Video's power, and limits, on display in Gray case, House sit-in

Seeing might be believing; it is not always knowing.

Nearly every day, it seems, presents fresh evidence of video's growing power to change our lives — and of the limits and caveats to that power as well.

This week brought more vivid examples with the acquittal of Officer Caesar Goodson in the death of Freddie Gray and the dramatic sit-in protest over a vote on guns by Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Across cable and network TV, legal experts emphasized the way in which the state's attorney's case against Goodson was built on an allegation that, as van driver, he gave Gray a "rough ride," which resulted in injuries that proved fatal.

But that strategy unraveled when the only video of the van ride — shot by CCTV surveillance cameras — showed nothing more than the van rolling through a stop sign and then taking a wide right turn.

"So, what's their evidence of a rough ride?" Miami attorney Mark Eiglarsh said sarcastically of the prosecution's case Wednesday night on Megyn Kelly's Fox News show. "A busload of nuns who said the guy was driving like 'Dukes of Hazzard'? No, a video showing that he merely failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and then he drove a little bit to the left, a little to the right. Megyn, that's my drive to work every day. That's not reckless driving."

"And the prosecution has had to change its theory now," Kelly said in response. "They promised they were going to prove rough ride. They haven't done it. … This judge was mocking them. He looked at them and said, 'Are you aware you have to prove intent — intent on this officer's part? What did you show to prove it?'"

That was, by the way, before Kelly and her guests themselves started seriously mocking State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby for the case her office presented. And that was the night before Judge Barry G. Williams declared Goodson not guilty on all counts.

Video has played a crucial role in the Freddie Gray story from its first moments. Public outrage and peaceful protests began as social media spread two citizen videos of Gray's arrest.

At the time, I wrote of the strong visceral responses the grainy images evoked — amplified by Gray's anguished screams and the angry words of a female bystander denouncing the arresting officers for what she saw as their indifference to Gray's pain and inability to walk.

But which parts of what we thought we saw proved to be factually true?

While it looked as though Gray could not walk — his legs hanging limp as police dragged him to the van — neither the prosecution nor the defense made a claim of even partial paralysis before he got in the van. The image of him handcuffed and standing just before being pushed inside the van was offered as evidence of his well-being before the ride, but police were holding him by the arms and waist. Were they holding him up, or was he standing on his own?

Was he in pain as the screams would indicate, or was he faking it?

We still don't know the definitive answers to those questions — and probably never will. Seeing might be believing; it is not always knowing.

But as American political life gets more polarized and visual platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat further dominate the media universe, we become a nation of citizens who only believe what we can see.

Indicative of that cultural shift is the reaction of Gray's family to the not-guilty verdicts. Relatives were frustrated that the trial could not be seen on TV, according to their attorney, William H. "Billy" Murphy.

"This is a serious mistake in cases of such high levels of public concern, because instead of relying on talking heads who have their own flavor about what they saw and heard in that courtroom, the public has the right to see for itself why this was a not-guilty verdict and whether that was the appropriate verdict in this case," Murphy said.

"This court system of ours, starting with our highest court, has said 'no' to putting cameras in the courtroom," he added. "It can no longer be tolerated that the public cannot just tune in to their televisions and watch as much of this as they want."

The public was able to tune in their televisions Wednesday and Thursday and see something unprecedented in another video-restricted branch of government, as Democrats in Congress used their smartphones to serve as videographers for a sit-in over gun-control legislation.

When Democrats took to the floor Wednesday to try and force a vote in the Republican-controlled body, Speaker Paul Ryan took the House out of session, thereby shutting off the cameras that telecast its proceedings. Most people see those telecasts on the public-affairs channel C-Span.

The idea, which might have been sound strategic one a decade ago, was that the impact of the protest would be severely diminished if most Americans couldn't see it. The Democrats sitting on the floor would be like trees falling in the proverbial forest.

But Ryan didn't count on smartphones, Periscope, Twitter, Facebook Live and how democratically (small "d") righteous such members of Congress as civil rights icon John Lewis would look to viewers watching the rogue video streams.

I say "rogue" because the cameras on the floor of the House are owned and controlled by the House of Representatives. They are the only ones allowed to televise from the floor.

But when Democrats started using their smartphones to stream the sit-in over social media platforms, C-Span started carrying that coverage.

"Using the members' personal videos was an easy decision to make, once we saw they were being posted to social media," Howard Mortman, a spokesman for C-Span, wrote in an email to The Sun. "It was a protest organized by elected representatives inside the chamber of the People's House."

New communication technology disrupts the economic and social order. Check out what happened to the Catholic Church after the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century. Or, ask any newspaper publisher what the Internet did to that industry in the late 20th.

I was cheered to see such disruption and change finally come to the House with all those smartphone-wielding members pushing back the curtain of darkness Ryan tried to bring down. And I have been cheering citizen journalists for their efforts from Ferguson to Baltimore in showing the world how some people of color are treated in their encounters with police.

We are living in the midst of a communications revolution, and the democratic possibilities offered by new technology are dizzying.

But let's not get carried away and think technology itself will solve our deeper problems. As we embrace video, let's try to understand its limitations and biases. It appeals to the gut, not the head. And we almost never know what is just outside the frame and how that might re-contextualize what we are seeing.

Getting more information through new technology is a start to becoming better informed. But for all the new images and information we got into the arrests and deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Gray, no one has yet been convicted.

And for all the moral high ground seized by Democrats thanks to those live streams, no vote on guns was taken before they disbanded Thursday.

Using the new technology to challenge the status quo is relatively easy. The hard part is understanding what it can and can't do — and then using it wisely to actually change the institutional pillars of American life for the better.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

It is beginning to feel like every story on the media beat these days is ultimately about video and the way it is changing our lives.

This week, brought more vivid examples with the not-guilty verdict for the officer who drove the van in which Freddie Gray was fatally injured and the dramatic sit-in protest over a vote on guns by Democrats in the House of Representatives.

I am not a legal expert, but virtually every one of them that I heard and saw on cable and network TV emphasized the way in which the state's attorney's case against Officer Caesar Goodson was built on an allegation that he gave Gray a "rough ride," which resulted in the injuries that proved to be fatal.

But that strategy unraveled when the only video of the van ride – shot by CCTV surveillance cameras – showed nothing more than the van rolling through a stop sign and then taking a wide right turn.

"So, what's their evidence of a rough ride?" Miami attorney Mark Eiglarsh said sarcastically of the prosecution's case Wednesday night on Megyn Kelly's Fox News show. "A busload of nuns who said the guy was driving like 'Dukes of Hazard'? No, a video showing that he merely failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and then he drove a little bit to the left, a little to the right. Megyn, that's my drive to work everyday. That's not reckless driving."

"And the prosecution has had to change its theory now," Kelly said in response. "They promised they were going to prove rough ride. They haven't done it. … This judge was mocking them. He looked at them and said, 'Are you aware you have to prove intent – intent on this officer's part? What did you show to prove it?'"

That was, by the way, before Kelly and her guests themselves started seriously mocking State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby for the case her office presented. And that was the night before the verdict of Goodson being not guilty on all counts was delivered.

Video has played a crucial role in the Freddie Gray story from its first moments. Public outrage and peaceful protests began with the distribution through social media of two citizen videos of Gray's arrest.

At the time, I wrote of the strong visceral responses the grainy images evoked - amplified by Gray's anguished screams and the angry words of a female bystander denouncing the arresting officers for what she saw as their indifference to Gray's pain and inability to walk.

But which parts of what we thought those videos showed us proved to be factually true?

While it looked like Gray could not walk - with his legs hanging limp as police dragged him to the van - neither the prosecution nor the defense made a claim of even partial paralysis before he got in the van. The image of him handcuffed and standing just before being pushed inside the van was offered as evidence of his well being before the ride, but police were holding him by the arms and waist. Were they holding him up, or was he standing on his own?

Was he in pain as the screams would indicate, or was he faking it?

We still don't know the definitive answers to those questions – and probably never will. Seeing might be believing; it is not always knowing.

But as the rhetoric of American political life gets more polarized and the media universe increasingly comes to be dominated by such visually-oriented platforms as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, we become a nation of citizens who only believe in and trust what we can see.

Indicative of that cultural shift is the reaction of Gray's family to the verdicts of not guilty. One of the family's chief frustrations with the trial was that it could not be seen on TV, according to its attorney, William H. "Billy" Murphy.

"This is a serious mistake in cases of such high levels of public concern, because instead of relying on talking heads who have their own flavor about what they saw and heard in that courtroom, the public has the right to see for itself why this was a not guilty verdict and whether that was the appropriate verdict in this case," Murphy said.

"We have all the technology in the world to permit [cameras], but this court system of ours, starting with our highest court, has said 'no' to putting cameras in the courtroom," he added, "It can no longer be tolerated that the public cannot just tune in to their televisions and watch as much of this as they want."

The public was able to tune in their televisions Wednesday and Thursday and see something unprecedented in another video-restricted branch of government when Democrats in Congress used their smartphones to serve as videographers for a sit-in over gun-control legislation.

When Democrats took to the floor Wednesday to try and force a vote in the Republican-controlled body, Speaker Paul Ryan took the House out of session thereby shutting off the cameras that telecast its proceedings. Most people see those telecasts on the public-affairs channel C-Span.

The idea, which might have almost been a sound strategic one a decade ago, was that the impact of the protest would be severely diminished if most Americans couldn't see it. The Democrats sitting on the floor would be like trees falling in the proverbial forest.

But for all the spin about what a smart, forward-thinking fellow Ryan is, he didn't count on smartphones, Periscope, Twitter, Facebook Live and how democratically (small "d") righteous such members of Congress as civil rights icon John Lewis would look to viewers watching the rogue video streams.

I say "rogue" because the cameras on the floor of the House are owned and controlled by the House of Representatives. They are the only ones that allowed to televise from the floor.

But when Democrats started using their smartphones to stream the sit-in over social media platforms, C-Span started carrying that coverage.

"Using the members' personal videos was an easy decision to make, once we saw they were being posted to social media," Howard Mortman, a spokesman for C-Span wrote in an email to the Sun. "It was a protest organized by elected representatives inside the chamber of the People's House."

New communication technology disrupts the economic and social order. Check out what happened to the Catholic Church after the introduction of printing press in the 15th Century. Or, ask any newspaper publisher what the Internet did that industry in the late 20th.

I was cheered to see such disruption and change finally come to the House with all those smartphone-wielding members pushing back the curtain of darkness Ryan tried to bring down with his heavy handed tactics. And I have been cheering citizen journalists for their efforts from Ferguson to Baltimore in showing the world how some persons of color are treated in their encounters with police.

We are living in the midst of a communications revolution, and the democratic possibilities offered by new technology are dizzying.

But let's not get carried away and think technology itself will solve our deeper problems. As we embrace video, let's try to understand its limitations and biases. It appeals to the gut, not the head. And we almost never know what is just outside the frame and how that might re-contextualize what we are seeing.

Getting more information through new technology is a start to becoming better informed. But for all the new images and information we got into the arrests and deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Gray, no one has yet been convicted.

And for all the moral high ground seized by Democrats thanks to those live streams, no vote on guns was taken before they disbanded Thursday.

Using the new technology to challenge the status quo is relatively easy. The hard part is understanding what it can and can't do – and then using it wisely to actually change the institutional pillars of American life for the better.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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