Monday, May 4, 1998

Week of 05/04/1998

Too Real?
Media Now Regrets Instant News
- by David Matthews 2

The image was shocking. A man carrying a gun stops traffic in Los Angeles during evening rush hour. He unfurls a banner that said "HMO’s are in it for the money!" then proceeded to set his truck and himself on fire. Seconds later, he gets out of his truck, extinguished the flames on his body, jump on the retaining wall as if to jump, then retrieves his discarded rifle and proceeds to blow his brains out.

And all of it, including the decisive and bloody scene of the man’s head exploding, brought live to millions of viewers in LA and across America through their television sets.

It’s called live footage - getting the news as fast as possible as it’s happening. Mind you, it’s not new. All radio broadcasts used to be live, as were live television programs. The Hindenberg disaster, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, the War of The Worlds radio prank, the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, the resignation of President Richard Nixon, were all brought live to the public. Thanks to modern technology, the televised media is now able to provide everything instantly to the public from news to sports to entertainment. The real world, brought to you live and unedited.

But now, the media is caught in the classic case of overreaction. The bloody suicide carried live during rush hour interrupted normal daytime programs, including one children’s cartoon show. Hypersensitive parents, naturally, reacted in shock and dismay. The real world was brought before their children, and unlike a cartoon character, this individual did not get up after the gun was fired and wipe the gunpowder from his face. He had no head left. Certainly a powerful lesson for parents who continue to use TV as the lesser babysitter (the greater babysitter being, of course, Bill Clinton and Big Babysitter government).

The media begged for forgiveness over the issue and are now asking themselves at what cost all this instantaneous information. Has it gone too far? Do we now need to reign in this information and go back to the old days where the news was sanitized and tightly controlled?

In other words, is the real world too real for television?

Let’s be brutally honest here - the media unleashed the genie years ago, profited from it heavily and now claim to regret the consequences. Tough! They need to realize that every time they go live, their control over the issue ranges between slim and none! That’s the trade-off they deal with when they show people what is going on live.

The media praised live footage when it suited their needs. How many people remember watching the slow speed chase of OJ Simpson by police to his Brentwood home? The public seemingly couldn’t get enough of it! Those few hours where Americans were glued to their sets created the subsequent media macro-orgy over his murder trial.

The commuters in Atlanta were riveted to their car seats earlier this year over the news of another police chase involving a carjacker. Meanwhile, television viewers were riveted to their seats watching the drama as it unfolded live through helicopter cameras. Los Angeles viewers watched as holdup suspects engaged in a brutal shootout with police through the busy streets of the city.

And yet another benefactor to live footage has to be the Internet. Our need for information, unfiltered by editorial content, unlimited to simply one perspective, has found a medium that allows everyone associated to literally view someone’s bedroom.. if invited.

This kind of information, overwhelming, live, and unedited, is a shock to the very people who have gotten used to controlling it. Information brings knowledge, and knowledge is power. Journalists, politicians, executives, and policy makers alike all thrive in the rigid control of knowledge and information. When faced with circumstances they have absolutely zero control over, they are understandably concerned.

To the news media, I say tough! Deal with it, because you have expected us to for decades! If they can’t, they have no business advertising they bring the news "first, fast, and accurate" (as one Atlanta television station claims). They should instead claim to bring the news just as hotels claim to provide toilet seats.. "sanitized for your protection."

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