<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Video Activists Force Change in Mainstream Press
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Video Activists Force Change in Mainstream Press

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a set of moving pictures must certainly account for a lot. That is what video activists across the globe are banking on. In filming protests, human and animals rights abuses, and the lives of people on the fringe they are hoping to bring about understanding as well as social change. PETA is assuredly one of the largest organizations to use video activism to their advantage. Here, a spokesperson tells why it is working.

Interview by Adelaide Eldridge


Listen to or read CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN, or local newspapers. They are mainly voice pieces for mainstream pop culture, mainstream politics, mainstream religion, mainstream economic markets, mainstream ... anything. The late French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote that writing can tell the truth on language but not the truth on reality.

Investigative documentaries were a promising journalistic idea, pointing the way to needed social reforms. They represented the ideal of freedom of speech: the opportunity to affect real social change and reform. With so much injustice in the world, not just on the streets or in alleys, surely exposes should be regularly offered in the press. But they are not.

Exposure of injustices committed toward marginalized groups or unpopular subjects runs contrary to the goals of corporate-run media. In effect, questioning and alternative voices are silenced.

If you wish to gain a broader understanding of the human condition, you need to look where money is not the impetus for the news. One such place is on the Internet, and specifically, in video activism.

While the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination is a rare case of a home movie having such a forceful impact, generally speaking, this process requires more technological savvy than just operating a camcorder. But though practice is needed, certainly the proliferation of inexpensive technology has helped the video activists cause. Thomas Harding's Book, The Video Activist's Handbook, is probably one of the best manuals for getting started in this field.

Human and animals rights organizations as well as anti-globalization protestors have used video activism to visually make their views heard and understood. For example, video activists showed what is really "forever" about diamonds is death by machete in Sierra Leone's civil war, fueled by the intense greed of the US diamond industry. And as you are shopping for leather goods, think of video activists who witnessed the decapitation of live Indian cows -- sacred or not -- to feed the world's demand for leather.

One of the most successful groups to utilize video and streaming audio on the web in order to bring about social change is People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Recently, I spoke to PETA spokesperson Tracy Reiman about the organization's use of these media:

Why do you think so many social causes seem to rely on video activism?

I think it goes back to, if you can see it, it becomes real. You can explain what happens to animals who are killed for food, you can talk about chicks having their beaks seared off with a hot blade, or chickens that are unable to hold themselves up to feed because they've been crippled by forced weight growth. But until you really see it with your own eyes, your brain doesn't necessarily want to allow you to believe it's real. But once you've seen those images, there's no disputing it. Obviously, people can't go down to the slaughterhouse and buy their meat. They go to the grocery store and get their neatly packaged, cellophane-wrapped ground beef that doesn't look anything like the original animal.

Editor's Note: Take a look at PETA's "Meet Your Meat" video and see for yourself.

So, something is insulating them from the ugliness of the industry.

We know that [video activism] is the best way; if people could see what happens to these animals, they would go vegetarian. We see that happening everyday, all over the country.

Since mainstream television still has a larger audience than the Internet, why does PETA seem to favor online video activism?

We would love to rely on mainstream TV to get the images out, but unfortunately, we've been barred from doing that. They simply say that they won't run advocacy ads because it's too controversial, or that it's too graphic. Last year during the Super Bowl, we tried to run a 30-second commercial as simple as can be -- no graphic images. It was simply PETA's singing cows, taken from some old footage. Someone digitally moved the cows' mouths to make it look like they were singing a little song about leather. It was a cute, campy thing and television rejected it. We were prepared to spend the millions to run this thing for the entire world to see, and we were barred from doing something as simple as that.

No advocacy ads allowed? What are political commercials?

As hard as we try, we have had to rely on the Internet. Most recently -- I think this was a kind of breakthrough -- we completed an undercover investigation in Oklahoma into serious abuse of pigs on a hog farm. The farm workers beat these animals. They neglected them. It was horrible. The Washington Post reported the investigation on September 9th, and, in fact, some of the footage was running on CNN Headline News up until the moment of the September 11th attacks. It was a breakthrough that a national television station, albeit cable, was running some very graphic images. I think it was a result of our having worked with them over the years, but also because charges were filed against the farm manager with felony animal cruelty charges. That was only the second time where a farm worker was charged with felony animal cruelty. The first was in North Carolina about a year earlier, where the farm workers were beating pigs with iron bars and other egregious acts of cruelty.

We've recently launched PETAtv, and this has allowed us to give people a peek inside slaughterhouses and on factory farms. In fact, Paul McCartney once said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. The Internet, and in particular, streaming media, has essentially given slaughterhouses, factory farms, and laboratories those glass walls. With a simple click of the mouse, people can actually see baby chicks having their beaks seared off with a hot blade, piglets having their teeth ripped out and their tails cut off, cows being strung upside down and slaughtered while they are still fully conscious. These are images that the mainstream and even cable television stations will never show you because people change the channel when they see images they think are just too graphic.

But it's our job to paint a picture for people, and with the Internet we're actually able to show them what we've been talking about for years. It's been extraordinary and the number of vegetarians has increased dramatically as a result of our being able to get these images into people's homes. Before, if we wanted people to see these images, we would have to send them a video. People would have to ask for it. Now, it is intertwined with our messages and campaigns. PETAtv is not just a website, it's a television station. It's animal rights television. It features shocking, undercover investigations, photo shoots with celebrities, exclusive celebrity interviews, and PETA doing what we do best, which is protesting and pulling stunts to focus attention on animal abuse. It has changing content everyday, so we're able to mix [the investigations] with our more interesting and fun things, so people can get a clearer picture of what we do.

Most people know how common computer image manipulation is. Why, then, wouldn't a person just assume that images on PETA's website are just made up, digitally enhanced, not real?

The things we focus on are things that people do in their everyday life. They are forced to look inside themselves and realize that if this is real, it means they have to make some major lifestyle changes. People don't want to know that [milk-fed] veal calves are a direct result of the dairy industry, because then they would have to stop drinking milk and eating cheese. It presents an internal battle that people go through. It's one of the reasons why people want to instantly say, "it can't be true," because then they have to change. With other things, like the war in Afghanistan, people can oppose or agree with it because they don't have to do anything in their life to change, but with animal rights or vegetarianism, people have to change if they actually acknowledge that this stuff is going on. So it's very difficult. We do recognize that and try to make it easier for people.

Is this medium biased?

I wish I could say that what they are looking at is not real, but sadly if anyone took the time to visit a slaughterhouse, a factory farm or a laboratory, they would see with their own eyes the very sad reality about what happens to animals in these industries all over the country, every single day. We couldn't begin to make up how horrible these acts are against animals. In our work here, there is so much horror. I mean, I know that there have been hoaxes on the Web and I did read about the Supreme Court case that you just mentioned, but we don't have to make anything up. It's too horrible on its own.

This leads to another revolutionary aspect of video activism that is at its very heart and soul: social reform.

[Video activism and] the Internet has allowed us to always (and I'm using vegetarianism again as an example) have a component of what you can do. With any of our controversial or even our soft campaigns, we always say, "If what you see bothers you, take action and go vegetarian." It's simple. Just email or call us. We've got a toll free hotline or you can go to GoVeg.com and you can get a beautiful, full-cover starter kit and guide that explains what happens to animals, how to go vegetarian or vegan, how to do it an easy way if you hate vegetables, with lots of advice, suggestions and cookbooks. Not only can people order it for free quickly by emailing, we also have the full guide online. So you don't even have to wait. It's right there at your fingertips to look at and read. It's fun. It's upbeat, and has lots of important information that helps to solidify why you've made this decision.

The Apostle Paul attributed a person's unlikely conversion as due to a "hardened heart."

I think that for the vast majority of people, if they are not completely hardened to the suffering, there is nothing they can do but be moved by it and want to change. That doesn't mean that they will change instantly, because, again, it goes back to the fact that we are talking about something that people have done their entire lives. Even though I had seen these images, it took some time for me to acknowledge that my continuing to eat meat was continuing to cause hideous animal abuse. So we do recognize that it is difficult for people, although a great number of people do. I mean, we all wish that there were not people who are going to be indifferent, but sadly, there are.

Back to the earlier question about peoples' doubts regarding the images. Over the years, I've observed some people just doubt information obtained from video activism. What logical reason do you think could cause them to question the authenticity of what they can see with their own eyes?

I can understand the skepticism because this is so awful you wonder if this could possibly be real. All I can say is that if people have concerns, they should ask us to send them our videos. Everything that we have on the web, we also have a hard copy video of, like our undercover investigations. We oftentimes have hundreds of hours of video tape taken in laboratories or in factory farms where individuals worked for months and sometimes longer to document the cruelties. We have also filed complaints with the US Department of Agriculture and other government agencies, state agencies, and agencies for violations of state anticruelty laws. We always submit footage of those investigations so it's not just, "we've got a video on the web, check it out."

There is an enormous amount of [textual] information that typically goes along with this [video] information. So if anyone ever does have concerns, [that the information is somehow digitally faked], it can be quickly allayed by simply calling or emailing us for the background information.

After realizing what a dynamic and growing field video activism is, how can people help you?

The best thing that people could do is put these images live on the Internet. Right now, we've just kicked off the first animal rights film festival and we've just put out an alert to college campuses, to film schools, and to independent film makers all over the world asking them to submit short videos with some kind of animal rights theme that will be featured on PETAtv. They don't necessarily have to be from streaming media people. They could be film people or if people just want us to work with them on projects. We have gotten a number of contacts of people who wanted to provide videos or equipment or want to work with us on different videos. We do all kinds of things, from publicizing our protests to celebrity interviews. But also, we put out our controversial commercials, which we haven't been able to run on television.

Largely due to pressure from video activism broadcasts on the Internet, it is clear that PETA's use of video activism and their presence on the Internet is changing television. For example, Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi's, expressed much anguish to the Indian Prime Minister over his country's failure to enforce existing laws that could protect cows.

It may be that they're realizing that people do want this information. [Viewers] don't want to have just the little bits of information that the stations decide they want to provide. But I think it's also because animal rights is becoming a mainstream issue. People really are accepting that animals deserve rights, at least to be free from suffering and exploitation. It's time.

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