Two months ago a colleague stormed into my office to complain about my supervision of a graduate student. The student was working on a paper on the aesthetics of Madonna’s video for “Cherish,” and had written about the use of editing, lighting, and visual framing to create meaning and, yes, beauty in the clip. My colleague’s complaint was that I had taken this aesthetic level too seriously, that what I should have done was steer the student toward what really mattered–the clip’s “sexism.”

Analyzing the aesthetics of a Madonna clip and ignoring the “content,” I was informed, was like taking the videotape of Rodney King’s beating and using it to talk about camera angles. My reply (which, typically, I came up with so late that it was only delivered in my imagination) was that of course the camera angles in the Rodney King clip do matter. That was when I started thinking about the dangers of believing in that piece of “evidence.” When a colleague who should have known better assumes that a piece of videotape involves no mediation, no point of view, then you know that something strange is happening. Its meaning was, apparently, transparent. Until the day the verdict came in.

The relationship between truth, justice, and videotape is a tricky one, but in the wake of the beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers, it did seem at first glance to be deceptively simple. For once, the media evidence seemed to be on “our” side. After years and years of complaining that the camera does indeed lie, here were some images the left could believe in: irrefutable evidence, it seemed, of police brutality and racism.

Even before the verdict came in, this attitude made me feel nervous. White folks like me were astonished by the reasoning of the Simi Valley jury. Many black people were, however, less than amazed to discover that a white-bread suburban jury identified with the thin blue line rather than the large black man. As a white person I plead guilty to stupidity for being taken aback by the decision. But as a media critic I’m innocent of all charges: I never bought the argument that the camcorder clip of Rodney King’s beating was sufficient proof of the police officers’ guilt.

The King video clip placed left and radical critics of the media in a strange dilemma: having argued for over a decade that critical media analysis shows the partial and manipulated nature of media representations, some now took the contrary position–that the clip was essentially “true.” Think about this for a moment. It is a preposterous and impossible position. The anesthetized images of smart bombing during the gulf war were in some literal sense “true”; yet we know they also lied by omission. The wallpapering of images of commuter strife in Germany during the recent transportation strikes captured something that actually happened; and yet, in focusing exclusively on the consequences of the strike, without showing us anything of its causes, television once again performed its time-honored role of delegitimizing industrial action.

Now think about the video of Rodney King’s beating. Imagine how that sequence might be started or stopped in different places to create quite different impressions. Imagine how changes in the angle and positioning of the camera could tell us more or less about what occurred. Imagine how watching the clip in different circumstances, with different people, might change the way you view it. Yes, something did really, actually happen out there that night. And I do not doubt that it involved brutality and racism. But the camera didn’t teach me that.

Many people were shocked by the jury’s verdict because it seemed to be clearly at odds with “reality.” Or rather, with a videotaped version of reality. Savvy media critics should not have been surprised at all. The juror who explained her own reasoning by suggesting that King “asked for it,” that he was “in control” at every stage, and that the LAPD officers merely responded to King’s actions just proves what sophisticated media research has been saying. Images are never innocent–not at the point of production (they always embody a point of view) and not at the point of consumption (they can be “read” in different ways). All Orwellian theses about the overarching power of TV (Neil Postman et al) collapse on this point. They assume that TV has terrible powers to frame our views. Instead we discover that a juror looking at a brief segment of apparently self-evident evidence sees something entirely different than what we see.

What does she see? Of course, she doesn’t see what I see at all. She’s a different reader, and what that juror sees on the tape is something that dovetails with her experience, with her attitudes, with her own already available frameworks of interpretation. My colleague was only doing the same thing. And so was I, when I assumed that the videotape made visual what we already knew: that the LAPD was out of control and was riddled with brutal racists.

What did we see in the media coverage of the rioting that followed the verdict? Individuals (mostly black) looting stores. A group of black people beating a white truck driver almost to death. Buildings on fire. What does Pat Buchanan see? Out-of-control rioting that needs a firm hand. What does Daryl Gates see? “Illegal aliens” taking advantage, according to the Los Angeles Times. What does Jesse Jackson see? Years of humiliation and alienation expressed in self-destruction. What does a gang member from Compton see? I have no idea. Some people, driven insane by too much left-think, even saw “the revolution” and thought that it was going to be televised after all.

The most revealing postverdict comment came from a juror who told a radio reporter that the jurors were amazed by the response of the protesters and the looters and might have reconsidered their verdict if they had had any clue that this would be its outcome. Now, that the jury could be surprised by the response is the clue to the whole bizarre reading of the videotape. If you were already so out of touch with urban reality that cathartic anger and violence strikes you as an unusual way to react to injustice, then clearly your frameworks of interpretation are quite well attuned to what we might call the LAPD POV. As the defending counsel pointed out, the trick was to get the jury to view the events from the point of view of the police officers, and not Rodney King.

Common sense seems to say that this is all just words. That when you look at that tape there is a point at which the LAPD police officers cross the line, and it’s clear that they are delivering a beating, not apprehending a suspect. And yet the jury did not see that. It contextualized the images differently. The jurors’ response to their critics was to suggest (as media critics generally do) that the images were being viewed out of context. You had to experience the whole trial, they said, in order to understand what the images really meant. It is no argument at all to respond to this by saying that we don’t need any context because we know what the images mean just by looking at them. That, after all, is precisely the logic of mass-media apologists.

A more credible critique of the jurors’ reading of the Rodney King video is that they used the wrong framework (the LAPD’s, instead of the victim’s) and provided the wrong context. They were, after all, chosen precisely for their competence in that area: this was the basis for moving the trial out of LA and into Ventura County. Those two regions offered very different potential readers of the videotape. The jurors in Simi Valley were “wrong” not because they failed to see the self-evident truth of a piece of videotape, but because of their propensity to read it a certain way.

Liberals, leftists, and antiracists want to pretend now, because it suits us, that our critique of the jury’s decision derives from a superior “reality,” which the camera innocently revealed. But it did no such thing. Arguing the whole case on the basis of the video clip proved to be (literally) a fatal strategy in the courtroom. In the wider arena of politics, radicals are onto a no-winner if they choose this moment to start believing in the simple veracity of mediated images.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.