A few years ago, I wrote a book on the history of the visualization of warfare. I traced the evolution of pictures of warfare, from Stone Age cave paintings to the then most current imagery–video from the Bosnia war. At the close of the book, I speculated on whether we were at the end of history of visual technology. Reporters were then, in the middle ’90s, able through satellite video feeds to show war “live from Ground Zero,” a phenomenon that had been first made common during the 1991 Gulf War. I wondered whether a final evolution in war visualization would be when cameras in the helmets of soldiers would show us war live, as it occurs. I failed to predict one of the most significant modern phenomena of the “Internet-digital-satellite” age in which we live, and that is with YouTube, the Internet, and cell phones, almost anyone can report a news event, live, before traditional journalism musters its apparatus to cover a story. We saw and heard this happen with the South Asian tsunami, the London bombings, the Virginia Tech shootings, and many more examples. In other words, if it is true, as Washington Post publisher Philip Graham put it, that “journalism is the first draft of history,” then citizen journalists with cell phones are creating the first visual draft of journalism.

In terms of politics, citizen or cell phone journalism (or Nokia Journalism as GW Professor Steve Livingston wittily put it) has two distinct effects, only one of which will be noticeable at the Democratic and Republican conventions.

First, once upon a time, politicians used to be able to give one speech to a particular audience and then drive 100 miles and give a conflicting speech to another audience and have a reasonable assurance that no one would uncover their dissembly. The camera and the recording device made this more difficult. Edward R. Murrow’s famous destruction of Senator Eugene McCarthy was largely made possible by showing film of McCarthy changing his story about his allegations of communist infiltration of the United States government. But now, everybody in a room watching a politician speak is a potential news network. Think the “macaca moment” for now ex-Senator George Allen and Barack Obama’s “bitter” remark.

At the conventions, where everything is scripted for a national audience, the only cell phone moments we’ll probably see are in the corners, perhaps a heated argument between an Obama and a Clinton delegate.

But there is another aspect of cell phone journalism, and the corollary rise of the digital camera, that we probably will see. Look at films of the Olympics of previous eras: athletes marched in, in precision regiments. Now, in the parade of nations, athletes saunter in, waving to the crowd, but also taking pictures of themselves and others with video cameras and digital still cameras (which allow you to check to see if your got a good shot, unlike film cameras). More interesting to me is when they show crowd shots or reaction shots of audiences at the Olympics: One sees lots of people taking photos, such as for example the parents of champion divers and runners. Now anyone who knows the slightest bit about photography chuckles when they see someone take a flash picture from a 1,000 yards away with a snappy pocket camera. What doubly amuses me is that, especially for parents of star performers, they could just leave the video equipment at home and buy the NBC DVD and get much closer and smoother images of the subjects, with better sound and fewer jitters as well. I am a parent, too, and I understand the compulsion to get our own imagery of our children doing everything, but in a public event, the professionals will do a much better job.

I’ll be interested to see at the conventions how many delegates are distracted from waving signs, cheering, clapping, and singing because they are busy trying to be amateur photographers.

Originally posted August 26, 2008 at PolicyByBlog

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