage, or carefully manicured written commentary is still just that – and it ought to take a great deal more than that to convince all of us of anything, especially guilt or innocence. In addition, as we celebrate the liberating nature of this technology, perhaps we ought to consider just how much better it is to have everyone filming everyone else than “Big Brother” filming us all. As for me, I’m still waiting to hear about the whole story in each of the cases above before I make my personal judgment – and I’ll be keeping an eye out for cell phone cameras if I decide to do anything particularly stupid, at least for the first five minutes.


About the Writer

Glenn T is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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4 comments on The First Five Minutes...

Log In To Vote   Score: 1
By Ariel on November 27, 2006 at 12:23 am
Too bad there's only 5 stars, cause I think this article deserves 6.
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Log In To Vote   Score: 1
By Glenn T on November 27, 2006 at 12:44 am
That's far too kind, but thank you!
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Log In To Vote   Score: 0
By Stephanie Michele on November 27, 2006 at 07:23 pm
I agree completely, nice job Glen. Have you seen The Kid Stays in the Picture? The movie/documentary opens up with the quote below from Robert Evans(former Paramount studio chief). "There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth. And no one is lying."
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Log In To Vote   Score: 1
By E Jo on January 30, 2007 at 01:43 pm
Excellent!
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