Thursday, July 22, 2010

Video Lynchings

The recent kerfuffle over the dismissal of a civil servant who was framed by a doctored video underscores something I've believed for a long time: you can't always trust the camera lens for the whole picture. In this last case someone boogered with the tape intending to embarrass the NAACP and ended up embarrassing the Obama White House. Here in Seattle we are in the middle of a couple of controversies over video taped police actions.

Ever since the Rodney King thing salacious video has been the caffeine of the 24/7 news cycle. It's even better than the aftermath of a car bombing. Get something on the air, don't worry about accuracy. The stylish transcribers who call themselves journalists today do little in the way of vetting of their stories and sources so what the viewer gets is often raw data, incomprehensible and misleading. In the 19th Century, journalists punched up their stories with information they thought made reading more interesting. Sometimes they made things up. This settled down to a more rational approach later in the 20th Century where good reporters checked sources, dug further, and committed their reputations to the story. In the 21st Century all that matters is speed of delivery.

Back to video. Consider first of all that any camera captures, at best, what you see can see with one eye closed. There is little in the way of scope to the scene and no sense of depth perception. Remember that famous shot of the raid that removed Elian Gonzalez from the home in Miami? What we saw at first was a SWAT team member pointing his rifle at a terrified Elian. A closer look shows that the rifle was aimed wide to the side. Elian was justifiably frightened (I blame his caretakers and the anti-Castro lobby for that) but the officer wasn't threatening to kill them. He had just entered a premises where people pledged to resist with force and then a room where persons unknown were hiding in a closet. He was doing as trained, enter a strange room as if it was hostile. Elian was carried from the home by a female officer and whisked away while activists happily waved the photo. (Some credit this photo with Al Gore's loss of Florida in 2000.)

The camera, still or video, often misrepresents the true relationship between the subjects. People many feet apart can appear next to each other. Artful cropping can alter context. Journalism and history are full of these false perceptions.Time magazine even has a top ten list. Given retail editing programs on desktop computers and any patient user can manufacture an image or a video clip at will. Upload the new product to the Web and you have an instant hit. But you don't have the facts. Magazine publishers routinely graft heads to pretty bodies for the covers. Does Oprah really look that good?

Second, consider the technical quality of the average home video camera degraded by low light conditions and wielded at a moment's notice. We often just don't get a good picture let alone something to support a rational decision. I have been careful not to watch the recorded episodes of the Seattle police incidents (I saw one just once, quite unintentionally). I prefer to wait for the complete investigations with all the facts and all the circumstances.

The next time damning evidence is presented on television or the web stop and question it. Question everything.