This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore watching television for KCRW and plugging This American Life, long familiar to public radio listeners but now midway through its six-week TV run on Showtime.
Ira Glass and his team have done a great job of bringing the unique charm of the radio original to television, and I recommend it to TAL fans and newcomers alike.
But in particular I want to focus on one short piece from this week's episode, airing Thursday night.
Like everything on the show, this is a personal story, a recollection from grade school 30 years ago by a contributor named Jeff Potter. It lasts no longer than my description will, and it tells of how, one day at a Massachusetts grammar school, a kid, for no apparent reason, took a small cardboard box and made himself a TV camera, with the tube from a paper-towel roll its lens.
Thus equipped with a fake TV camera, the kid began doing fake news reports.
This, we're told, sparked a craze with all the kids, and soon everyone was making a camera, or airing news reports, or serving as a member of a production crew.
Here had sprung up a rash of rival make-believe news organizations.
And then, one day, these fake TV journalists came upon an actual scoop.
Potter, our narrator, tells us that out on the playground, he was startled to see a classmate beating up on another kid -- while surrounding the pair were camera-wielding fake TV journalists "covering" the story, each looking on with a journalist's detachment as one fellow student pummeled the other.
Teachers quickly broke up the fight, then decided enough was enough with this phony media pack. They confiscated the fake cameras, which were never seen again.
Potter recalls: "The camera really changed the way we behaved. We let one of our classmates just get trampled on." And he adds in further amazement, "They weren't even real cameras!"
Well, I don't know if I would go so far as to say this is a cautionary tale. But I think it definitely rises to the level of parable.
It's for sure most of us have our quarrels with the media, which claim some privileged status of professional detachment. They wouldn't stop a good scuffle! Get footage of it, and they're got their lead story for the 11 o'clock news!
But we can't lay this condition solely on the pros. When armed with a camera, who among US isn't guilty of stepping outside of ourselves to view life (and then attempt to capture it) not through our experience but through our viewfinder?
I'm not saying we make a habit of photographing fights and other ugly spectacles without troubling ourselves to intercede. But the cooler and more convenient our cameras get, the more susceptible we are to distancing ourselves from direct experience on the pretext of preserving it. Do we even know anymore how to observe a sight without mediating it with some kind of camera?
Just think of the camera everybody carries built right into their cellphones, firing away, with many of those tiny marvels capable of even shooting video ... video that, if you're in the right place at the right time, could end up on CNN. (Otherwise, it can always be posted on YouTube.)
Hey, we're just like those kids on that playground. We've all got cameras, too. And just cause ours are real doesn't get us off the hook.
Watching television for KCRW, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.