at Fox 5 News

haste makes waste

On a busy day, the article about the New York Surveillance Camera Players' weekly walking tours of heavily surveilled neighborhoods in Manhattan, which was posted to the Associated Press news wire on the morning of Thursday 25 July 2002, would have been ignored. The local TV news stations, which use the AP wire service not for finished stories, but as a source for "new" story ideas, wouldn't have followed up on it. But Thursday 25 July 2002 must have been a very slow day, because not one but two local TV stations contacted the SCP-New York, both asking for an interview and a brief walking tour of a heavily surveilled neighborhood. Later that same day, Bill Brown gave back-to-back interviews and tours in Times Square with Channel 5, the local Fox affiliate, and then Channel 7, the local affiliate of ABC-TV. The Channel 7 piece aired a week later, while the Fox 5 piece aired on the "10 O'clock News" on the very same day that it was produced.

Two minutes long, the Fox 5 piece was an unnecessary, but technically impressive mixture of live and pre-recorded reporting. Though there was no "breaking news" here, no reason to get the story on the air immediately, the piece began with a live report from Bob Di Castro, who was still standing at the spot in Times Square where he'd met Bill Brown hours ago. Di Castro and his team in the Fox 5 electronic news gathering (ENG) van -- a kind of TV station on wheels -- had returned to that spot in time to go live at 10 pm, after spending hours chasing down every single lead Brown had given them concerning good locations to get pictures of surveillance cameras. Then, after Di Castro's live introduction, the piece switched to a pre-recorded sequence, with Di Castro doing a recorded voice-over, as the viewer got glimpses of surveillance cameras from locations all over Manhattan. There was even a sequence-within-the-larger-sequence in which Di Castro talked while being seen in the monitors of a surveillance system (perhaps at a building owned by Fox). All of this had been taped and -- this is the truly impressive part -- edited and produced for broadcast right in the ENG van, not back at Fox's main studios. When the pre-recorded sequence was over, Di Castro went live from the van in Times Square, once again. When he was done, and kicked it back to "the studio," there was more. Over a simple graphic, a voice asked, "Of the following, which do you think is the most surveilled neighborhood in Manhattan: Times Square? Mid-town? Greenwich Village? or Harlem?" And then: "We'll tell you when we come back." After the commercial, and over the same simple graphic as before, the voice repeated the question(s), and then gave the (surprising?) answer: Greenwich Village.

Despite the technological sophistication of its presentation, the Fox 5 view of surveillance was simplistic. It certainly contained very little useful information. For example, it didn't explain that Greenwich Village has the most cameras because surveillance proliferates where there is property worth insuring, and the Village has plenty of it. (Conversely, that's why Harlem has the fewest cameras: it doesn't have a lot of insurable property.) What little information the Fox 5 piece did impart was completely derived from what Bill Brown had told Di Castro, who didn't do any research of his own, didn't try to get thoughtful comments from passers-by, and didn't arrange interviews with anyone on "the other side of the issue" (namely, someone from the Mayor's Office, the NYPD or the Times Square Business Improvement District). And though he was the source of all the information in the piece, Brown only appears in it twice, both times as the source of a single-sentence-long soundbite. (The first, predictably, concerned paranoia, while the second concerned the absence of laws that regulate the surveillance of public places.)

Unfortunately, Di Castro's presentation of what he cribbed from Brown was filled with careless mistakes. For example, Di Castro claimed that Brown gets his maps from the New York Civil Liberties Union -- which is said to be against surveillance cameras for "privacy reasons" that Di Castro doesn't explore or even list -- when he doesn't. Brown makes his maps himself because the NYCLU maps from 1998 haven't been updated since then. Furthermore, Di Castro claimed that "50 surveillance cameras" could see him where he stood in Times Square, and that there are "more than a hundred" in Times Square as a whole. In actual fact, 50 is the number of cameras operated in the area by the Times Square BID, and there were 130 cameras in Times Square as a whole, at least back in May 2000, when the area was last mapped. (There must now be close to 200.)

But Fox 5 also did something right, something good, something to make doing the whole fucking thing worthwhile. They not only mentioned the existence of the SCP's weekly walking tours, but they also put up on the screen the phrase "Surveillance Tours" and the SCP's voice-mail number! You can't buy publicity like that, and here it is, falling into our laps, and totally for free. At least four people called the number right away, or, rather, they were four messages on the machine, all in a matter of minutes: two asking to be placed on the group's mailing list; one person who said nothing and hung up; and one person who wanted to know if there were cameras at an intersection near where she worked.

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

NY Surveillance Camera Players