Thursday, March 23, 2006

Tangled in tape

We’ve hit one of those troubling moments when technology forces us to make tough choices without much guidance from the past. The head-long slam into new realities came Monday in southern California, where the news media were expecting to see a video showing the murders of two customers and the critical wounding of two others at a Denny’s in Pismo Beach, Calif. The gunman, a homeless man who strutted into the restaurant with a gun in each hand, took his life after blasting indiscriminately for several moments. The suicide, too, was caught on the tape.

This being 2006, and Denny’s being a 24-hour restaurant, the place was outfitted with security cameras. Understandably, the tapes from last Wednesday were turned over to the police, who are still trying to determine what motivated the shooter. So far, it’s a simple and straightforward situation.

But here’s where it gets complicated: The tapes became part of the police investigation, which, several local newspapers argued, makes them part of the public record. And as such, the media asserted, the videos should be accessible to the public’s proxies, the organizations that gather and deliver the news. It’s a matter, they said, of being able to see exactly what happened, and thereby accurately recount a public occurrence to a disturbed host community.

Local police officials agreed that the media had a right to see the tapes. After all, snippets of the 911 calls from witnesses to the shootings were already being played in radio and television news reports.

The authorities scheduled a viewing for reporters. But before the newspeople gathered, Denny’s Inc. convinced a judge to halt the release, at least until the matter could be argued and examined fully in a court of law. The franchisor’s lawyer argued that the tapes focused on gruesome murders, not issues that affected the public’s well-being. “There is…no public interest to be served by airing these videos,” Denny’s explained in a statement widely quoted by the local media—the very papers who were denied access to the tape. “Airing them only panders to the fascinations of those who view violence and gore as entertainment even when it is delivered in a news context. We cannot in good conscience allow this to occur without challenge.”

Superior Court judge Roger Picquet was sufficiently swayed to bar a public showing of the video until a formal hearing could be held on May 4.

But in the meantime, a grave debate will likely grind on. Yes, I’m speaking as a member of the media when I say this, but the public good would indeed be served by allowing local newspapers, television stations and radio programs to view the tape. How can they be expected to capture the news completely accurately if they’re closed off from an official account?

Yet at the same time, you have to feel for the family of Harold Hatley and Frank Valesquez, the two men who were shot dead at the restaurant. And you just know those images will drift sooner or later to the internet, where they’ll be sheer entertainment for the yahoos who watch NASCAR races in hopes of catching a dramatic crash.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing, it will likely be a preview of what we can expect in the months and years ahead, as surveillance cameras become commonplace within the industry. It promises to be an emotional debate, but not a pleasant one.

No comments:

Post a Comment