Gawk of the Town

How many times have you seen the video of a school resource officer (SRO) in South Carolina manhandling a female, high-school student in a manner so shockingly rough it recalls a take-down choreographed for a World Wrestling Federation show? Ten times? Fifty? A hundred?

Your answer mostly likely will depend on which network - or how many -- you watch. It's been everywhere on cable and broadcast newscasts for a week, impossible to miss even if you were only tuning in for hurricane coverage or stock market updates. If you sought it out on social media, I can only conclude you're addicted to news porn.

That's what it has become, one of those clips with which news outlets don't merely invite us to gawk at but compel us. It's become even more common now that virtually nothing happens that someone doesn't capture it on his or her phone. And even if something escapes video recording, we're likely to see video "like" it. Just the other night, ABC World News, lacking video of the actual fireball of a high-school lab experiment gone explosively wrong, substituted file footage of chem-lab fireballs that had been recorded. (At least it was real. ABC is so fond of using movie clips as news illustration, we were lucky not to get a clip from Darkman.)

Without meaning to, I saw the Carolina take-down clip five times in a single NBC Nightly News broadcast a couple of days after the incident occurred. Five times in the space of a minute or so. It happened so fast, I couldn't get to the remote.

Sure, it's video we all needed to see, a fresh addition to a growing body of evidence that the men and women we authorize to keep the peace too often respond to petty infractions with much greater force than seems reasonable necessary.

But the endless replays cheapen the incident, reduce it to the level of a "funny" home video of a kid's misguided skateboard jump or a bad-hop baseball to some church-league shortstop's groin. It's not as if some narrative-changing nuance is going to reveal itself to us on 17th viewing.

Once, when I was covering the electronic media beat for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, I was doing the legwork for a profile of a local news anchor who appeared bound for network glory. I hung around his station for a couple of news cycles, observing him at work. I knew I had started to see the world through TV eyes the afternoon I joined a stampede to the control room to watch incoming video of an elephant in a zoo collapsing heavily to the ground like a giant grey sack of potatoes. There was cheering - this would make the 6 p.m. broadcast, be part of the tease - and it was contagious. I joined in.

So, I do get it. But that was spontaneity, not news judgement. It doesn't excuse re-showing jolting or freakish video well past the point of newsworthiness, well past the point of clarification. It doesn't justify the porno-fication of news.

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