At around 1:00 am on March 3rd, 1991, George Holliday, a plumber and general manager of a Los Angeles Rescue Rooter, was awakened by a chorus of police sirens. Peering from his apartment window, Holliday saw a helicopter, six police vehicles, a white Hyundai and a swarm of men in dark uniforms. Holliday grabbed his Sony CCD-F77 camcorder, a newly-purchased gadget, and filmed the commotion from his apartment.

Two days later, Holliday called the LAPD to inquire about the scene. Holliday identified himself as a witness, but the officer was curt and disinterested. Frustrated by the officer’s response, Holliday called his local TV news station, KTLA, and offered up his videotape. That evening, CNN aired KTLA’s report and Holliday’s 90-second tape became known as the recorded evidence of the Rodney King beatings.

Around that time, over 50 million Americans watched the evening news. In his new book, “Reality Show,” Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz estimates that over the last 18 years, the number of nightly news views has plummeted to 25 million viewers.

In an interview with Tilzy.TV, Kurtz noted that, though their general audiences are dying off,  newscasts still serve a function as “giant amplifiers."

There are plenty of sites that serve up lots of videos of the days events so people can watch the raw footage for themselves. What the evening newscasts do, both on the air and online, is provide an editing function – classifying what’s important, from a political event to a medical study – and compressing it into an easily digestible chunk with a bit of analysis, for people who are pressed for time.

Traditionally, a citizen like Holliday, who provides the mainstream media (MSM) with some form of knowledge – a tape, a document, a juicy detail – is known as a tipster, or a leak. In the early 90s, when the networks were still the only show in town, Holliday had to approach the MSM to be heard. Some 17 years later, with the digital revolution underway, it’s more likely that a tip, especially a video will go straight to the web.


Enter Mayhill Fowler. ###She’s a popular blogger for Huffington Post’s OffTheBus (O.T.B), which organizes a small army of “citizen journalists” to cover the presidential campaigns. Fowler, who was chummy with Obama’s campaign’s staff, was invited by a personal friend to attend a ‘closed-door’ (no MSM permitted) fundraiser. On April 11th, 2008, Fowler posted an article about the fundraiser with audio from the event.
She noted that Obama strayed from his usual stump speech; she was shocked and even somewhat offended to hear statements like, “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them…And it’s not surprising they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Within 48 hours, Fowler’s post drew 250,000 views and over 5,000 comments on OffTheBus. The MSM seized the opportunity to exploit Obama’s comments and the campaigns took jabs at each other – all parties were trying to lay claim to the meaning behind “bittergate.”
On the web, “bittergate” evolved into a debate beyond political squabbling; bloggers weighed in on whether or not the rules of traditional journalism could, or should, apply to web reporting. The establishment called for a blogger code of ethics; if Fowler is a journalist, she should be barred from closed door events (with the rest of the press). The challenging team argued that because Fowler is a citizen journalist, she is unrestrained by tradition; the freedom to report isn’t hazardous anarchy, but a democratic openness.
Kurtz says that the political impact of user-generated material “is growing at an astonishing rate. The Jeremiah Wright videos changed the Democratic campaign in a fundamental way. After the ‘CBS Evening News broadcast a report knocking down Hillary Clinton’s claim of having come under sniper fire in Bosnia, it was viewed on YouTube 2 million times. That underscores the viral nature of the Net.”

On his personal website, Neil McIntosh, head of editorial development for guardian.co.uk, wrote, “I’m not sure how traditional journalistic rules of engagement (off the record, on the record, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) can be enforced when everyone has a camcorder in their pocket.”

Referring to “bittergate,” McIntosh continued, “This, then, is less an issue for journalism, more one for political campaigners and masters of spin…Thus, tragically, the only logical response is for the candidate to clam up; treat every moment as a moment on Newsnight or Meet The Press…The implication of all those could be that, ironically, candor dries up because this is an age when everybody can be a reporter if they want to.”

One could describe McIntosh’s prediction as the present-day relationship between politicians and the MSM; a candidate’s ability to be forthright is overpowered by his/her need to be censored. However the perfect storm, which has been brewing since the days of Holliday and his Sony CCD-F77, may soon enough ensure the disintegration of the current ‘news ecology.’

The speed with which user-generated material is transferred to the mainstream via the web and back again, will continue to increase exponentially over time. An ever greater portion of the civilian population, armed with recording devices of ever decreasing size and ever increasing simplicity – gathers and distributes news.  In turn, the public gains less regulated access to elected officials, perhaps a clearer image of the character on screen. 

This newfound media democracy will empower voters to demand more candor, less caution, and a candidate who wasn’t made-for-TV.

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