The Media Circus
Rolls Into Town

by Roger Richards
View from the City Desk

A true picture of how media-saturated our world has become was revealed to me a few weeks ago on the streets of Washington, DC. A call had gone out around the nation for anyone who was pissed-off at the IMF, The World Bank, The Gap, Benetton, McDonalds, and/or Elmer Fudd to show up with a gas mask and a ninja suit for a big street party. Last November, previously un-allied groups showed up to protest against the World Trade Organization's talks, in Seattle, WA. It turned into a wild, free-for-all riot that paralyzed the city for several days. Some of these people who came to town were planning The Seattle Riots, Episode 2: D.C. 

At the appointed time on the appointed day the pilgrims showed up. For me, the big shock was seeing how many cameras were covering the event. The number of photographers, still and video, almost equaled the protesters. Most of the photographers were not professional news people, but rather, voyeurs and thrill-seekers armed with the latest photo and video toys. There were videographers shooting for protest websites, film students, pseudo-photojournalists and the disposa-camera lot. 

Among the protesters was a particularly obnoxious group of anti-everything anarchists, who dressed all in black with hoods over their heads, and exhibited a fondness for beating up innocent trash cans and fences. At one point they even bum-rushed two police officers they had outnumbered. Then they kidnapped a poor dumpster that was simply minding its own business in an alley. They shoved their captive down the street, followed by a band of photographers who were tripping and stumbling all over each other, trying hard not to get run down by the human-powered dumpster. "Where are they going with this thing?" "I dunno, just keep moving maybe we'll get some good shots of them lighting this mother up." "Watch out for my foot, #@%&!!" 

Around the corner the dumpster and its crew went, coming face to face with MORE photographers lined up. They had been standing in the cold and wet for hours, waiting for some action. The place lit up with strobes like Oscar night, and the anarchists came to a sharp halt. A barricade manned by police was preventing them from getting to their intended dumpster relocation point: the plate glass window front of the IMF building. There was anticipation in the air. Fresh rolls of film were hastily loaded. Pepper gas bottles were leveled and aimed, and gas masks were pulled on. A cry went up from the group, something along the lines of "F**k the police," and the charge was on. 

The photographers got the worst of the gas. Not that they could possibly be missed, there being so many of them. One old guy near me got a shot of pepper gas right in the face and I thought he was going to check out. Fortunately for him, the roving first aid teams organized by the protesters got to him quickly. Turns out he was a tourist in town and just wanted some excitement. Nothing like a kisser full of gas to fire up the adrenaline. 

The same scene was repeated again and again, over the course of two days. Although, the police kept things under control, and most of the protesters peacefully exercised their first amendment rights. 

I cannot help but reflect on how much has changed in my profession. In the past, events like this would have been photographed by photojournalists and videojournalists, with very few of the public shooting film. Now, everyone is involved in the media circus, including events that once made ordinary citizens think twice about becoming involved for safety reasons. I had the sense that a lot of "camerapeople" didn't feel the situation was real, until they were gassed in the eyes or cracked on the head with a policeman's nightstick. For them, it was just like watching television. 

Roger Richards is a staff photojournalist at the Washington Times in Washington, D.C. He is the editor and publisher of the multimedia website Digitalfilmmaker.Net.

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