Webcams in Ferguson offer noncurated views distinct from TV news

Webcams in Ferguson offer noncurated views distinct from TV news
Police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 17. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

Nine days after the shooting of Michael Brown and well into the Ferguson, Mo., protests, I followed a Twitter link to an online stream from the website Vox. Later I would watch other feeds from the scene.

The Vox camera was stationed across the street from where police formed a line across West Florissant Avenue; big military vehicles were backed up behind them. It was already late in Ferguson when I started watching, but there were people out. Sometimes the camera looked up the street and sometimes it looked down, but in either case it sat and looked.


Eventually, one of those vehicles would come through the police line and drive back again; tear gas would begin to drift in from farther down the street. The media being ordered to depart, the Vox team transferred its camera to the inside of a car and took the viewer on a long ride around town as team members attempted to make their way to a rear staging area in a Target parking lot. They stopped for gas along the way, bought snacks, got turned back (politely) by police and committed at least one traffic violation.

"I don't want any comments on Twitter about me running that stop sign, either," the driver said to the camera. "I know y'all saw that."

Obviously, if you want to understand what's been happening in Ferguson, you need more than a Web stream. But it offers another way of looking at things and, in some ways, a more profound one.

The news is by necessity, even by definition, exclusionary. But by triple-underlining the most notable or exciting aspects of a story — the "dramatic" elements — the media also deform the reality they report upon, the way a sore toe might feel bigger than the rest of your foot.

Watching on CNN, the effect was much different. A headline, "Police and Protesters in Tense Standoff" may have accurately described the situation, but it also decided something for the viewer. The constant rerunning of the most sensational footage, rooted in cable news' need to make it seem that something big is happening at all times, distracts you from the bigger picture, in which nothing is happening most all of the time.

Watching a Web stream, which may be organized only to the extent of where the camera is placed and pointed, you get a different and paradoxically wider sense of things. Though the field of view may seem restricted, the framing static, the shots interminable, unmediated video invites you in to look around and make your own decisions.

Sometimes the picture is like an animated painting by Bruegel, full of figures, near and far, going about their business; or some heavily populated history or religious painting, in which the story is told with a multiplicity of little stories, characters and attitudes. We tend to want to refine a single, manageable truth from any crucial situation; but the world is motley, unruly and various. With time to look around, and no one picking your subject for you, your eye picks out detail; your brain goes to work, like James Stewart in "Rear Window."

When you slow to a crawl, new details can be glimpsed; and when you pull back from the crowd, new patterns can be seen; and when you sit still, the world passes before you. It takes a certain willful willingness to pay attention, especially when "nothing" seems to be happening.

But it pays off in subtle ways. You start to study haircuts, clothing, body language; the way this person strolls and that person struts — not to profile them, though you might do that if your mind bends that way, but as an emblem of human variety. You notice signs in the street, shadows on a wall, catch snatches of passing conversation.

You begin to see not the Event but the longer story of the people who pass through and constitute it, a story that seems to spill beyond the frame, that began before you arrived and will go on after you leave.

It is not the same as being there. But it is more like being there than watching it on the news. TV news cuts things up, cuts away and litters the screen with boxes and text and throws up a wall of speculating talking heads to clot the air with opinion, speculation and mind-reading.

Wolf Blitzer to Jake Tapper, on CNN, outside Brown's funeral: "I'm sure the Brown family is pleased that three officials from the White House have decided to attend this funeral today, right?"

Tapper: "I'm sure they are."

The last stream I watched, on Monday, was from that funeral, at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. TV news peeked in, then ducked back out to talk about what it all meant.


But I watched the service from beginning to end, via an NBC stream; no sound bite could capture the rise and fall and rise of the program, of its music, its tempo, its temporality. There were many stories told about Michael Brown and the meaning of his life and death, each with its own rhetorical shape. But there were other stories told too, incidentally, of the crowd, the context, the business of the church and the mundane, if awful, business of the day.

At last, the feed moved to the cemetery gates, through which a line of cars big and small, new and old, slowly rolled. Here again, the unblinking cameras, in no hurry to leave, told a different story than a photograph or film clip would tell, one based in the timely, real-time, time-consuming course of human events.

A car moved into the frame playing hip-hop on the radio, and moved on. Riders from Midwest black motorcycle clubs — Dem Boyz, Black Eagles — arrived en masse. Someone waved through the sunroof of a car. A pedestrian ducked below the camera of a woman photographing them. A man on the street corner folded an umbrella for a little girl.

Life went on.