The camera never lies.
That well-worn phrase, for decades, referred to still photos. But today, the only sure way to get the attention of Americans is to present videotape.
The 24/7 documentation of every aspect of everyone’s lives, made possible by smart phone cameras and YouTube, has created a new standard for truth.
Video decides what we believe, whether we want war or peace, a person’s guilt or innocence, or — the subject that seems to matter most to many — should a star running back be allowed to play football?
We’ve entered into new territory — culturally and politically – where, until visual images surface, the subject at hand is just a hypothetical – or just hype.
The disturbing amount of distrust and doubt cast upon the so-called Mainstream Media has certainly fueled this phenomenon. We are on a path that we take at our own peril.
Videotape has played an outsized role in recent weeks in two instances: NFL player Ray Rice was caught on tape knocking his wife unconscious with a single punch, and an ISIS executioner was filmed taunting the U.S. as he beheaded two American journalists.
Those video clips dramatically changed public opinion on the NFL’s domestic violence policy, and on the need to launch military attacks on the ISIS terror group.
But should it be this way?
The leaked video of Rice inside the elevator where the attack happened showed us nothing that we didn’t already know. Yet, once it played out on everyone’s TV screens or laptops – kind of like a reality show or a cable TV drama – it was real. Then it was worthy of national outrage.
The chilling video of the beheadings in Syria showed us exactly what ISIS wants us to know: They are more brutal than any terrorist organization the U.S. has ever faced. The reaction across America was such a mix of fear and anger that U.S. foreign policy toward the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria flipped in a matter of weeks.
Pollsters express astonishment that the majority of the public did not favor American intervention against ISIS just a couple of months ago, but, after the videotaped executions appeared, nearly two-thirds now support military air strikes. In fact, one-third wants the U.S. to send combat troops back to Iraq to eliminate the ISIS threat.
Politicians follow the polls, and those polled follow YouTube and Yahoo.
Visuals often have influenced politics in the recent past – Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s drunken drug party. The criminal justice system has come to depend upon amateur camera work, with countless examples of bad guys caught on surveillance tape or bad cops caught on video by the cell phone of a bystander.
But what about all the instances where video images do not exist?
The National Football League has long treated players guilty of off-the-field crimes with kid gloves. In this twisted new NFL reality, Rice, who was initially suspended for just two games prior to the in-elevator footage, has now apparently suffered a career ending incident via videotape. Meanwhile, Ray McDonald continues playing.
A San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman, McDonald was arrested several weeks ago on suspicion of felony domestic violence after he allegedly beat up his pregnant fiancée, leaving her with “visible injuries.” McDonald played last Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys and will suit up again today against the Chicago Bears.
No tape has surfaced to stir the public’s emotions. So, McDonald goes on, unscathed.
In Syria, where civil war rages, the gruesome 2013 chemical weapons attacks by President Bashar Assad’s regime on his own people produced heart-breaking photos of dozens of bodies, including children, lined up for burial. But the middle-of-the-night attack that killed 1,400 people was not captured on video.
The news photos held little sway, and as a result the polls showed that President Obama’s plan to hit Syria with retaliatory missile strikes was highly unpopular.
In this era of Facebook and Pinterest, everybody is a photographer, and many of us snap silly photos all day long for sharing and amusement. But, at a time when photo-altering techniques are readily available, I suspect that many now view a photograph as proof of nothing.
The visceral reaction, the ability to anger and inflame the public, that is something that video can accomplish much more readily than the printed word or a photographic image.
In our obsession with celebrities and sports stars, when controversy arises, the public’s reaction is: Where’s the video? Pro football, perhaps our most popular form of entertainment, has ingrained in our collective psyche the notion that truth comes from the lens of a video camera.
After all, the NFL rules and outcomes on the gridiron often come down to this: “Indisputable visual evidence.” If only reality was that simple.