Power of media in the hands of video editors

By Charlie White

In the past few days, there have been multiple reminders of the power of the media. Amplifying that power is the new ease with which Web-based video can be internationally distributed. This power, once wielded by the few who owned the expensive printing presses, is now available to anybody with a camera, computer and Internet connection. That means that more and more video editors will be the ones who solely decide which messages get through and which end up on the cutting room floor. The problem is, many seek this enormous power, no matter how deranged they are.

As content creators, it’s our job to know how to wield that power, how to maximize its impact and at the same time, to practice restraint. Sometimes the government will do the restraining for us, whether we like it or not, even in the US where we have a Constitution that’s supposed to protect freedom of speech and the press. Sometimes the threat of government intervention makes us pull back, weakening our editorial decisions because of fear, thus causing prior restraint, arguably the toughest censorship of all.

The first and most recent example of the power of our medium and the ease with which it can be distributed via the Web was the gruesome snuff flick widely distributed by Islamic extremists earlier this week. The video clip, which is readily available to all those with the stomach to sit through it, is nothing more than an instrument of terror, depicting the beheading of American Nick Berg who happened to be wandering around Iraq at the wrong place and time. As I watched the crudely-produced sequence, perhaps to distract myself from what I was actually seeing my mind wandered toward the technical aspects of this horror show. «Oops, there’s an awfully poor-looking edit,» my DV-centric editing sensibility noted when the speech stopped and the unspeakable violence began. «They left the time counter on,» I thought as I noticed the time jump a few hours. «The sound isn’t synchronized with the video,» complained the director in me. «Wonder what they used to compress this with — Cleaner? ProCoder? It’s only 57kb/sec., looks it, too.» «Were they using Final Cut Pro?… No, terrorists couldn’t be using Macs, could they?… Aren’t they more the PC type?» It was a crude piece of video production, that’s for sure, but even so, it still packed a sickeningly tremendous punch.

Then I had an appalling thought: Did the monsters who produced that video learn any of their video skills from me? Do they visit Digital Media Net? Did they follow my recommendation when I said the Matrox RT.X100 is a good value? Or did they just use Windows Movie Maker? Good or ill, they got their tools, or maybe I should say, weapons, and learned how to use them, too, via the same channels you and I use.

But these people aren’t like you and me. What kind of people would commit such an act, all the while screaming about how God is great? «Allahu akbar!,» they all shouted as the most horrific frames ticked by (sadly, it seems to me like it takes religious fervor to make people feel happy about doing the most horrible things imaginable). All the while, there was the unblinking eye of video, poorly shot and edited as it was, bringing these images to us whether we liked it or not. It was horrifying. But should this video be banned, so that no one can ever see it? Should it be censored because it’s too powerful? No, I think its power is something that’s important to see and feel, to give us a realistic view of what’s really going on. This is the true reality television.

Not nearly as scary but still disturbing was another demonstration of the power of video: Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast-baring wardrobe malfunction, which opened a hornet’s nest of quasi-religious Puritanism, resulting in the current holier-than-thou tournament to see who can censor broadcasts the most. Some simple-minded people think that if they can stop some images from appearing on television, the images’ underlying reality will somehow fade away. These people want to control what we all see, as if doing so will make bad things stop happening. And, they want to be sure no sexual imagery appears in front of their children, because they might be embarrassed by such things and their children might suffer some kind of vague, mysterious and permanent damage. But at the same time, they take their children to see Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, depicting the slow and painful death of Jesus over an agonizing two hours, because that’s «educational,» or «spiritual.» Many of the same people packing the movie houses to watch this blood fest wrote letters to the FCC complaining about that Super Bowl half-time show. They know about the power of the media — they just want that power directed toward their point of view, and they’d like the government’s help in forcing that point of view onto the rest of us. I say, sure, keep the violent and sexual imagery away from children, but let the parents of those children be their media gatekeepers, not the government.

Some people are completely unaware of the power of the media. A prime example was the soldiers who snapped digital pictures of their despicable torture and humiliation of prisoners in Iraq, not realizing that such material would be rich fodder for the morbidly-interested news audience. They missed the point that anytime you record anything — video, audio, stills, anything — it potentially has the power to move others, to persuade those who haven’t seen things depicted so graphically. The most frightening part of that revealing episode of stupidity was, amateurs who have no idea of the power of the media and its vast reach can cause a tremendous amount of damage with a few shutter clicks.

And that’s what we as content creators need to always be aware of, and experts in doing: Holding the reins of that electronic beast. We must ensure that its power is directed exactly where we want it. We are the amplifiers of our message. We always need to keep that in mind as we make our decisions, and at the same time, be wary that if the message we’re creating is evil, then we can make it even more so with our skill. It’s quite a responsibility, this editing gig, where the tools we use, like airliners, can suddenly turn from benign conveyances to weapons in a matter of seconds. Like fire, they can warm those around it or burn them to death. Video incites people to do things they might otherwise never do. So I say, keep a cool head in the edit suite, know that you hold tremendous power in your hands and make the video you cut tell the truth. That’s where the real freedom is. See things as they are, show people reality, and fight anyone who wants you to distort your vision because of their twisted beliefs. You hold in your hands the most powerful instrument of persuasion that ever existed. Use it wisely.