A transit cop shooting a New Year's Eve rowdy, face down, in Oakland, Calif. turned into a national story thanks to YouTube, long before local newspapers and TV stations caught up to it.
On New Year's Day, after a fight on a BART train, police pulled Oscar Grant and others off the train at the Fruitvale station near Oakland's airport. Witnesses with cell phones and videocameras captured Johannes Mehserle, a police officer for the BART rail system, in the act of shooting Grant. A local TV station ran one of these clips Sunday. But Grant's death wasn't widely reported until cameraphone footage was posted until Tuesday, sparking protests in downtown Oakland Wednesday night which turned into a riot.
The reason why is clear: Another death by cop in America's inner cities, rendered in bloodless black-and-white text, would go unremarked by readers. But the video, which shows Mehserle, seemingly unprompted, reaching for his gun and shooting Grant, is chilling. Mehserle resigned Wednesday.
BART officials first claimed there was no surveillance tape — then said they'd discovered one that didn't show the shooting incident. Even that evidence was impounded as part of the investigation, leaving the witnesses' YouTube clips as the only record.
Was Mehserle reaching for his Taser, as some suggest? We still don't know that and other key facts.. A vibrant local news industry might have done more on the story before the Internet made it big news. But Oakland, which has one local paper, the Oakland Tribune, run by a chain known for cost-cutting, is emblematic of the increasingly wide swathes of America which go uncovered by proper journalism.
It's easy to celebrate mediarogue, the YouTube poster who some might call a "citizen journalist." But isn't it disturbing to think that, as easily as it became a national scandal, Grant's shooting might well have disappeared into the morass of mind-numbing clips offered on Google's online-video schlock factory — a death unnoted by our fickle, impatient minds?