In my last post, I talked about the way that video has the power to represent or misrepresent facts in a very potent way. I used the example of the Rodney King incident footage to show that video can give the impression of simply showing the stark truth, when in fact it may only be showing a part of the story. In this blog post, I want to begin to discuss the way that this dual power of video is playing itself out in the age of YouTube.

In 1991 when the Rodeny King incident took place, internet usage was limited. People relied on T.V. for news that could provide images and video. When the Rodney King footage was aired, the universal response from the populace was ‘these officers just tried to murder a Black man for no reason; they need to be put in prison for life.’ When all 12 jurors (in the first trial)  acquitted the three of the four officers involved for reasons mentioned in my previous blog post, LA Mayor Tom Bradley responded to the verdicts saying, “The jury’s verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that video tape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.” The jury’s verdict will not blind us to what we saw on the video tape! This seems like an incredibly naïve statement. For one thing, the jury also saw the video tape. The reason they acquitted the officers was that there was more to the story then the video tape. Yet, despite this, Mayor Bradley and many others including President Bush who ordered a Federal trial, believed that the video was incontrovertible evidence of brutality.

Today’s generation is less impressionable. In an era of doctored YouTube video purporting to show all kinds of things, video evidence is simply less impressive. People today are more aware of the way that videos can misrepresent and even deceive by omitting, framing, or flat out altering footage. In the 1990s and earlier, mainstream news channels like CNN and NBC had the monopoly on crafting a coherent news story using video footage and disseminating it to the public. Today, multiple parties can create different versions of a given story, attempting to convince the world that their version is the truth or at least comes closer to it than the other version. Whereas in the past news was a one way commodity coming from the big news services to the consumer, today it is multi-directional, going from one user to the next and also from the user back to the big news services. Every one with an internet connection and some video-editing capability becomes a journalist, shaping a story in their own way. Often, different parties post conflicting videos, contradicting each other’s versions of the events.

One such example is the Gaza Flotilla incident of 2010. On May 31st, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intercepted six ships from the “Free Gaza” flotilla that was attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which was and still is under the control of Hamas. Nine individuals aboard the flotilla were killed, including one dual Turkish-American citizen. Like the Rodeny King incident, this story immediately set off a firestorm of calumny on Israel. On June 2, 2010, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to condemn “in the strongest terms the outrageous attack by the Israeli forces against the humanitarian flotilla of ships” and subsequently called for an international investigation. However, unlike the Rodney King incident, users pro-Israel and anti-Israel alike began to use YouTube to either push back against these accusations or push them further. One pro-Israel user for example, posted a video with footage of the incident that was apparently edited out of the clips that were aired in the by some of the major news agencies. The video seeks to incriminate the activists on board as acting violently towards the soldiers who boarded rather than peacefully

 

 

Screen shots of the conversation

One of the most important mediums for capturing and transmitting “the news” is the video capable device. In a later post I will discuss the implications of the ubiquity of video capability through “smart” devices and its instant, universal dissemination via  YouTube. In this post, I would liked to focus more generally on video footage as a medium of capturing and transmitting the news.

            Video footage is undoubtedly a powerful way of representing real events in a powerful, immediate way. The infamous video sequences of 9/11, in particular the second airplane hitting the south tower. demonstrate the incredible power of video to convey information that words simply cannot. Most of us probably have those video images seared in our memory, and viewing that footage has the power of bringing us back to the time and place that we first heard the events of that day.

            Yet for the very same reason that video footage is so powerful, it is also capable of misleading its audience. Seeing is believing, and by allowing people to see a given event, videos give the impression that what the viewer is seeing is the truth. In reality, a given video may be completely fabricated, employing actors and props in a realistic way. Or, as is more often the case, videos may mislead by omitting certain parts of the story or framing an issue a certain way.

            One example of this kind of omission by video is the Rodney King incident, some of the most famous footage of the 1990s. For those of you not familiar, this is the story in the a nutshell: On March 3, 1991, Rodney Glen King, a twenty-six year old black construction worker was stopped for speeding and then beaten by a group of white police officers in Lake View Terrace, Los Angeles. A local resident, George Holliday, video recorded the incident and gave the tape to one of the local news agencies who subsequently gave it to CNN and NBC where it was shown on national T.V., creating a tremendous stir and provoking outcry nationwide.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SW1ZDIXiuS4

            The power of the video lay in the fact that Americans were watching with their own eyes, footage which showed three white police officers who have plenty of reinforcement, repeatedly beating with metal batons a single, hardly resisting, unarmed Black man, who is barely on his feet for the duration of his beating. The Boston Globe referred to the incident as “…torture… caught on video.” The San Diego Union-Tribune called it “a display of sadism more graphic than any violence contrived for TV entertainment.” Indeed, that is what the video seems to be showing. But there is another side to the story that the video does not show.

            In his book, Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD, journalist Lou Cannon provides some context to the video which begins to change the perception of the viewer. The incident began when Rodney King finally pulled over after speeding and evading the pursuing cop cars. He got out of the car and began to act in a most strange manner, speaking gibberish, getting on all fours like a dog, patting the ground, and shaking his buttocks with both hands at a female cop. Police Sergeant Stacey Koon yelled at King, “get your face down”, but King refused. King’s bizarre behavior, the fact that he was sweating on a cold night, and the strange “glazed…spaced out look” with which King stared at Koon, led the sergeant to believe that King was not only intoxicated but also high on PCP, users of which terrify police for their inability to feel pain. The potential danger which the 6-2, 250 King presented, was compounded in Koon’s eyes by King’s very clearly highly developed upper body which in addition to indicating his strength, also suggested that King was an ex-convict, which in fact he was. (He was arrested twice, once for beating his wife and a second time for robbing a convenience store with a tire iron).

            To make sure that King was safely arrested, Sergeant Koon sent his four men to “swarm” King in an effort to arrest him with no harm done to him or the cops involved. Officers Powell and Briseno grabbed King’s arms, and Officers Wind and Solano grabbed his legs. Powell tried to force King’s left arm back to be handcuffed, but was unable to budge King’s rigid left hand. All of a sudden, King quickly threw both Powell and Briseno off his back. This seemingly supernatural strength displayed by King confirmed Koon’s suspicion that King was on PCP. Fearing for the safety of his officers, he ordered officers Wind and Solano to retreat from their hold of King’s legs. Koon at this point once again ordered King to lie face down on the ground. When King refused, Koon fired his Taser, hitting King in the back with the darts. The Taser is a non-lethal gun which shoots electrified darts which are supposed to deliver fifty thousand volts and instantly incapacitate the one fired at. King however, upon receiving the darts fell to his knees, but then got back up and turned to face Koon. Koon fired again, this time at King’s chest. King again slumped but then began to rise to his feet once more. Koon was now out of Taser cartridges. King now turned to face Powell and suddenly charged at him; at this moment George Holliday started taping. Powell, terrified at the seemingly superhuman King charging his way, pulled out his baton not in the orderly way he might otherwise have, but in a desperate fear; he later testified to internal affairs investigators that he felt he was “fighting for my life.”

            Powell had just earlier that night failed a test to execute the “power stroke”, and in this now desperate situation, he flailed away with his baton in self defense rather than swinging calmly and efficiently and one of his blows landed on King’s head. So terrified was Powell that he didn’t realize that his partner Wind had also swung his baton to subdue King; all the officers involved, in their terrified focus, seemed to have “tunneled in” on King, a frequent occurrence to police officers under great stress of the moment, whereby they lose all peripheral vision in their fixation on one point of action.

            Thus the video comes in out of context; the viewer does not see the steadily escalating tension and danger leading up to the actual baton blows: King’s noncompliance with the verbal orders, his seemingly superhuman strength in throwing off the “swarm” and regaining his feet after being tasered twice, and his charging at Powell. In fact, King’s charging Powell was caught on the video but was edited out by the local news station that subsequently sent the edited copy to all the major news agencies. Thus removed from the actual scene and the context leading up to the incident, the video portrays a very different scene than that which took place in reality.

            My point here is not to say that the police officers were right in what they did; at the very least, their protocols of engagement were clearly not efficient. They may even have been motivated at least partly by racist feelings. My point here is that all the details I have described above which represent the police officers’ side of the story are not included in the video. In fact, at least one of them was intentionally omitted by a local news agency in order to craft a certain story: the LAPD are brutal racists. The problem with the video is that the viewer believes that what is being shown represents the full reality, when in fact there is more to the story.

For my final project, I would like to explore the way that technology and the study of history are related. I am interested in exploring the way that technology has affected the study of history in the past, how it is currently affecting the study of history in the present, and how it can affect the study of history in the future.     The study of history has been around for a long time. In ancient times, history was verbally transmitted and perhaps written down on scrolls. The invention of the printing press and books must have contributed to man’s ability to study history. In the present day, we are all familiar with history textbooks with pictures, a feature that can’t be much more than a hundred years old. Video documentaries are a popular way to present historical periods.     I am especially interested in the way that video/audio technologies can go hand in hand with written material such as journal papers and textbooks to make history more vivid. One area where I think this is really interesting is when it comes to speeches and rhetoric. Having video/audio material within the body of a paper can make the content come alive, allowing the reader turned viewer/listener to engage with the material in a fuller way. This allows the reader to more fully experience the time being written about, placing themselves more fully in the time.     Technology has also influenced the way that citizens have perceived the word and the events occurring around the, events which we in the present now call history. One manifestation of this phenomenon is illustrated by the famous example of the 1960 Nixon vs. Kennedy debate. As the story goes, Nixon’s arguments were superior that night to Kennedy’s. However, Kennedy’s physical appearance and presentation were more impressive than Nixon’s. As a result, those listening to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won the debate, while those  watching  on television thought that Kennedy had won.                              

                                                             

 

I wonder if there are any manifestations of this phenomenon today. Could it be that people who get their news from one medium such as newspaper perceive events differently than those who get it from another such as radio or Television? How about those who read news on their mobile device such as smartphones? Is there perhaps the possibility that a given medium affects our perceptions of current events? I imagine this is possible. For example, maybe people who read the news on their smartphone are more likely to only read headlines and look at a cover photo than those who uses a full-size computer screen or hard-copy newspaper. They might thus be overly influenced by the headline which usually only presents one side of the story, missing the content buried within the article that rounds out the different perspectives on a topic.