The Camera Is Always Watching

The Internet is helping citizens play "gotcha" with the press.

Aug. 21, 2007 — -- They are the scenes many reporters would like to forget but will never live down: news bloopers in live shots, unexpected surprises on air and Freudian slips.

But the viral spread of information has at times turned these humorous or embarrassing on-air moments into a new form of accountability. These moments live on the Internet forever and remind and reinforce the idea that a few seconds on air can have everlasting consequences.

Michael Scott, a veteran television reporter of nearly three decades, knows firsthand the impact that a few seconds of live television can have. While interviewing a reptile wrangler, a gecko jumped on Scott causing him to go into hysterics for several seconds — arms flailing, falling to the ground and rebounding in an attempt to get the creature off the front of his body.

"When that happened, I had been in the business 25 years. I had covered earthquakes in L.A. and since I've covered tsunamis. I lived on the street as a homeless person in Denver... This cannot be all about the gecko. There's more to me than that," Scott told i-CAUGHT.

At the time, Scott was working for a Dallas television station, which posted the clip on its Web site. The video got so many hits from viewers around the world that the site crashed. Almost five years later, Scott, who is now the anchor at ABC affiliate WAAY in Huntsville, Ala., takes his Internet fame in stride.

"There's a lot of good video out there of reporters, anchors ... saying things they maybe shouldn't have said," said Scott. "You've got to remember, there's always a camera there."

But not all on-air slips are posted online just to elicit laughs and giggles. Sometimes they are posted to make a larger point.

Media watchdog groups like the conservative Newsbusters and the liberal Media Matters regularly post examples of what they see as bias in the media.

"Our goal at Media Matters is to hold the media accountable, and the best tools at our disposal are showing what's actually happening in the media," said Karl Frisch, director of media relations at Media Matters.

For Media Matters, the posting that really hit home was a clip of Don Imus insulting the Rutgers University women's basketball team. During a show that was broadcast on both MSNBC and CBS Radio April 4, 2007, Imus referred to members of the team as "nappy-headed hos."

A controversy erupted after the clip was posted online -- by Media Matters, bloggers and keen-eyed YouTubers. And despite repeated apologies, the comment cost Imus his job and has led to a lawsuit for libel, slander and defamation by Kia Vaughn, who plays center for the team.

"I think a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think that if it was just written that Imus had said this, if we didn't have a picture proof of the dumb thing he said, it would not have had the impact on his career that it did have," said Ken Auletta, media critic for the New Yorker magazine and national best-selling author.

But sometimes the criticism might not aways be fair. This month, a clip of MSNBC's Chris Matthews talking to business reporter Erin Burnett made its way onto dozens of Web sites. In the clip, which by now may have been seen by more viewers online than on the air, Matthews asks Burnett to "get a little closer to the camera" and calls her a "knockout."

Some have suggested that Matthews was leering at Burnett, but MSNBC said that Matthews was only making a joke about the odd camera angle and strange lens being used in the shot. "As frequently happens once video gets on the Internet, it was taken out of context and incorrect assumptions were made," MSNBC Vice President Jeremy Gaines told i-CAUGHT.

Added Auletta: "This is a complaint that we've heard for years from people in public life, and not just in politics or government, but in business and sports and everywhere else. They say, 'Why do you in the press play gotcha?' Well now what's happening is that people are playing 'gotcha' with the press, and we don't like it."

Online, these clips can take on a life of their own. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but what happens when the picture won't go away? Is it fair to judge an entire career based on one mistake?

"When I walk into a new newsroom," said Scott, "maybe a third of the people will have this big grin on their face, and then I'll go, 'Yes, I'm the guy. I'm the lizard guy.'"