CNN Monkeys Around

Three times between Thursday 30 March 2000 and Friday 31 March 2000, the Cable News Network (CNN) broadcast a two-and-a-half-minute long report on the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) by the self-avowedly "light-hearted" CNN correspondent Jeanne Moos. Introduced by this text --

NEW YORK (CNN)-- Surveillance cameras make some people feel safer. Others feel like their privacy is being intruded upon. But for a group of performers in New York, the surveillance camera is an important prop. The actors depend on the cameras to capture -- and convey -- their street performances.

-- the piece also appears on CNN's website.

Based upon her team's coverage of the SCP's St. Patrick's Day performance, Moos's report was supplemented by interviews with passersby, shots of and video taken by surveillance cameras, and assorted highlights from the SCP's video compilation, a copy of which the group gave her. To the extent that it focused on the SCP, Moos's report was quite adequate, and did indeed get "most" of the story (Moos's name sounds like "most," a fact that she cleverly exploits). The report quoted Bill Brown, who was unimaginatively described as being "into personal freedom," as if it were a hobby and not a constitutionally guaranteed right. Bill was quoted as saying that an SCP performance is an instance of the group "temporarily seizing and diverting the surveillance apparatus and using it as if it were our TV station." Unlike the pieces run by National Public Radio and City TV (CBC Toronto), Moos's report was clear on the fact that Bill is not alone in this Quixotic fight against surveillance cameras, and that he leads a group of people who share his desire to fight. Moos's report also included several very good-looking excerpts from several SCP plays, including 1984, You are being watched for your own safety and "the CNN parody" Headline News, which Moos spelled out in some detail (she even showed and described the board from the play that reports that the "Local News" is a "devilish Mayor Giuliani"!).

But from any other perspective, Moos's report was pretty useless. Other than its perfunctory references to "privacy," the report provided no context for the SCP, for why the group is doing what it does. There were no interviews with spokespeople from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York City Police Department, which operates the cameras, or the Mayor's office -- the latter a tremendous oversight, given that the SCP's St. Patrick's Day performance took place at City Hall. Though she made it clear that the use of video surveillance is widespread and rapidly increasing, Moos fiddled for far too long with the secondary issue of whether people know they are being surveilled or not. She spent no time at all on the deleterious effects widespread and rapidly increasing surveillance is having on people and their basic rights. Moos mentioned none of the highly publicized cases in which surveillance cameras have been exploited or abused, though her report did open up with surveillance shots of a man undressing in a locker room. But, all told, the most telling omission was the absence of the last two boards in You are being watched for your own safety, the play that Moos's crew videotaped: the ones that proclaim NO MORE INVASIONS OF PRIVACY and NO MORE RACIAL PROFILING. The absence of the latter was especially galling, because the entire play was performed on that day and in that place -- in the wake of the police murder of Patrick Dorismond, yet another unarmed black man -- so that this one board could be shown.

Moos's report concluded with a very strange bit in which Moos herself, claiming to be "inspired" by the SCP, gets people in her mid-town Manhattan office to hold up SCP-style boards in front of the surveillance cameras that are installed there. Though other reporters have been quite sympathetic to the SCP, Moos is the first to mimic the group in this "monkey see, monkey do" way. It clearly suggests that CNN, more so than any other news organization, is open to manipulation. (Note well what Alexander Cockburn has reported: during the NATO bombing of Serbia, the United States military, under the guise of "advising" and "consulting," placed several psychological operations agents into the offices of CNN central in Atlanta, so as to make sure that the official lie, er, line was never deviated from.) Composed of three boards, with one word per board and one board per camera, the message spelled out SEE NO EVIL. As in the three monkeys that "Hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil"? Evidently so. Translation: WE ARE INNOCENT, or perhaps WE REFUSE TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT EVIL AND MAY THEREFORE PRETEND TO BE INNOCENT WHEN IN FACT WE ARE NOT. In either case, it is the wrong message to be sending Big Brother, or, rather, it is the wrong message if you, like the SCP, are very serious about and deeply committed to defending our collective and individual rights to privacy, anonymity and public assembly. But Moos was just monkeying around. Given enough time at a word-processor, she might write Shakespeare!

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

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By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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