If you haven’t heard, Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) is the new Internet meme.
Two younger men, claiming to be college students, approached Etheridge on the street as he left a meeting. They asked if he supported Obama’s agenda. Etheridge demanded to know who they were, manhandled one of them, then finally walked away. Although he succeeded in disabling one camera, the other camera was rolling. After some editing, he became a You Tube sensation.
This is a very clear-cut case.Some are speculating the two "students" were trying to trap a Democrat in an embarrassing situation. In this case, the motives don’t matter. The two men were on a public sidewalk. They had every right to be there, cameras rolling or no.
Etheridge wanted the two men to identify themselves. However, this is a courtesy, not a right. When I was reporting, I always identified myself. I told my sources my name, the name of the publication I was working for, and, usually, the subject of the story I was working on. A few times I flashed my press pass, but usually nobody cared. Such courtesies lend credibility, but a journalist isn’t required to disclose any of that.
What did these two men say? "We’re two college students working on a project." Credentials like that will get you the brush-off about 99% of the time, and for good reason.
So what’s an appropriate brush-off? Say "No comment," then keep on walking. Make an excuse, like you’re late for another appointment, and keep walking. Hand them a business card and tell them to call you some other time.
Or, just answer the question. The question was whether he supports Obama’s agenda. The answer, of course, is, not all of it. Etheridge represents the second district of North Carolina, and the president does not. Since they’re both members of the same political party, there should be some overlap, but two representatives from adjacent districts who are members of the same party will disagree at times. Assuming they aren’t letting the party dictate everything to them.
Saying that takes less time and effort than grunting "Who are you?" a half dozen times and manhandling someone. And if they really are students, it gives them the material they need and they’ll leave you alone. If they’re political operatives for a rival party, it shuts them right down.
I started in journalism school a long 15 years ago. You Tube was a technical impossibility then, although it was something we expected would exist someday. Back then, the saying was that you should never do anything you wouldn’t want to see plastered across the front page of the New York Times.
There was another saying too. Freedom of the press is for those who own one.
A lot has changed. Today you can buy a video camera that fits in a shirt pocket for $70. Every computer sold in the last 8 years came with at least basic video editing software. And anyone can upload to You Tube.
Anyone can register for a blog and write whatever they want, and Google will index it. The overwhelming majority of it will be ignored, but there are legions of bored people out there. Never underestimate their ability to find stuff.
In 1995, there were serious barriers to entering journalism. Today, the traditional institutions like the New York Times are losing influence, but anyone who wants to practice journalism can do it.
I guess the saying today ought to be "Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the home page of You Tube."
Cameras can be used to restrict freedom and privacy. But they can also be used to prevent (or at least expose) abuses of power. This is still pretty new stuff, and a lot of people are having trouble adjusting to it.
Etheridge is trying to spin this as a mistake made at the end of a long day. That sounds plausible. But it’s a mistake that’s going to be around a long time. He’s up for re-election, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his opponent will use it in political advertisements from now until November.
Until this week, Etheridge looked like an automatic re-election. But video footage of an authority figure going all WWF Smackdown on two young men after asking a simple question has a way of changing things.