How TV has changed what we believe to be true By: Michael Hill

March 18, 1991|By Evening Sun Staff

AMERICA'S UGLIEST HOME VIDEO has now had national repercussions. One man aiming his new camera off his balcony in Los Angeles, and catching a bunch of police officers mercilessly beating a man they were detaining, has caused the Justice Department to launch a nationwide investigation of police brutality.

The incident provides an ironic twist to the vision that George Orwell proposed in his book "1984," written just as the television era was beginning. Orwell pictured a world in which Big Brother -- the government -- would use its omnipresent cameras to be watching, and thus controlling, its citizens at all times.

Instead, the home video revolution has made little brothers of us all, democratizing a media that seemed destined to remain in the hands of the rich and powerful. It wasn't the government and its police force doing the watching, it was the police who were being watched.

If there is a disturbing aspect to this incident, it is that it confirms that television images have become perhaps too powerful in our society.

There is a good reason that manufacturers stamp "As Seen on TV" on their packaging. Even if the product was seen only on a silly advertisement, simply the fact that it was on TV imbues it with some almost supernatural aspect. Buying it means that you will be tied into this electronic community, that your life will somehow be especially enhanced, that you will be able to perform the most important act of the second half of the 20th century -- to turn an image into reality.

Now police brutality -- an especially horrendous crime that is often charged, but rarely proven, since it goes against a basic tenet of our judicial system visible in the lowest courts everyday, that you believe the police officer's version of events -- has come with the "As Seen on TV" stamp. And that magic talisman has caused the Justice Department to launch an investigation.

The sheer power of this video from Los Angeles is, of course, undeniable. A still photograph of the incident would not have carried near the weight as it could be seen as only a instantaneous slice of an ongoing engagement that could be explained and stripped of its power by situating it in a fictitious context.

But the video gives no such out. There is no conceivable explanation, beyond some sort of mob hysteria, that could even begin to excuse the actions of these officers. No matter what, if anything, the victim had done or said to incite the police, the length and duration of the beating seems beyond justification.

Even the stark texture of the video image -- as opposed to the softer cast of film -- adds to the impact. In our culture, video carries the message of immediacy and truth -- it is used on the news -- while film implies fiction, the time needed to process it allowing us to assume that it has been edited or altered, as it is for the movies.

The great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni once made a film -- "Blow-Up" -- about a photographer's struggle to find if there was reality behind the image of a murder victim he had taken, about as accidentally as the man who taped the police off his balcony.

Crucial to the confusion in "Blow-Up" is the time it took to develop the film and print its pictures, as well as the fuzziness of the photographic image. That was 25 years ago. Now, he would have a video camera and there would be no doubts, just as we have no doubts about the portrayal of police brutality.

The power of this videotape should sound a cautionary note. As with any images, those of video can be manipulated. Indeed, television commercials constantly strive to re-create the spontaneous, unrehearsed feel of these types of videos because we associate that with the truth.

Even the producers of "America's Funniest Home Videos" acknowledge that they get plenty of fraudulent tapes, staged pratfalls trying to pass as real events.

And look at the battle fought a couple of years ago between the Chinese government and protesting students to control the television images of those protests. Or, more recently, between the Pentagon, the Iraqis and the networks over the images of the gulf war.

But perhaps more dangerous is the fact that we invest these video images with this higher reality, that most of us would literally trust them more than we trust as our own eyes, just as the NFL officials rely on instant replay to tell them what they did or did not see.

Neal Postman in his anti-television book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" warns that the apocalyptic downfall brought about by this medium will not be that of Orwell's Big Brother, but of Aldous Huxley's tranquilized society in "Brave New World," dazed into a totalitarian complacency by the omnipresence of TV and its entertainment.

The danger is that we won't believe anyone's tale of police brutality, or any other ill in our society, unless he has it on videotape. So, unless you happen to have a video camera, there's no use looking for problems or solutions. We could become a nation of people like the hero of Jerzy Kozinsky's "Being There," who are content just to watch.

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