Ray Rice TMZ video shows the enduring power of the image

Ravens, NFL spin no match for credibility of surveillance video capturing an ugly act

September 08, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

For all the revolutionary technological change rocking media these days, the TMZ video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer in a casino elevator is a stark reminder of the enduring and awesome power of the image.

The two punches Rice delivers to his then fiancee take up only about four seconds of actual video time, yet they instantly blew away more than seven months of speculation, spin, damage control and image building from high-priced attorneys, fellow players, sports-media sympathizers, the Ravens organization and the National Football League. Blew it away!

Seconds of actually seeing the ugliness of Rice punching the woman who is now his wife in the face -- and he is suspended indefinitely from the NFL and cut by the Ravens.

And all of this after coach John Harbaugh and owner Steve Bisciotti repeatedly said what a great guy Rice was and how they were standing behind him even as there was endless speculation online that he punched her more or less in exactly the way we saw it on video today.

If there is a media message here it is not only how much we are still a visual culture, but also how much we have come in the last 20 years or so to distrust the written and spoken word in media.

In America, we like to think that we we only started becoming a visually oriented culture in the late 1940s with the rise of television. Some date it to the commercialization of film at the start of the 20th century.

But anthropologically, it really dates back to the cave paintings in France in pre-literate times - or, at least, to the hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.

The power of the image to change minds and alter perceptions never left us. But I believe it heightens in eras like the one in which we are now living when we don't know who to trust or what to believe.

Think of Vietnam and a huge government apparatus trying to sell the lie that America was there only to save Southeast Asia from Communism and the people of South Vietnam wanted us there.

The propaganda held for a while until we started seeing images of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire in protest of the hopelessly corrupt government we were bankrolling and children running in terror on fire with the Napalm our planes dropped on them.

The lies from Lyndon Johnson's White House were no match for those images -- at least in the minds of many of the young college-age men the government wanted to send to Vietnam to fight the war.

In a more immediate sense, think of the pictures of children mangled and lying dead in the dust of Gaza during the summer. For my part, all the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu as to why such carnage was necessary didn't change the sick, sad and angry feeling I had every time I watched the news.

Ditto for Ferguson, Mo., with images of the local police marching up the street decked out in military gear and looking like some occupaying army in a fascist country.

There is a reason so many websites are now going so heavily into video. It's not as simple as videos get page views. It's why they get page views.

The answer is that people believe what they see with their own eyes, particularly today when so many members of the media are ideologues pushing a political agenda with their written and spoken words. And if the information we receive isn't politically compromised, there is often a financial conflict of interest that isn't being fully acknowledged.

You might like ESPN, but can you trust their analysts to be honest about the NFL when you know how much money the channel makes by being allowed to carry Monday Night Football? It's the same for NBC and CBS.

But visual imagery offers us a sense of clarity.

Seeing Rice punch Palmer in the dark, grainy surveillance imagery in which we usually see criminal acts silenced all the voices in our heads and the words online or in the newspapers saying he's a good guy who made a bad choice.

We know what we saw. We saw an ugly, horrible act that someone tried to keep hidden in darkness.

And now, thanks to TMZ bringing it to light, we believe that we know who and what Ray Rice really is behind all the PR, lawyering and image-making of the Ravens and the NFL.

TMZ's video won the credibility war over Rice's image.

Instead of giving us more spin, the Ravens and the NFL finally had to act Monday.

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