TV News Crosses Line With Moammar Gadhafi Video
Television news crossed a Rubicon in its coverage of the death of Moammar Gadhafi that may change it, and by extension us, forever. On every newscast we watched what amounted to a snuff film. A man was tortured and murdered on video by a mob. I understand he was a very bad man and the story was a very big story and those two facts alone seem to trump any and all ethical and moral concerns.
If a similar video of a killing in Philadelphia were to arrive at a local television station, it would have either been edited, blurred or not broadcast at all. At the very least, there would be a healthy debate about how best to use the video. And the video would have been presented with a warning of its graphic nature.
I asked several people in television newsrooms in Philadelphia, and it seems there was no such debate. All of the stations are network-owned and since the networks ran the video uncensored and unedited, that was carte blanche for the local stations.
The networks, who regularly censor war and crime video because of the gory nature of the images, had no problem showing the amateur video of a man being tortured on a slow and agonizing death walk. The snap decision to get the video on the air underscores a new reality in media. The American networks are no longer just competing with each other, but with international networks and the Internet. Everyone who wanted to see the video could watch it on Al Jazeera, Sky TV, You Tube or a dozen other sites.
There was a day when the networks were the main source for this video and thus were the gatekeepers. Now the gates are wide open, and not only are the networks no longer the only source for the video, they are not the only gatherers either. Everything can be recorded on a smart phone and uploaded for public consumption immediately. In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron wrote the famous line, “The Revolution will not be televised.” We found out last night that not only will the revolution be televised, the assassination will be televised. In fact, everything will be televised, or at least uploaded.
And what are the repercussions of this? For TV news, there seems to be little downside. WPIX in New York ran the video ad nauseum last night at 10 p.m. and “we got only one complaint,” according to News Director Bill Carey. “We warned the audience about the graphic nature of the video, because TV news has long had that policy. But I am not certain we will need to do that much longer.”
As the Internet generation grows older, that policy will necessarily change. There will soon be a safe assumption that people have already seen the graphic video by newscast time. That is, if there are any traditional newscasts at all.
“One complaint last night, none today,” Carey added as he checked his voicemail and email. It seems not only is there a change in the networks, but in the audience. We live in a CSI world, where dead bodies, autopsies and bullet wounds are considered entertainment.
A popular slogan that technology advocates use is “Information wants to be free.” It seems that video also wants to be free and is getting its wish, breaking its last shackle this week.
There is no question that the assassination of Gadhafi marked a change in world history and sent a message to the world. But in its shadow, the airing of the video may have marked an even more important change, an international Internet democracy that embraces freedom of speech. Television news had little choice but to air the video because it has lost control. Many journalists may not like that change, but that is increasingly irrelevant. It is like not liking a star in the night sky. Like it or not, it is here and not going anywhere in our lifetime.
With a nod to Marshall McLuhan, the video is the message.