Surveillance Camera Players

on National Public Radio

SURVEILLANCE CAMERA PLAYERS -- Rick talks with Bill Brown, the founder of the Surveillance Camera Players. The Players are a group of people concerned about the increasing number of surveillance cameras that seem to be popping up in public spaces. They have banded together and present short plays in front of these surveillance cameras in order to make a political statement about their opposition to the practice of public monitoring. They've already presented Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi"... and next week [on 15 April 1999], they'll present a version of George Orwell's "1984" before the cameras in Washington Square Park in New York City. Rick takes a tour of the park with Bill Brown, and they discuss how the Surveillance Camera Players stage their plays, why they've picked the pieces they've staged, and what they hope to accomplish with this form of artistic protest. (4:30)

The above is National Public Radio's own description of Bill Brown's appearance on the NPR show Anthem, which aired on Saturday, 10 April 1999. This description bodes well for a good show: its tone is professional, serious and respectful, and its content is relevant, clear and unmuddled by irrelevant concerns. Unfortunately, the show that NPR ended up running -- click here to hear it -- was superficial, pretentious, muddled, and self-satisfied.

There was nothing in Rick Karr's "Anthem" concerning the banding together of a half-dozen individuals who are neither professional actors nor professional politicians for a common cause (this absence allows Karr to pass on the disinformation that "Bill Brown formed the Surveillance Camera Players to encourage New Yorkers to see things his way"). There was nothing in the show concerning the political statement made or intended to be made by this autonomous grouping of individuals. And there was nothing concerning the reasons for staging 1984 (on its 50th anniversary) on Tax Day (of all days!)

So what was in the show, in place of interesting topics such as these? Surely such other relevant topics as New York City Mayor Giuliani's national political ambitions, the supposedly plummeting crime rates in the city and in the nation as a whole, the growth of huge computerized databases, the rapid development of video-surveillance technology and the rapid eroding of privacy rights, right? Wrong. What the show mostly consisted of was the self-satisfied preening of fashion victim Rick Karr. In only five minutes of air time -- if only the show had more time! -- we the listeners to this nationally-syndicated show about the SCP got to hear Rick Karr's meditations on the Puritans; Rick Karr's thoughts on the Puritans' attitudes towards urban centers; Rick Karr's observations about the "new" New York City, which, despite the Puritans' dire warnings, is a friendly, safe place; and Rick Karr's musings on other delightful ironies and twists of history.

When the show finally turned to Rick Karr's interview with Bill, it was (wait for it) Rick Karr who did most of the talking, despite being nearly totally unprepared for the interview (no independent research, no contact with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Police Commissioner's Office or the Mayor's office). Some of Rick Karr's long-winded questions were phrased so that Bill could only answer "Yes" or "No" in response to them. Bill certainly did get a chance to talk during the interview, but the conversation was edited in such a way that most of his broadcasted remarks were limited to half-joking asides -- and to mostly self-depreciating asides about the group's acting abilities. When it came to the central issues, Bill was inaccurately paraphrased or he simply had words that he would never say put in his mouth.

The single most glaring instance of Rick Karr's bad journalism was his report that Bill "readily admits" that, before the imposition of surveillance cameras and a permanent police van upon Washington Square Park, the park was "an open-air marijuana market," a place in which "the homeless hung out [sic!] alongside NYU students." What Rick Karr failed to acknowledge (failed to let Bill himself say) was that Bill is in favor of the legalization of marijuana, opposed to all repressive measures against the homeless, and absolutely opposed to the use of surveillance cameras to enforce bad laws against victimless crimes! (Note that Sarah Richard's article in the right-wing Canadian newspaper National Post also lets stand the repugnant idea that marijuana-dealing and homelessness are and should remain criminal offenses.)

This outcome was quite disappointing to Bill and some of the other Surveillance Camera Players, who had (perhaps naively) hoped that NPR could be counted on to do what The New York Times and others had not done: put together an in-depth and intelligent piece on the group. Ironically, unlike almost all of the many superficial pieces that have been written or broadcast about the SCP, NPR's Anthem show prompted no one to expend the time and effort necessary to get in touch with Bill. This fact doesn't speak well about NPR's audience, which would seem to be like Rick Karr: smug, self-satisfied, and ultimately passive in the face of events he pretends to think are truly horrible.

[Note: On 1 May 2000, Rick Karr wrote to the SCP to say,

Nice response to my Anthem piece on the SCP.

Usually people who feel strongly that they've been victimized by a journalist write to that journalist, his or her editor, or the new organization's ombudsman. Or they write directly to the show or newsgathering organization in question.

Just a little clue, as you seem to be wholly without one.

Fortunately for the SCP, the i-n-t-e-r-n-e-t has created a situation in which people like us don't have to write letters to the editor, which may or may not be published, and, if published, may or may not be published in their entirety. We are our own publishers. As a matter of fact, Karr's typically lame e-mail was actually a kind of letter to the editor of this publication. As you can see, we've decided to publish it in its entirety.

But Karr clearly doesn't like the new era in communications inaugurated by the internet. In a follow-up to his e-mail, he wrote that the new era is simply "one that allows people to sling mud without looking their targets in the eye. Where I come from, that's called being chicken shit." Karr then went on to say, "I'd been warned about you before I did the piece. Now I know why." But too late comes this profound realization. People like Karr should listen well to shadowy warnings at the time they are made.]

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

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