There’s a certain predictability and glossiness to news “packages,” special reports on breaking news that journalists knew were going to happen ahead of time. So when a pope dies after a long illness, the U.S. invades Iraq after a long runup to war, or the Democrats are sworn into power in Congress, you know there will be spiffy graphics, an on-the-scene reporter, and even an original musical intro on CNN.
That’s what you might have expected regarding Saddam Hussein’s execution by hanging that took place after a lengthy public trial and appeal. Sure enough, after the execution on Dec. 30, an official video was released to the media showing Hussein led to the gallows and a noose put around his neck. In years past, that’s what the public would have seen — a sanitized version of events edited for mainstream consumption.
But instead, in the Internet Age, in the Age of YouTube, an uncensored video shot by a government official on the scene was uploaded to various video sites on the Net. On this uncut video, you can hear the audio of what Saddam was saying in his last seconds of life, and hear the insults hurled at him by political opponents. The scene is much more chaotic and much less scripted than in the official video. (And thanks to IraqSlogger.com, you can also read a partial English translation of what is being said in the video.)
The consequences from that cell phone video were enormous, with protests breaking out in Iraqi cities and government officials being detained for videotaping the scene. But the video also upended the tidy news package for Saddam’s execution, and marked another important moment for the mainstream media (MSM) losing control of the daily news agenda.
No longer could the MSM trot out the safe-for-viewing video of Saddam trying on the noose. Now there was an alternative viewpoint, a much more real viewpoint, out for free on the Internet to anyone who knew how to type in the words “Saddam execution video” on Google or Technorati or YouTube. In fact, today, nearly 10 days after the hanging, the search term “Saddam” is at #1 on Technorati’s most-searched-for terms, and “Saddam video” is at #3. Those people are not looking for safe, they’re looking for a slice of reality they couldn’t get unedited on the evening news.
Time and time again, the Internet has served as a repository for real life unedited, whether it’s the beheading video of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan or celebrity sex videos on the beach or the personal contact details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault accuser. (Note: These links go to news stories and not actual videos or direct information.)
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that all this unedited material is good for us, psychologically. Having a more direct view of the Saddam hanging might give us a clearer, truer picture of the event, but it also is partially responsible for the death of at least seven children who hung themselves in copycat hangings. As the filtering power of the MSM lessens, the parental and personal filters of all of us must be strengthened. More than ever, we need to have better media literacy, know what is out there for us to see, and choose wisely in what we see and what conclusions we make.
The genie is out of the bottle, and traditional media will not be able to take away the video and camera power of millions upon millions of cell phones in the hands of so many potential eyewitnesses. Rather than fight against the tide, the MSM will have to learn to deal with a new news agenda being set by average people who are at the scene of news as it happens. There will still be a place for professional journalists to provide context and explain what we are seeing in these videos and these photos.
But the days of the carefully planned news packages are nearing an end. Even when Saddam was buried, an unofficial video surfaced showing another chaotic, politically charged scene. For every manufactured and manicured news package of the future, we can expect a few citizen journalists to surface with the raw details — what BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis calls news served raw.
Not everyone wants to believe that the world has changed or that the MSM’s grip on power is loosening. Check out this editorial, The zone of faith will save us from the sovereignty of the mob, by the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, which concludes like this:
There is no substitute for a disciplined, rule-bound, edited news-gatherer any more than there is for a formal theatre, movie-maker or publisher. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” will not find its apotheosis in the Internet. The message transcends the medium and always will. The fact that a reader’s taste can sometimes be shocked shows the power of the trust on which it is normally based.
But you only have to look down as far as the reader comments below the editorial to see how much the world — and personal opinion — is turning away from the journalist-as-high-priest oldthink. Here’s part of the first comment from reader peters2000:
Jenkins’s piece is inspired by Saddam’s hanging, so let us look at the reality. There were of course two videos of the event made.The first was the officially sanctioned version — tastefully edited to spare us too much anguish. The second was the raw version. The trouble is, the first version was a propaganda lie, and the second version was the truth. If Jenkins wants to eat his cornflakes while reading lies that is up to him. Personally I don’t.
The reason why newspapers are in headlong retreat in the face of the Internet is because they persist in publishing the politically approved version of events, when for more and more of us, it becomes ever easier to check the sources. Newspapers are dying, because they are losing credibility.
What do you think? Are cell phone videos upending the approved news agenda, and is that a good thing? How important was the Saddam cell phone video in the history of media, and do you think mainstream media should have shown more or less of the video? Share your thoughts in the comments below.