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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Is Andrew Meyer tomorrow's LonelyGirl15 or the next Rodney King?
That's the question this media critic wrestles after watching YouTube and a video clip-hungry news media turn the prankster-activist into a global star - thanks to a few minutes of magnetic video showing Meyer tackled and Tasered by police at a Gainesville public forum.
The clip was inescapable on TV and cyberspace Tuesday, starting with Meyer's emotional attempt to ask pointed questions of former presidential candidate John Kerry. As he exceeded his allotted comment time, police tried to escort a screaming Meyer from the building, struggling with him physically until he was forced down and shocked.
Forget about coverage of another presidential candidate - Hillary Clinton - talking about her newly released health care plan. Or detailed reporting on a fatal shooting in Iraq involving Blackwater security guards.
Instead, cable TV news in particular seemed addicted to Meyer and O.J. Simpson, veering back and forth between clips of the student's Tasering and bleeped audio of Simpson's confrontation with sports memorabilia collectors in Las Vegas like an alcoholic weaving between two favorite watering holes.
"I figure this is the first time anyone's been electrified at a John Kerry speech," cracked Tonight Show host Jay Leno Tuesday night, launching the first of three jokes on the incident. Both the Washington Post and the Miami Herald highlighted Meyer's screams: "Don't Tase me bro'! Don't Tase me!"
Watching the media excess, I couldn't help thinking: This is the birth of a new kind of celebrity.
Let's call it YouTube-rity.
The ranks include androgynous Britney Spears fan "Chris Crocker," a blond, makeup-wearing fan who cobbled together a YouTube video crying over the criticism of Spears' disastrous MTV awards show performance.
After drawing more than8-million hits, Crocker surfaced in news stories around the world, appeared on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live and now reportedly has a development deal for a TV show.
Another charter member is Caitlin Upton, the Miss Teen USA contestant whose answer to a question about why 20 percent of Americans can't find Iraq on a map included: "I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uhmmm, some people out there in our nation don't have maps and uh, I believe that our, I, education like such as, uh, South Africa, and uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as . . ."
Only 18 and appearing on national TV for the first time, Upton saw her verbal dislocutions played and replayed on NBC's Today show so much, they eventually let the teen on the show to prove she wasn't quite the bubblehead she seemed.
Over and over, TV news outlets and blogs note how popular the clips are online - a defensive, jokey justification which seems to say We're only showing you this because people are already watching it.
Once upon a time, popularity of a video clip on YouTube was just a reflection of widespread general interest - like the widely viewed images of American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar. Now, YouTube interest brings news coverage, as the mainstream media cranes its neck into cyberspace to see what the kids are watching these days.
And so, horrific as it was to see police Taser a guy when at least five officers already had him in hand, I watched Meyer's struggle and thought of Crocker and Upton. Is this what people are willing to do to become a YouTube-rity today?
Just another prank?
Two things fed this notion: Meyer's own pranks, including an online clip showing the journalism student holding up a sign saying "Harry dies" at a busy traffic intersection when the last Harry Potter book was released.
And the speed at which Meyer's own Web site fed the frenzy. As he was cooling his heels in a Gainesville lockup, friends added links to video clips and stories about his arrest on Fox News, NBC, the Miami Herald and elsewhere - hyping a protest Tuesday which drew upward of 100 students.
Even the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union was taking a cautious stance, decrying the Tasering and calling for an investigation while stopping short of saying definitively that Meyer's free speech rights had been violated.
After all, Tasering aside, shouldn't forum organizers have the right to eject someone who repeatedly disrupts their discussion - or ask police to handle it, if the guy gets physical?
Just as I was wondering when Meyer might get his own development deal, an e-mail landed in my in-box from Paul Levinson, chairman of the media studies and communication department at Fordham University, comparing the Meyer video to footage of motorist Rodney King's beating by a score of Los Angeles police officers in 1991.
To Levinson, the video accomplished two things: alerting a worldwide audience to a serious overreaction by police, while forcing media outlets to focus on a story the audience decided was compelling, almost before news editors did.
"It's putting the origin of these media frenzies in the hands of the public . . . a very democratizing event," he said, speaking by phone from New York. "The value of YouTube is in taking these decisions out of the editors' hands. It's letting the people at large decide what are the important stories. I wouldn't want that all the time, but in this case, it seems to have worked."
News or distraction?
As I write this, Meyer hasn't yet spoken to the press; his lawyer read a statement essentially denying it was a publicity stunt, though some news accounts say Meyer handed a videocamera to someone just before the confrontation began. More and more it seems a provocation which spun out of control, thanks in part to police overreaction.
I want to hear from Meyer. Does he see himself as a Michael Moore-style provocateur, blending activism and journalism in a new way? Or is he just another, gutsier version of the guys who stick Mentos candies in full Diet Coke bottles to watch them fizz?
And as someone who earned a few page views on my own blog by featuring Meyer's video, I wonder how this addiction to YouTube-rity will distort the news process and pull us journalists away from news which really matters.
Matthew Felling, editor of CBS News' media blog Public Eye, may have summed it up best in a posting Tuesday: "Congrats Andrew. You, your behavior and your footage has ended up derailing the news media from covering the stories you find more important."
Meyer's only consolation: Before long, we'll have another YouTube-bred sideshow to fill the blogs and cable news channels.
Unless, of course, he gets Tasered in front of a camera again.