Camcorders, Democracy, Authenticity — from Video Revolutions

Michael Newman, Video Revolutions

In Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, Michael Z. Newman examines the ways in which video has been both valued and denigrated. While some associated it with the low standards of television and contributing to to the decline of the technical and artistic achievements of film, others prized it for its authenticity, its ability to capture the “real,” and its democratization of media:

In the following excerpt from the section “Camcorders, Democracy, and Authenticity,” Newman explains some of these aspects of video:

“The form of video associated with camcorders and citizen media produc­tion was closely tied to ideas about video’s capabilities to capture and document reality in ways that existing media systems had not accomplished.”—Michael Newman

One moment in which this association [with the real] was reasserted occurred on television in the fall of 1980. The FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s had caught state and federal legislators accepting bribes from agents including one pretending to be a wealthy Middle Eastern immi­grant seeking asylum in the United States. Secretly videotaped surveillance footage of acts of political corruption in a hotel room, where elected officials met the agents, proved to be sensational and irrefutable evidence in court, leading toward convictions. Soon after the sting was first made public, these events were parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch spoof­ing The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Bel-Airabs,” reinforcing the linkage between video recording and the real, and videotape’s familiarity as a medium of capturing and documenting actu­ality. After a well-publicized Supreme Court decision allow­ing it, the evidentiary videotape was broadcast on television evening news programs on October 14, 1980, an event marked in popular criticism as a historic occasion for both television and video. The Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales noted the “video vérité” look of the images, and essentially predicted what would later be called reality TV, as surveillance and other forms of taped footage were likely to find their way onto the airwaves in the near future as both news and entertainment. Shales imagined that this would “change the way we look at the tube—and the way it looks at us.” Video cameras had been available to consumers for more than a decade by the time of the Abscam case, but were not widely adopted in comparison to video recorders until the 1980s….

Camcorders also quickly became a way for amateur media products to find their way into professional broadcasts and cable news programs, much as Shales predicted. Some of this video was in the mode of home movies, but the availability of less expensive and easy-to-use new video gear expanded the practice of amateur media production of many varieties. Ama­teur videos were made more famous by the ABC network’s America’s Funniest Home Videos (AFHV), a long-running series based on user-submitted clips, which began as a 1989 special and continued to air more than two decades hence into the 2010s. AFHV and other audience-submission programs such as I Witness Video motivated and encouraged viewers to make and send in a certain kind of videotape, and in the later 1980s and 1990s, shooting camcorder footage was seen as a way for ordinary people to “get on TV” and participate in mass media discourse that had hitherto been closed off to them, claiming a place in the national media conversation…..

Camcorder video gained significant notice before long for practices linked to another conception of democratization. Some newsworthy camcorder footage in the later 1980s and 1990s represented issues of civic and political significance, pro­moting democratic governance and values around the world. The most famous amateur video of this time in the United States was George Holliday’s recording of the beating of a black citizen, Rodney King, by Los Angeles Police Department offi­cers. This footage aired many times on television after Holliday submitted it to his local station, and was taken for indisput­able evidence of police brutality. The King affair was signifi­cant not only in the history of urban race relations and unequal criminal justice, but also for the centrality of amateur media to its narrative unfolding. As a Ted Koppel ABC News special Revolution in a Box reported in 1989, circulation of amateur video (along with satellite technology and other innovations in communication) was also opening up state-controlled media systems in many other parts of the globe, particularly in the crumbling Soviet bloc and in politically tense regions of the developing world. Koppel described the shift both at home and abroad in dramatic terms: “Television has fallen into the hands of the people . . . A form of television democracy is sweeping the world, and like other forms of democracy that have preceded it, its consequences are likely to be beyond our imagination.” The camcorder revolution was in a sense more literally revolu­tionary than other video revolutions, as its impact was seen in terms not only of changing social practices but also in terms of political effects, opening up communications to a greater range of voices and images and thereby diminishing state and corpo­rate power. When a public uprising in Los Angeles followed an almost all-white jury’s acquittal in 1992 of the police officers TV viewers had witnessed beating Rodney King, the video tech­nology that enabled this witnessing was credited with training attention on a serious social problem. This problem, according to contemporary discourse, would not have been recognized in the same way absent the ability of individual citizens to docu­ment everyday reality truthfully and accurately. As a consumer electronics trade paper described, this event marked the histori­cal moment when “the ‘camcorder revolution’ shook the nation by exposing police abuse and its racial undercurrents.”

Whether in the slapstick backyard comedy of AFHV, the gritty violence and confrontation of Cops and the Rodney King beating, or the alternative media of political movements the world over struggling for democratic freedoms, the form of video associated with camcorders and citizen media produc­tion was closely tied to ideas about video’s capabilities to capture and document reality in ways that existing media systems had not accomplished. In this construction of video, the enduring identity of television as a medium of directness, immediacy, and transparency was married with the tradition of documen­tary cinema’s rhetoric of truthful capture of actuality in all of its detail and ambiguity, a tradition stretching back to the earli­est days of moving pictures and before that to photography. A press release for I Witness Video, the NBC series that ran from 1992–1994 depicting crimes and disasters caught on amateur videotape, boasted that “the video boom lets Americans see each other as never before.” Amateur video was recognized as a way of revealing society to itself, for making visible previ­ously hidden or inaccessible human experiences. Camcorder images, Jon Dovey argues, became “the privileged form of TV ‘truth telling,’ signifying authenticity and an indexical repro­duction of the real world.”99 Video’s authenticity and realism benefited from its technical limitations in achieving this sense of truthful directness, and from the handheld shooting style typical of amateur videography. A TV news producer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told Columbia Journalism Review that footage shot by amateurs included in newscasts has “an unpolished quality that tends to make it seem more real.” Moreover, she argued, subjects who might “sanitize” their actions in the presence of a professional news crew are less aware they are being recorded by ordinary citizens.

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