If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many are conveyed by a video tape? Whatever the number, it is not always enough to understand the situation. That will not stop many people from rushing to judgment based on what they think they know. Their views are formed more by the media stampede and their own biases than by what really happened. And that says a lot about how people react and how information is used today.
Take the case of Andrew Meyer, the University of Florida student who had a Taser used against him by campus police at a speech by Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts last month. Videotapes of the incident made the evening television news and immediately found their way onto YouTube.
People around the world saw the incident replayed as thousands of newspapers and television stations picked up the story. The YouTube videos were viewed more than 3 million times.
As the story spread, many people formed a firmly held opinion. I also had an opinion on the event, but my perspective was unique. I was the moderator of Sen. Kerry's talk and the only other person on stage with him.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was called in to investigate whether the actions of the officers were appropriate. Their 300-page report was recently turned over to university officials. (A summary of it is at www.president.ufl.edu/incident/.) The report concluded the officers acted "well within" their guidelines and also pointed out that the student had provoked an earlier disturbance on campus. He boasted at that time to a friend that if he liked that confrontation he should come to Kerry's speech and see a real show. In a letter released October 29, Mr. Meyer publicly apologized for his "failure to act calmly" during the speech and admitted he had "stepped out of line" and was truly sorry for tarnishing the university's image.
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What was not on the YouTube videos was the fact that the student disrupted the speech twice. After Kerry had responded to numerous questions, I announced that one final one would be taken from the microphone on my right. The student then grabbed the microphone on the left and loudly demanded that he be allowed to ask a question. When a female police officer intervened and tried to escort him out, he broke away and continued shouting. At that point, Kerry said he would take the student's question, but would respond first to the questioner who was supposed to have been last. As he finished answering that question the famous videos began.
Because the student had already been disruptive once, there were police officers and officials of ACCENT, the student organization that brings speakers to campus, standing next to him. When he launched into a diatribe and used a vulgar expression, the mic was cut off and he was carried off to the applause of many in the audience, all the while resisting the police.
The reaction of some on the political right who saw video was that the student was silenced because he had asked the senator an embarrassing question. Some on the left suggested his freedom of speech was suppressed. Neither version could be further from the truth.
On television, any number of talking heads offered similar thoughts or ones that were even more farfetched. But the electronic news media require only that those on the air speak with conviction. Any real insights or even information are entirely optional and usually rare. The pundits in print were often equally uninformed and off the mark. Few were willing to wait until a thorough investigation laid out the facts and, when it did, it was barely news. A relative handful of articles came out on the 300 page report and even fewer on Meyer's apology.
In an age of instantaneous communication, there seems to be a widespread expectation of equally rapid judgment. No one was lynched, but the virtual mob, fed by the media and a post-your-own-videos website, drew all the conclusions they needed for a verdict. And what the truth eventually turned out to be hardly got reported. It would be useful for the electronic media (besides NPR and PBS) to offer context and analysis and for the pundits to hold their judgments until they had more facts. That would require the former to cut back on the celebrity news and the latter to engage in less populist pontification. Neither will happen unless the audience demands it.
Dennis Jett, former US ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida. His second book, "Why American Foreign Policy Fails," will be published in May.
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