Unless you have been living in a cave for the past several days, you have likely heard or read all about movie star-director Mel Gibson's drunk-driving arrest and subsequent anti-Semitic tirade. And unless you have been living in a cave for weeks, you've probably also heard and read all about the expletive President George W. Bush uttered at the G8 summit last month ("shit," if you didn't already hear it on CNN) that was inadvertantly caught on video and broadcast (or webcast) to all the world.
At first glance, these stories might seem like the kind of tabloid blather in which American society has been immersed in the recent past. And they are, but they are also the harbinger of a seismic shift in American (and in many respects, global) society. The reason why these incidents, and websites like TMZ.com, which broke the Gibson story, and The Smoking Gun, a similar site, are important is in how they are representative of that shift.
This seismic shift in American and global society mainly involves a new form of transparency in how public figures--and to a certain extent all citizens--go about their business. In this new society, if a movie star overinebriates or a world leader overarticulates, the world is going to know about it--and quickly. In both the Gibson and Bush incidents, the stories were spreading throughout new and old media alike within a few hours, with the images (the Mel mug shot and the Bush video clip, respectively) following soon after.
In this new media climate, a drunk-driving or allegedly anti-Semitic incident by a prominent celebrity is not going to be able to be hushed up, and what should be an embarassing public gaffe by a statesman (although Bush seems incapable of being embarassed by his ineptitude) is not going to be able to be ignored or spun.
This is where exposé sites like TMZ and The Smoking Gun, as well as more neutral portals like Yahoo, Google, and CNN, come in. Gibson's publicist and the White House press secretary are powerless in a media environment in which anyone can read the Gibson police report or view unedited, raw video footage of the Bush expletive. TMZ and The Smoking Gun are not shy about putting out there documents that used to be inaccessible or unpublicized--indeed, it is their raison d'etre. These are, in many cases, the same kinds of documents that journalists have used for decades as source material for these kinds of stories; the difference now is that we don't need a reporter to utilize the documents discreetly while filtering their content--we can read the documents directly.
The explosion of web-based video in the past year has done the same thing for video footage. Yahoo and Google have expanded their video capabilities greatly, and YouTube has in the past year gone from nonexistence to a household name by allowing anyone to post video of (almost) any kind. As a result, we no longer need the network news or even CNN and Fox News Channel to filter and provide video footage of most public events; like the documents TMZ and Smoking Gun make accessible, we can simply view the raw video ourselves.
In the case of the video of some public proceedings, this capability has been around for years. C-SPAN was created for--and continues to maintain--the mission of allowing the American people to view Congressional sessions without mediation and see for themselves the workings of their government. The little-known NASA Channel does the same thing for space missions. (For space-travel buffs like myself, it is thrilling to be able to watch the raw video footage of Mission Control or astronauts in the International Space Station, even when nothing is happening.) Its surprising that we don't yet have a "White House channel" on which the executive branch directly controls its message and provides raw video in the same way that C-SPAN does for Congress. (The White House's presumed preference to have its messages filtered and the problems that would be caused by constant unfiltered exposure of the current president, though, could explain why we don't have this.)
The transparency that this new media climate creates--even if the Bushes and Gibsons of the world may not like it--has the potential to foster a new accountability, and hopefully a new integrity, in public discourse and public governance. A (probably) closet anti-Semite like Mel Gibson will no longer be able to put a happy, action-hero face on his bigotry, or will at least be exposed for his true self and be answerable for his opinions (which may or may not affect his acting and directing careers, but will at least promote a kind of artistic truth-in-advertising). And a free-wheeling, loose-speaking leader like George W. Bush will be forced to more carefully measure his words and his deeds, not (hopefully) in an attempt at image and message control (a.k.a. spin), but rather in an attempt to govern openly, speak honestly, and be held accountable--with the risk of also being exposed if he (or, someday, she) does not.
This much is fairly certain: long gone are the days when studios or publicists could quash stories about the alcoholic or sexual picadillos of popular stars in an attempt to maintain their wholesome images (which happened as a matter of course for decades, especially during the Hollywood studio era of the 1930s and 1940s); stars might actually have to be wholesome (if anyone even cares about that anymore). Also long gone are the days (which we are still in for the most part) when a Dick Cheney can flount with glee the normal standards of accountability for high-profile public servants. Quite the opposite of the dystopic vision of Orwell's "1984," a world is emerging where the leaders are the ones that need to be worried about constant surveillance and the incapacity to express their true thoughts.
This new transparency has its downsides to be sure. One of the ways that we have arrived at this point is through the excessive "tabloidizing" of the media, and this trend is not likely to ebb anytime soon. TMZ and Smoking Gun in some respects are part of the tabloid trend, even though for the most part all they are doing is offering a glimpse at the raw material of celebrity culture. This celebrity culture is itself another downside, and has (in the opinion of this observer) reached an unfortunately torrid and tawdry level. Celebrity worship has spawned an incessant media chatter regarding issues that are so inconsequential as to be mind-numbing (was anyone in the developed world surprised to learn that Lindsey Lohan makes "diva-like demands" and behaves immaturely, for Chrissakes?).
Another, more insidious downside is the possible extent to which this transparency might affect the average citizen. Despite my earlier comment about a bizarro "1984," there is great alarm in the capability of this new climate to rip away the expectations of privacy, obscurity, and candidness that we all have enjoyed (indeed, taken for granted) our whole lives. Already, every semi-public statement any of us have ever made in cyberspace (including the current one by me that you are reading) could be collected, disseminated, and judged. If sources like convenience store or ATM surveillance footage or customer-service voice recordings (purportedly made for reasons of "quality control") ever fell into the wrong hands and added to our "cyber trail," every one of us could face the same transparency and accountability as movie stars and world leaders (albeit, one would hope, at a slightly lesser intensity).
An ultimate effect of the new transparency and the new accountability and integrity created by this media climate might be to compress the differences between you and I and Mel and W. The concept of fame is transformed in a world where anyone can hypothetically be seen by the same number of people whether your moving image is broadcast on the boob tube or uploaded to YouTube. We all may end up getting our proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, after all. So be careful from now on if you decide to get in the driver's seat after drinking or utter swear words at a public function.