Is there anybody out there?

In the early hours of Wednesday, 14 March 2001 (3:55 am Eastern Standard Time), ABC's national television network aired a two-minute-long piece on the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) as part of its World News Now program. "Well," says anchorman Derek McGinty, who clearly did not write the words that he's reading, "you can find a group opposed to just about everything these days: meat, fur, urban sprawl, breast-feeding, ugly streets, spam, UFO secrecy, speed bumps, Brittany Spears, even, dare we say it, television. In New York, there's a group that's anti-surveillance. So we sent Barry Mitchell out to watch them."

This introduction is really quite atrocious. Apparently ABC News doesn't know that, these days, most protest groups aren't opposed to everything, that is, to the totality of contemporary society. Most groups are opposed to specific aspects of contemporary society. (The SCP is such a group.) As it turns out, with the sole exception of breast-feeding, all of the things put into McGinty's mouth are obviously worthy of opposition. But the viewer isn't supposed to be struck by the realization that there are a great many things that need to be opposed -- so many, in fact, that it is worth considering the option of opposing this society in its entirety. Nor is the viewer supposed to evaluate the relative importance of the things to be opposed, to say, for example, that Brittany Spears is less of a menace to the public health than meat-eating. Instead, the viewer is supposed to think, "There's a whole class or category of people who are opposed to something. In fact, there's so many of these people that, no matter what you come up with, someone will be opposed to it." In this way, the importance of each of the various struggles is utterly trivialized.

In a glaring instance of bad journalism, Barry Mitchell's piece does not in fact focus on a group of people in New York who are anti-surveillance. It focuses exclusively on one person, Bill Brown. It never mentions the Surveillance Camera Players, and the name never appears on the screen, despite the facts that Bill always identifies himself as a member of the SCP, and that a moment or two of the group's 11 March 2001 performance of God's Eyes Here on Earth is included in the piece. In a particularly dishonest shot, the board that says SURVEILLANCE CAMERA PLAYERS is consistently framed so that the last word is cut off. Though World News Now is a late-night news program, not a comedy show for the whole family (right?), Mitchell edited out the "controversial" parts of God's Eyes Here on Earth -- that is to say, he ignored the entire play, except for the parts in which the performers point at the surveillance camera.

In another instance of bad journalism, Mitchell's piece doesn't discuss or even mention the existence of the walking tours of heavily surveilled neighborhoods that Bill leads every Sunday, despite the fact that much of the footage in the piece was obviously shot on a walking tour of some kind. (The viewer sees Bill speaking about the map he's made to a whole crowd of people, each member of which is holding a copy. These moments are in fact the only good parts in the entire piece, mostly because Bill is allowed to speak at some length about the absence of relevant information on the subject, without being interrupted or upstaged.) And so, Bill -- someone apparently without any affiliation whatsoever, neither with a group nor with a project of his own -- is just some guy who's got a problem with surveillance cameras. One fails to see the news in this news story.

Unfortunately for the viewer, a good sound-bite or two does not a two-minute-long piece make. And so, with all the subtlety of his pancake make-up, Barry Mitchell cracked a few "jokes." After a hotdog-stand vendor explains that surveillance cameras make him feel safe, Mitchell asks, "Aren't you wanted in ten states, sir?" and then laughs at his own wit. After a woman explains that surveillance cameras are quite common in her native England, he asks, "What's there to steal in England anyway?" and once again laughs at his own wit. In two instances, Mitchell is shown actually disrupting the walking tour. In the first, he calls out, "Hi, Katie! Hi, Matt!" -- a reference to two well-known "personalities" who work for a rival national TV network -- while Bill is trying to talk about the surveillance camera that is capturing and displaying the images of everyone on the walking tour. In the second instance, Mitchell starts off by saying, "So, Bill, there are all sorts of hidden cameras. I think I've found one." (In the background, you can hear Bill, trying to keep the discussion on point, say, "Hidden in plain sight.") "Yes," Mitchell goes on, "in the placard that says 'Men's Suits.' Do you have a hidden camera in there?" The man holding the placard doesn't smile, hardly even acknowledges Mitchell's annoying presence. And yet this bit was included in the final version.

By far the most unprofessional moment in the piece is the ending. As Stanley Mieses relates in his excellent radio program on the very same walking tour that Barry Mitchell attended, the zany ABC-TV reporter failed to interest anyone on the tour in singing "I always feel like someone is watching me" while Mitchell held up an SCP-style placard that said "Smile You're on World News Now." (Bill says that he remembers one voice asking Mitchell, "Why would we want to do that?") After the tour was over, Mitchell tried again, and finally got two women in their twenties who weren't on the tour to do the bit with him. "You know what's sad?" Mitchell says after he's done singing. "I think more people are watching this security camera than are watching us at home." And with this sad remark, which one would think only someone on a community access show would be so unprofessional as to say, the piece ends. "I don't know," giggles the silly co-anchor of World News Now as it returns to broadcasting live; "he might be right." He as in Mitchell, not as in Brown, who by now has been completely forgotten about.

Note: on Tuesday 1 January 2002, the SCP received the following e-mail, which, though not signed, appears to have been written by Barry Mitchell himself:

While doing a search on the Internet, I found your group's reaction to ABC's piece on the SCP... and I must say... you simply don't get it. ABC's World News Now is indeed a news program... but it's not Dateline, it's not 60 Minutes, and it's not 20/20. It's irreverent, fun, and engaging. Proof of that is that Barry Mitchell (who, by the way, is NOT a reporter, so much as a commentator or a personality) performing the "World News Polka" on Friday mornings. Professionalism is in the eye of the beholder, and overnight news is a completely different ballgame than primetime or evening news. Lighten up, will ya?

Too starved an argument for our swords, this e-mail merits no further commment from the SCP.

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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