Citizen journalism and the webcast of a police standoff in Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun

After spending Saturday night listening to and writing about a Baltimore blogger who webcast and tweeted throughout a five-hour standoff with a police S.W.A.T. unit, I promised myself at least 24 hours to try and coherently think through the meaning of the event.

Beyond the things I said Saturday night about the webcast and Twitter conversation being two more great examples of the way the Internet and social media continue to change so many aspects of American life, there are a couple of other media takeaways that stay with me and are worth thinking about.

First, this is what citizen journalism really looks like on the ground. The blogger webcasting in the dark from his Baltimore basement as a police negotiator tried to talk him into surrendering is the face of citizen journalism after you strip away the hype. 

And all of you mainstream media haters who fall on your schadenfreude knees each night praying for the demise of the Washington Post or The Baltimore Sun, this is the guy who is going to be bringing you information about your world if your prayers are ever answered. Good luck with that.

"I'm a public figure now," Frank James MacArthur, the 47-year-old cabdriver who tweets, blogs and broadcasts on the Internet as The Baltimore Spectator, told a police negotiator and web audience that peaked at 1,000 and aggregated perhaps as many as 10,000 throughout the event. "I'm a journalist, and this is my story."

MacArthur picked up more than 2,000 followers on Twitter during the day and night -- following a visit by police in the afternoon to serve a warrant issued by a probation officer in connection with a 2009 weapons charge and failure to appear in court.

"I thank everybody for listening, for showing your concern," MacArthur told his listeners as he got ready to surrender in time for the 11 p.m. news.

"All right, it's 10:57. Network news comes on at 11. Let's wrap this up for the networks. I'm headed out," he said.

"Mainstream media's been ignoring me as long as I've been here. Now, thanks to you guys, they're all paying attention. Everybody loves a tragedy…We've got thousands of people around the world listening … This is a ratings bonanza -- a smash hit."

Of course, it was none of those things. Nor was MacArthur abused or killed by police, despite a steady stream of references to how he was prepared for both to happen.

Paranoid? Self-aggrandizing? You make the call. I am not trained to judge such matters. Having followed MacArthur on Twitter, I can tell you he seems to be in love with the notion of being a watchdog journalist chronicling failed police work, without having much sense of the standards involved in doing that responsibly.

One of the people tweeting to and about MacArthur Saturday night was Roland Martin, an analyst for TVOne and CNN.

At the mention of Martin and tweets, you might remember that he was suspended by CNN earlier this year for a tweet during the Super Bowl.

Martin was in high tweet mode Saturday alternating comments on college football with thoughts about and comments to the man who was broadcasting from his basement.

Here's one of Martin's tweets: "Why won't a friend of @BaltoSpectator come by to help him out, as opposed to the cops tearing the doors to arrest him."

Most troubling was MacArthur telling police at a delicate point in the negotiations when he seemed on the verge of surrender that he couldn't do it just yet because he wanted to respond to a message from Martin.

I don't consider Martin a journalist. But he rubs shoulders with journalists onscreen in his job at CNN. I don't think someone on CNN should be taking an activist role in a matter like this -- especially when there are trained negotiators involved and someone could get killed.

But in the brave world of new media, all that is possible -- maybe even taken for granted.

Peaceful surrender waits for the top of the 11 o'clock news -- and a last exchange with Martin.

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