That surging number of home video amateurs, who used to shoot just babies and weddings but now are grabbing spot news events, can greatly extend television's immediacy and range.
Nowhere was this more dramatically shown than in the story that has outraged TV news audiences across the country this past week, the beating of an unresisting black motorist by truncheon-wielding white Los Angeles police officers.The tape was made by a Lake View Terrace man trying out his new video camera. He sold it to CNN and two Los Angeles TV stations. It has been repeatedly shown on national television.
In the aftermath, the Los Angeles Times has used three or four stories a day on the incident. A grand jury investigating police misconduct subpoenaed the tape and on Thursday handed down felony charges against three officers and their supervisor. A poll found confidence in the L.A. police plummeting, demonstrators are calling for the resignation of embattled police chief Daryl F. Gates and the U.S. Justice Department ordered a national study of police brutality cases extending back six years. All of this because a citizen with a camera happened to be on the scene shooting the dramatic kind of film TV stations look for.
- IF THE SAME KIND of tape had been offered to the Salt Lake TV news stations, would they have used it? No doubt. All three say they would like to look at amateur tape of a spot news event if they were unable to cover it themselves. They respond to amateurs about the way all media have always responded to the free-lancer: receptive to whatever the editors and reporters can't supply. All have equipment to dub the tapes from amateur formats to the station's standards.
Some are less eager than others to see such tape regularly. News director Lee Roderick says KSL-Channel 5 doesn't solicit tape from amateurs and rarely gets it. He worries about fraud and about the possibility that tape might be offered by someone with an axe to grind. In contrast, "Our photographers are trained as journalists to report accurately and fairly," Roderick says. "Unsolicited tapes may just serve someone's pet interest."
Ken Connaughton, executive producer at KTVX-Channel 4, doesn't worry much about fakery, saying it would be quickly exposed. Connaughton says that whenever the station can't be at the scene of a breaking event like a fire or flood, it sets out to learn if anyone at the scene got videotape or even still photos.
- "WE'LL SEE A LOT MORE amateur film when people use camcorders as automatically as they now use still cameras," Connaughton says. "It used to be that they were just toys."
Similarly, Bryan Shiffer, assignments editor at KUTV-Channel 2, says the station has used amateur tape of a number of events, especially those in remote locations - a flood in Rock Springs, a chemical plant blast in Nevada - and sees no dangers "as long as we're not taking interviews or features but rather calamities, fires, accidents, things that would be pretty obvious at least to experts or consultants if it had been staged."
The station used VHS tape of an avalanche between Snowbird and Alta resorts that trapped a group of dentists skiing. One skier had a camcorder in his backpack.
Shiffer sees the camcorder not as a fad but as a communications upheaval. So did Ted Koppel in an ABC special last year called "Revolution in a Box." The year before 71/2 million camcorders were sold, the typical unit weighing two pounds, small enough to go almost anywhere and inexpensive to operate.
Koppel noted that the 8 mm movie film shot by Abraham Zapgruder (and sold to Life magazine for $25,000) was the only motion picture record made of the Kennedy motorcade at the grassy knoll in Texas when the president was shot. Now perhaps 50 camcorders would be recording the event from every angle. Possibly also would the TV stations' own cameras, which of course have also become lighter and more portable and shoulder-mounted.
Koppel also pointed to concerns over the objectivity and reliability of amateur tape. Activists using cameras for picture-hungry television shows could add up, he said, to "a volatile mixture."
- THE FAKE PICTURES of what was purported to be the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that ABC aired and apologized for ("we were misled and we misled you," as Peter Jennings put it) were bought from an amateur. But then, so were the shots of the explosion on the USS Iowa gun turret, Arab resisters in the West Bank in the early days of the intifada, demonstrations as East Europe lurched toward freedom and, last month, pictures of the fatal plane crash at Los Angeles International Airport.
Of course the stations pay for the tape, but no amateur is likely to get rich from a chance shot. According to a Los Angeles Times story, George Holliday, who made the police brutality pictures, got $500 from both KTLA and KNBC and $150 from CNN. Salt Lake news directors don't talk much about prices, saying it all depends, but one indicated that about $100 would be tops.
A strong amateur tradition has always flowed through news photography, and some of the all-time great news photos have been made by chance by nonprofessionals. These include the most dramatic of all shipwreck pictures, made with a newly purchased camera by a crew member of the Vestris. It immortalizes passengers and crew struggling to launch lifeboats as the vessel is about to go down off the Virginia Capes in 1928. An amateur made the 1947 Pulitzer Prize picture of a woman leaping to her death from the burning Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta. And a student, not a professional and not a radical, made the classic picture that remains forever our image of the Kent State shootings.ROBERT MAXWELL'S impending takeover of the New York Daily News is both welcome and disappointing. Welcome because the venerable tabloid, once the nation's largest circulation paper, will continue to be heard after a vicious strike and a long history of earning declines. Disappointing because the sale typifies the unabating trend toward consolidation of the nation's and world's press into fewer and larger groups.
Maxwell, a 68-year-old Czech-born dynamo, is a British media magnate but is spreading his tentacles worldwide. One trade magazine this year commented that "conquering the world is part of his strategy and psyche." And Maxwell himself says, "You can't have a world communications enterprise without the U.S." He predicts that ultimately there will be only seven to 10 global communications giants, and "my ambition is to be one of them."
In the past year he has bought former communist papers and magazines in Hungary and Berlin. He owns seven British and Scottish papers, including a leading London tabloid, the Mirror. His bright new broadsheet weekly, the European, was designed for the European market but will be on U.S. newsstands come spring.