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TV BRINGS L.A. FLAMES AMONG US Medium takes viewer into midst of events


During the Persian Gulf war, some cable subscribers became so addicted to their television sets that they were said to suffer from "CNN Syndrome." Then, when the Senate hearings starring Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were televised live and Courtroom TV began airing entire trials such as that of William Kennedy Smith, some viewers just had to be there, at least vicariously through television.

But no recent event has so demonstrated the sense of being there, live and as it happens by TV, as the continuing drama of Los Angeles aflame in the aftermath of Wednesday's verdict in the Rodney King case.

By far, it is the most visceral shared experience of the recent televised events, rocketing instantly to the top of the public discourse.

"This is much less scripted than the coverage of the gulf war," says Todd Gitlin, a University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author of "The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Left."

"The gulf war was a co-production of the military and TV," he said. "This has an element of surprise. And no one is running the show."

TV is the reason the world knew almost instantaneously that a jury had acquitted four police officers in the beating of Mr. King. And TV may also be the reason, at least partially, for the immediacy of the reaction to that verdict -- both among the rioters and the rest of us engaged in endless discussions and arguments over the event, media observers say.

"Technology has changed so dramatically to the point where we have virtually instantaneous news coverage," said Dan Amundson, research director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"Within an hour, everyone, it seemed, had heard the verdict. Technology has speeded the whole process up. The stuff they're showing is very graphic and very violent, but it's a very graphic and violent event. If you see these images, it's got to affect you at a really deep level."

From the beginning and in its unfolding, the Rodney King story has shown the power of the medium of television both in delivering the news of events and perhaps even altering the course of those events.

Most striking, for example, is how the live footage of a white trucker being beaten nearly to death during the riots sparked this immediate response: Two TV viewers moved by the chilling image dashed into the danger-filled streets and rushed the man to safety.

"We were watching TV at home," said T. J. Murphy, 30, an aerospace engineer, who with a friend was among the rescuers of trucker Reginald Oliver Denny, 36.

"It was just like Rodney King. They beat, beat and beat him. 'Somebody's got to get that guy out of there,' we said to each other."

But the Rodney King story, media observers say, also demonstrates how television is shifting away from a business once dominated by the three major networks -- which largely set the agenda for coverage -- to one more open to any number of would-be news purveyors, such as round-the-clock cable news stations and any amateur with a camcorder bought at the neighborhood electronics store.

The King beating, of course, would never even have turned into a raging story had not a man with a new video camera on a nearby balcony captured it in raw, unexpurgated form.

"The media is becoming diffused. There are millions and millions of video cameras out there, so the picture-taking process has become democratized," says Jon Katz, Rolling Stone magazine's media critic.

Mr. Katz recently argued in the magazine that the "new news" -- rap, music videos, movies and other avenues usually considered entertainment -- is making inroads on the "old news" of mainstream media by tapping into what's really happening in America.

And the Rodney King case illustrates that, he believes.

"[The outpouring of rage] should not be a surprise to anyone who has been listening to music today. [Rap artist] Ice Cube, for example, has been writing about the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] for a long time," Mr. Katz says. "The anger among young black males is enormously demonstrated in rap music."

While he and others believe that the mainstream media came late to the story of inner-city rage, once the news organizations arrived on the scene of the riots, they did what they do best: to take an event and deliver it live, as it happens and unedited, into living rooms the world over.

"This was a made-for-TV story because we had tape on it," says Mark Levy, a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland and a former NBC News producer.

"This whole case would not have come about if someone hadn't had a video camera and it wasn't shown on TV. TV is bringing all of this to all of us, unlike during the riots of the '60s, when we didn't have the technology capable of televising events live.

"I think because of the fact it wasn't live, [the '60s demonstrations] didn't have the same immediacy as what's going on now," he says.

Still, he adds, the role of the media goes only so far: TV didn't invent the events that it is covering.

"It's a story where TV has had an important role, but TV didn't cause the LAPD to behave the way they did, and TV is not the cause of the feeling of being let down by the system that has led to the rioting," he says.

"The fact is, the feelings of these people would be there whether or not TV is reporting or not."

Reed Irvine, chairman of a watchdog group, Accuracy in the Media, disagrees. Mr. Irvine says that television has been pumping up the public ever since it acquired the tape of the Rodney King beating. By repeatedly showing the most dramatic parts of the 81-second video, TV held its own trial and convicted the officers before the real trial even began, he says.

"I think that's why we have some cities in flames today -- they saw that 20 seconds of the video," Mr. Irvine says.

"The reason we have trial by jury rather than trial by TV is so the full story can come out."

By only showing part of the video, TV denied viewers the proper context by which to judge the officers' actions, he argues.

"When you see it all in context . . . you get some sense this was not just a wild orgy of beating," Mr. Irvine says.

The media "pander to minorities," Mr. Irvine says, and don't give nearly the amount of time to, say, officers who are killed on the job or white people who are victimized by blacks.

Other media watchers believe quite the opposite -- they say that minorities and inner-city problems are ignored until something like the Los Angeles riots happen.

And that is perhaps TV's biggest failing, they say: It takes an explosion to bring the cameras out.

"There's more news on TV than ever before. . . . But I don't know that the American public is any better informed," Mr. Levy says. "TV is a very good medium for conveying emotion and presence, but not for complicated issues."

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