Frank Beacham / 10.06.2004
"The Whole World is Watching," Revisited
It was 36 summers ago that I witnessed the making of television history in Chicago when all hell broke loose at the Democratic National Convention. This summer in New York City, as Yogi Berra put it, was "like deja vu all over again."
Spanning this 36-year bridge of time, I found myself in the middle of the two largest political convention protests in American history.
I could never have realized before it began that the events surrounding the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden would serve not only as a perfect bookend for my earlier experiences in Chicago, but offer a clear window through which to view changes in media technology.
In 1968, I was a young news film cameraman, still in journalism school, when the streets of Chicago erupted in a vicious police riot as result of protests against the Vietnam War. The images of those days are permanently etched in my mind--just as they are for many unsuspecting viewers who witnessed the violence on live television.
Television was different then. Broadcast minicams were not yet invented. TV images were in black-and-white, and the cameras that made them were huge studio rigs mounted on the top of remote trucks. Those trucks were parked all over the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968.
Mayor Daley's police didn't realize their actions were being seen live on national television. The brutal images were shocking to a generation weaned on "Ozzie and Harriet." When an on-air tally light on top of a camera turned red, the demonstrators looked it in the eye and chanted: "The whole world is watching."
In fact, the whole world was watching, and the rest is television history. It's no exaggeration to say that Chicago was a pivotal moment in redefining both national political conventions and street protests in America. That was never more apparent than at this year's Republican convention in New York City.
Before Chicago, conventions were open televised free-for-alls of political passion, where candidates were actually nominated by voting delegates (with the help of cigar-chomping pols in the legendary smoked-filled back rooms). Now, these events are sanitized, scripted love-fests stripped of any spontaneity for live TV.
The protesters, many nourished since childhood on MTV images and now every bit as media savvy as the political parties, adopted a new form of "theatrical" civil disobedience designed to throw a monkey wrench into the media messages of those in power. This summer in New York City, the protesters--with the help of the Internet--were successful in circumventing the gatekeepers of traditional media.
In fact, although the police were careful to appear restrained in front of television cameras, it was the demonstrators who stole the image show with a parade of polished and sophisticated media messages that were broadcast and published around the world.
PARADE OF IMAGES
A parade of flag-draped coffins and rows of empty shoes represented the American casualties in Iraq. A three-mile-long line of 5,000 people holding pink slips symbolized the hardship of the unemployed. Rows of elderly marchers--supported by canes and walkers--indicated very human images of the plight of older citizens.
While in 1968, the three dominant U.S. networks preempted their broadcast schedules to provide extensive political coverage, this year the Big 3 carried about three hours of coverage each. Cable channels filled that void, but some networks tended to target specific groups for their coverage--the most obvious being Fox News Channel, which targeted conservative Republican viewers.
The growing power of the Internet for the distribution of news and information was highlighted this summer. Not only could Net users watch live, raw video convention feeds without commentary from such sources as The New York Times, but Web logs and extensive still photo essays offered a level of nuanced and comprehensive coverage rarely available in the past.
The indymedia.org Web site provided minute-by-minute updates on what was happening throughout the city. It also offered a broadcast of marchers' mobile phone updates in conjunction with micro-radio station 103.9 in Brooklyn. Protesters with cable TV service could also watch a public access channel that was running nightly video of protests.
In New York, hundreds of demonstrators got instructions on street movements through instant text messages to their mobile phones. One of the most popular sites for messaging was TxtMob.com, which reportedly has nearly 4,500 registered participants. Users register their mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses with the site, and can join many of the 200 groups, some of which have hundreds of users. Messages sent by users are "broadcast" through the TxtMob server.
NEW MEDIA FRAGMENTS
Fragmentation is the biggest change in political media between 1968 and 2004, this observer believes. In 1968, Americans received most of their news and information through only three television channels, all of which adapted a similar point of view. Like it not, those days are clearly over.
Technology offers infinite information channels, and our politically polarized population is now using those channels to hear a preferred point of view. This is a huge change from the bygone days when a single voice--such as Walter Cronkite's--could influence millions of Americans with a simple comment.
Yes, in 2004 the whole world is still watching--but we are headed to a day when each viewer will have his or her own virtual channel--perhaps the Republican Channel, the Democratic Channel, the Anarchist Channel, the Young Protesters Channel, the Senior Protesters Channel and, of course, the "None of the Above" Channel.