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Hey, Look at This!

By Lavender June 30, 2011

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While reviewing the University of Minnesota Press’s Larry Millett mystery books recently (Lavender, May 21), I was so intrigued by his historical knowledge of things Twin Citian and Minnesotan that I explored his Lost Twin Cities; Twin Cities Then and Now; and Strange Days and Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era, which made me consider our modern-day news policies.

The Speed Graphic camera reigned in the American press from the 1930s through the 1950s, its large format presenting incredible clarity and detail in grisly homicide shots that were at that time displayed front and center in the news. Newspapers today show less gore, but the trend is back, and rife on the Internet.

“Watch: Two Horrific Crashes at Prestigious European Race” is typical of the little inserts inviting one to view mayhem and death. Ubiquitous technology and instantaneous dissemination, a populace armed with phone cameras and camcorders, now ensures that everyone can be a bearer of ill tidings, great or small.

A few decades back, at the trial of Dan White in the San Francisco City Hall assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, one glimpsed the inner courtroom spectacle only through court artists.

Now, in the currently hot Casey Anthony proceedings—a mother accused of murdering Caylee, her 2-year-old daughter—everything is broadcast live, the public either viewing, or at the courthouse fighting for a seat.

A few centuries back, crowds would walk from miles around to attend grisly public executions—and no doubt still would, given the chance.

I’m not arguing for the suppression of information, rather for a personal consideration of how one receives and disseminates information—and with what intent.

In early June of this year, a graphic video was displayed of the corpse of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, mutilated and killed while in custody by Syrian security officials. Outrage? Necessity?

In 1955, when the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi, was returned to his mother for burial, she insisted on an open casket viewing, intentionally permitting press photographs. She stated that the shocking image of her son’s battered face “demonstrated what racism looked like.”

Our ability to broadcast everything, watch everything, confers great power, but demands commensurate responsibility and caution lest we become simply a nation of mindless voyeurs and ghouls.

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