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Real Reality Television

It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Television is a confessional medium: we watch shows because we like watching other people commit and repent for their misdeeds. There's nothing American audiences love more than watching someone else own up to their mistakes on TV. Given that our country was founded by religious sects that loved making public examples of penitent people, it's understandable that we have a weird fascination with anyone who's willing to go on television to grovel for the American goodwill.

Save some of that fascination for New York 1, WPIX, WWOR, WCBS and WNYW, five television stations in New York City. Lord knows they deserve it. These stations -- citing competitive pressures and cat-out-of-the-bag reasoning -- all aired explicit videotaped coverage of last Sunday's Central Park attacks. In this case, "explicit" is synonymous with "showing several near-nude victims' faces post-attack."

It is a well-established policy in most news organizations1 -- print, broadcast and online -- not to reveal the identities of victims of sexual abuse. Typically, faces are blurred and names and addresses are not released to the public, thus affording the victims a modicum of privacy even as their assault leads the 6 p.m. news.

Several of the women who were attacked in Central Park on Sunday were, in addition to being surrounded, stripped, beaten or robbed by a roving gang of men, treated to a replay of the event courtesy of five channels broadcasting an unedited amateur videotape of the assaults. WNYW played a clip where one victim, stripped of her shirt by the gang, crouched behind a wall, screaming. Although the channel blurred her breasts -- so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of viewers -- it couldn't be bothered to extend the treatment to her face.

We live in a hell of a world when it's okay to show a traumatized woman cowering from her attackers -- as long as it's a PG-13 show.

WNYW isn't the only guilty party: WCBS, WWOR, WPIX and New York 1 played the unedited tape -- which includes a close-up of two recently-assaulted women's tear-streaked faces -- for two days. New York 1, which received the tape ten hours after it was broadcast on the other stations, ran the thing without bothering to editing it because, as news director Peter Landis said, "We wanted to be competitive with the other guys."

Yeah, they had a fighting chance, what with being only ten hours behind the rest of the news programs.

The channel pulled the tape after three more showings, altering it and issuing a hasty mea culpa later in the day. The other stations which had elected to run the unedited tape pulled their broadcasts by Wednesday afternoon -- apparently all disgusted by the New York Post, which had printed stills from the videotape in the morning edition. Post editor Xana Antunes, displaying the type of reasoning that demonstrates why the Post is not going to be giving the New York Times a run for its money any time in the foreseeable future, said, "since these images were played many times on television, we felt there was little to be gained by altering them."

After all, why bother with taking the ethical high road when you can wallow with your WNYW brethren? That's a negligible gain -- or loss -- for the Post. For the television stations, there's little to lose -- they got to broadcast everything and stay competitive, and all they have to do now is explain that their better instincts were trumped by the heat of competition and oh, gosh, they're so sorry.

Lord knows if my screaming face had been plastered on every channel in New York, hearing a bunch of still-employed news directors carry on about the cut-throat world of broadcast journalism would make everything all better. Uh-huh.

The sad truth is that nobody's going to learn from this. It's not as if New York television viewers rose up en masse and demanded that the footage be removed: so far as most of them were concerned, it was reality TV and they had a right to see it. So long as it's not them on the receiving end of a rampaging mob, show the tape and damn the consequences.

By the time this sorry spectacle is over, broadcasting news directors will have learned one important lesson about their job: they don't have to ask permission, and they don't need our forgiveness.

[1] It's worth noting that WNBC was the exception to this. News director Paula Madison saw the tape and decided to withhold broadcast until it was edited. She explained that competition couldn't drive decisions because it would compromise the public's confidence in WNBC's ability to broadcast news responsibly.


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