Minicamwitness News--Welcome to the Revolution : Television: The graphic footage of police brutality aired on KTLA and picked up by CNN is the most recent development in the merger of news and home videos.
The news had reverberated with chilling stories of atrocities and physical abuse meted out to civilians and prisoners of war. But it wasn’t Arabs who were captured on TV this week attacking their victim with horrifying fury. And this wasn’t the Persian Gulf, either Baghdad or Kuwait City.
Welcome to America’s ugliest home videos.
Rarely has one been as repulsive as the oft-played, nationally telecast footage of prone and seemingly defenseless Rodney Glen King being savagely beaten by Los Angeles police officers in the early Sunday darkness.
The police report maintains that King was apprehended after a high-speed car chase and that he resisted arrest, all of which he has denied. The footage, showing King on the ground and apparently helpless while being clobbered, seems to speak for itself.
Shot by amateur cameraman George Holliday from the balcony of his Lake View Terrace apartment, and initially aired by KTLA Channel 5, the grisly black-and-white pictures of police brutality are the newest spinoff from a minicam revolution that has merged TV news and home videos into the video odd couple of this generation.
Minicams have become a perpetual, everlasting, panoramic eye, more often than not a “Candid Camera” minus laughs. The global proliferation of these lightweight, relatively cheap cameras has spawned a breed of video snoopers able to chronicle virtually everything from infants taking their unsteady first steps to political revolutions, earthquakes, air crashes and the violent rage of police officers.
Increasingly, no matter what happens or where it happens, an amateur with a minicam is there to record it, and subsequently TV is there to air it.
In the case of the King incident, moreover, not only to air it but also, in repeatedly doing so, to indict symbolically Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and his entire department.
Coincidentally, the King beating has come to light in a week that is seeing the start of a trial in Long Beach concerning an alleged police brutality case involving another secret video. This footage--appearing to show black activist Don Jackson being shoved by a white Long Beach policeman into a glass window with such force that it shattered--also got national TV exposure.
In contrast to the King pictures, however, the Jackson video was carefully calculated and was shot by professionals. A former Hawthorne police sergeant himself, Jackson had invited an NBC News crew to secretly tape a “sting” that he hoped would document police anti-black bias and brutality.
On the other hand, Holliday said this week that he had bought his camcorder only recently for “home stuff” and was merely trying it out when he just happened to document the horror show a short distance from his second floor balcony. Later, he delivered his videocassette to his favorite news station.
“The guy called us about 3 p.m. Monday, and we were looking at the tape by 4 o’clock,” said KTLA Channel 5 news director Warren Cereghino.
The swell of minicams places on TV news departments the burden of authenticating the video they get from unknown sources. Thus, this was not the first time Cereghino was put in the position of weighing the truthfulness of dramatic amateur footage.
In 1987, then an assignment editor at KNBC Channel 4, he got a call shortly after the Whittier earthquake from a man saying he and his wife had footage of a powerful aftershock. “We got the tape and cranked it up, but it smelled from the get go,” Cereghino recalled.
But the Holliday tape was different. “We could see the California Highway Patrol logos on the doors and the city seal on the side of the LAPD cars,” Cereghino said, “so we knew this wasn’t staged.”
Channel 5 paid Holliday $500 for the tape, then aired it that night and also gave a copy to CNN, with which it has an affiliate agreement. Later, through various circuitous routes, the tape also was shown on all local stations and the network newscasts.
Shown again and again and again, as if it were a trailer for a new movie.
By Wednesday night, in fact, the tape had become virtually an item of newscast furniture. During the first half hour of its 9 p.m. news, for example, KCAL Channel 9 aired portions of it six times, while inviting viewers to vote by phone whether Gates should resign.
Or as anchor Pat Harvey put it: “Do you think Chief Gates should hang up his badge?”
Although it was meaningless, unscientific sampling, the station later reported that 86% of 8,426 callers wanted Gates out.
On CNN’s combative “Crossfire,” Holliday himself became part of the furniture Wednesday, with co-host Pat Buchanan grilling the amateur cameraman who suddenly had been thrust into the spotlight.
“Can’t you understand why they (the police) did what they did?” he demanded from Holliday. Speaking by satellite from CNN’s Hollywood studios, Holliday was amazingly cool, refusing to be drawn into a debate.
Buchanan continued to press: “Would you have felt differently than you do now if you knew this guy (King) had run over somebody?” Being much more precise than the wild-swinging Buchanan, Holliday replied that he felt nothing for King, one way or the other. Thus, he couldn’t feel differently.
Ultimately, Buchanan and co-host Michael Kinsley went on to their other guests, Don Jackson and Maury Hannigan, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, mentioning Holliday only one more time near the end of the half hour. Said Kinsley: “Thank you, George Holliday, the man who shot the film and made this entire hour possible.”
So Holliday was now a filmmaker.
The media attention “has been incredible,” Holliday said earlier by phone. “At first my answering machine was clicking all day long and I was getting calls at 2 and 4 in the morning.” He’s gotten interview requests from stations in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and Baltimore, and from the tabloid shows “Inside Edition” and “Hard Copy,” but has turned them all down.
Meanwhile, local press and TV deluged him at his home and at the North Hollywood plumbing company where he’s general manager. “Since they already found me, I went ahead and did the interviews,” he said. “I have no hard feelings about the media. I just didn’t expect this to be blown up into such a big thing.”
There was a click on the phone. “Can you hold just a second?” Holliday asked. “I have the district attorney on the other line.”
So even as TV shows police hitting Rodney Glen King, fame hits a seemingly nonplussed George Holliday. And the age of minicams marches on.