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The Power of Video: From ISIS to the NFL

The power of the media to shape and shift public opinion.

September 23, 2014

Twin Design /

It has always been a chicken and egg type of question. Does the media shape public opinion or does public opinion shape the media?

In this age of Fox News, Huffington Post, myriad blogs and abundant social media comments, the question becomes one of significant social and political importance.

This dynamic was highlighted in the United States over the past month by the release of two videotapes. One showed the ISIS beheading of James Foley and the other highlighted a left hook thrown by Ray Rice to the jaw of his girlfriend, Janay Palmer.

Although each video highlighted a different issue, together they provided a one-two punch in the power of the media to shape and shift public opinion.

Radicalizing American opinion

With the release of the James Foley video on August 19, public opinion in the United States concerning ISIS changed in the blink of an eye.

ISIS went from being viewed by most Americans as a remotely threatening Islamic fundamentalist uprising to being perceived as a band of bloodthirsty barbarians bent on the destruction of the American way of life.

In reality, there may not be much difference between these two positions, except that the videotape brought the ISIS threat home in a uniquely vivid and, yes, barbaric way. And that shift in perception resulted in a near-instantaneous shift in public opinion.

Following the release of the videotape, an almost irrational fear took over U.S. public opinion. According to a CNN/ORC International poll taken less than two weeks following the videotape’s internet debut, 90% of Americans had come to view ISIS as a threat to the United States and, more important, over 70% said that ISIS had the resources to launch an attack against the United States.

As a result, public opinion gave President Obama a blank check to take aggressive action to counter the ISIS threat. The same CNN poll showed 76% in favor of additional airstrikes against ISIS and 62% favored military aid to forces fighting ISIS. Out of this political dynamic came America’s “why” and “how” to intervene in Iraq and Syria.

A “snuff” film forms policy

We now find ourselves in a position where U.S. policy is being prosecuted at its core and in large part based on internet porn in its most lurid form – the proverbial “snuff” film.

You’ll find consensus in the United States that beheading is an unacceptable form of execution. But then, what is an acceptable form of execution?

Are the recently botched executions at U.S. prisons in Arizona or Oklahoma more acceptable? Is a drone strike that mistakenly takes out a wedding party in Pakistan while trying to execute a terrorist more acceptable?

For that matter, is the shooting of a black teenager on a Missouri street more acceptable?

The fact of the matter is that all of the victims ended up dead in an unfortunate manner, but there was videotape of ISIS beheadings and that made it different.

It gave license to politicians and pundits of all stripes to climb all over each other to decry ISIS’s barbarity. The usual militarist suspects in U.S. politics were quick to pound the war drums, saying that President Obama’s proposed response to ISIS didn’t go far enough to counter this hideous threat to American freedom.

An international “freak-out”

Internationally, British Prime Minister David Cameron abandoned his typically effete demeanor and effectively “freaked out” on the world stage, calling for the suspension of basic human rights that have been central to the post WWII geopolitical order.

Just to be clear, the purpose here is not to debate the relative merits of different forms of execution. Nor is it to criticize President Obama’s ISIS policy. Rather, it is to identify the influence of a particular media event on public opinion.

And this particular media event galvanized public opinion in a way that put the United States and its key global allies on an inexorable and potentially relentless course of escalating intervention in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, on the gridiron

Although the rise of ISIS is no doubt a much more compelling matter in most of the world than a National Football League wife-beating scandal, this may not be the case in the United States, where the NFL season is just beginning and there’s excitement in the air.

A star NFL running back, Ray Rice, was caught on videotape dragging his unconscious wife out of an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. The league suspended him for two games. Most people thought he got off light, but nonetheless, “that was that.”

Then came the second videotape and all hell broke loose. This videotape showed Rice’s then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, lunge meekly at Rice, who responded with a near-perfect left hook that sent her to the mat.

Within 48 hours, Rice’s two-game suspension went to a lifetime ban. Considering Rice’s only observable skill is to run with a football cradled in his arms, many deemed this punishment much too harsh, including many of the same people who thought his two-game suspension was much too soft.

None of the facts had changed, however. The first videotape of Rice dragging the limp body of his now-wife out of the elevator and Rice’s confession to law enforcement officers in Atlantic City as well NFL officials that he had hit her were already out there on the public record when he was suspended for two games.

The only thing that had changed was that the second videotape had emerged, where he was seen punching a woman. And Rice’s punishment went from a slap on the wrist to what for Rice is life without parole.

Once again, a particular media event had changed things. The story metastasized from there and lots of dirty NFL laundry was brought into the light of day, including an equally serious child abuse matter involving another star player.

The media enlisted legions of “expert” commentators to opine on the story, ranging from women’s rights advocates stridently demanding a zero tolerance policy to casually misogynistic sportsmen calling for leniency.

And now, the blame is falling on the NFL and its Commissioner for bungling the league’s response to the whole affair. The NFL has become the epicenter of debate on spousal and child abuse in America, even though there is scant evidence that the incidence of these acts in the NFL is any higher than it is in the general population.

Even so, many say this is a good thing, that a national debate on domestic abuse is healthy. And it is. It provokes a Freudian self-analysis for American society that many believe needs to happen.

But again, the point here is not to take sides in this controversy. It is merely to suggest that a single media event – a videotape that showed something happening that everyone knew had happened – brought about a massive shift in public opinion.

Taken together, the impact of these two videos raises questions about the responsibility of the media, because the videotapes in question presented images that produced an entirely visceral reaction.

And such was the power of that reaction that it effectively steamrolled cautious and reasoned discussion on two topics that, given their enormous social and political consequence, deserve cautious and reasoned debate.


Does the media shape public opinion or does public opinion shape the media?

ISIS went from a remotely threatening Islamic uprising to a band of barbarians bent on American destruction.

The NFL has become the epicenter of debate on spousal and child abuse in America.