September 28, 2012

Censorship vs. Responsibility - As the Web Exploits a Violent Suicide

Of late I've written much about two concepts, censorship and freedom -- specifically freedom of speech -- and especially in relation to the Mideast and a particular anti-Islamic video.

Events today force me to add two more concepts to this list -- responsibility and hypocrisy. And while today's associated news is utterly unrelated to the Mideast, it is very much relevant to what we've been recently discussing.

This afternoon, FOX News was indulging in what has become a standard eyeball-grabbing fare, a live helicopter chase of a prolonged, high-speed police pursuit.

Though it's well understood that the unspoken motive in these displays is the hope for some sort of dramatic ending, when the driver actually stopped and emerged from his vehicle, FOX (we learned in their after-the-fact on-air apology) inserted a five-second feed delay into their broadcast, presumably so that anything especially gruesome could be prevented from airing.

They failed miserably.

Apparently sensing what was about to occur, the panicked FOX anchor yelled repeatedly for his control room to break away, but fascinated as they were with what was transpiring, control was asleep at the switch, and well over a million viewers were treated to watching a man blow his brains out in full color on their big screen TVs.

FOX afterwards apologized profusely -- and I believe sincerely -- admitting that they had blown it big time.

Apology accepted.

But this actually is only the beginning of the story.

In the hours following this drama, sites around the Web lit up with predictable condemnations of FOX News for showing the death, and more generally for airing the chase in the first place.

Criticizing FOX News is like (no pun intended) shooting fish in a barrel -- and it's usually very well deserved by FOX. And condemnation of TV's fascination with high speed chases is practically a meme unto itself.

But a remarkable thing happened on some of the major Web sites engaging in this orgy of FOX bashing. Even while on one hand they loudly noted FOX News' faults in exquisite detail, many of these sites also posted and promoted the explicit video footage that they condemned FOX for airing in the first place.

The hypocrisy inherent in this situation seems not to have been entirely lost on these sites' editors. In some cases they've now released long-winded explanations and excuses of why "after much internal soul-searching," they've decided to publish the video -- after all "it's news," they claim, "it's educational."

Yet it's clear enough what's actually going on. Anyone who happened to capture that FOX footage could upload it to YouTube or various other venues, but when major Web sites engage in such behavior we know it's all about the eyeballs and the clicks.

Their claims of diligent deliberations ring as hollow as the faux-discussions in the satirical 1976 film "Network," where TV executives argue the ethics of killing off an erratic news anchor, live on air.

It's as if one spent years arguing against bullfighting, and then published and monetized the last few recorded moments of a hideous, bloody encounter in the bullring.

Unfortunately, the collateral damage of such behavior by major Web sites may go far beyond hypocrisy.

By behaving in what is essentially a duplicitous manner, by not showing even a modicum of self-control, they provide ready ammunition to those forces arguing for government-imposed crackdowns on Internet content and the horrendously ill-conceived calls for censorship that are part and parcel of these forces' sensibilities.

And while we know that Internet censorship cannot ever be entirely successful, it can certainly cause a lot of people a great deal of grief, even landing some in shackles and cells.

You'd be hard pressed, I believe, to find many persons more dedicated to Internet freedom of speech than I am, but freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility -- it does not mean carte blanche dispensation to exploit tragedy and wallow in false editorial self-righteousness while simultaneously counting the ad clicks.

Perhaps there's another old, oft-forgotten concept that needs to be appended onto the list, along with responsibility, besides hypocrisy.

That concept is shame. For if some of these sites looked at themselves honestly, at how they've behaved in this case and what the possible negative impacts of their behavior could be, they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.


Posted by Lauren at September 28, 2012 07:08 PM | Permalink
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