The world’s eye on Elkin

By Stephen Harris

December 9, 2013

Now let me get this straight.

A guy from New York City was down here for Thanksgiving, as I understand the story, as recounted in a number of news reports. That evening he stopped in at Walmart. He was in the clothing section and heard a commotion.

He had a camera and started recording video of a crowd some distance away. You can’t see much in the video, but the crowd is huddling around a pile of TVs just put out on sale in the big, wide aisle next to the grocery section.

A woman who fell and those rushing to her aid prompted the disturbance.

The New Yorker quickly sent his video to YouTube, one of those free internet services that offers to display your videos for others to view. I have a YouTube page myself.

The next morning, on a slow news day, about the only news to report was news about holiday shopping. News of the Elkin Walmart video spread like wildfire on the internet, and news outlets began reporting the story.

Someone with the “Today” morning TV show saw the YouTube video and replayed it the following Saturday for millions viewing across America.

By the end of it all the videotaped Walmart ruckus became, by my reckoning, the most widely reported event in Elkin ever.

By nightfall that Friday the flood of news services scrambling for their own information led the Elkin police chief to take the unusual move of leaving with emergency dispatchers a written, clarifying and calming statement on the incident.

The statement countered some early news reports that had suggested a fight had broken out. One website, something called “Business Insider,” parroting a YouTube headline, claimed in big, black letters that “screaming mobs” were at Walmart, though several videos of the incident showed nothing of the sort.

But that’s not all. By midday that Friday the British Broadcasting Corporation, the big TV network in Great Britain that reaches worldwide, had reported on and sent the Elkin Walmart video around the globe.

Instantly, Elkin became known, justified or no, as The Best Little Town In N.C. that’s packed with wild, crazy Americans.

Welcome to the 21th Century. For years pundits have been trying to identify, explain and even warn about the changing nature of news and communications, topics close to my heart.

More and more news is going around faster and faster from and to more and more people. Computers and the internet are leading the charge.

Now we have our own homegrown example. So, some kangaroo rancher near Sydney, Australia, could hear about and even see a ruckus at the Elkin Walmart, thanks to the BBC, even before most of us here in the hometown had heard of it from neighbors, “Today” or “The Tribune.”

The 1940 flood, the biggest natural disaster ever here, with all of its devastation and misery, was widely reported in North Carolina newspapers a day or more after the fact. But I doubt news of the big flood even made it to New York.

In 2013 a lady falls in Walmart and nearly instantly it’s news around the world.

They’ve been warning us about this. Some love the extra attention provided by 21st Century communications, but others have been wondering about a flood of nearly instant, worldwide flow of information. Some are angry about what they call a loss of privacy with it all.

Anyone with one of the new digital cameras — I have one that fits in my shirt pocket — can record an event like someone’s fall in Walmart and nearly instantly put a video or photograph on the internet for all to see at any place in the world.

We’ve come a long way from, say, the famous Battle of New Orleans in 1815 when Andrew Jackson led a victorious charge against the British nine days after the War of 1812 was over. Due to the poor communications of the time, they did not get the news in New Orleans that peace had been declared and America had won the war until nearly two months after the battle.

In the 21st Century no longer does a TV news crew have to ride up here in a van from Winston or Charlotte with bulky TV cameras to photograph the news. No longer does a professional journalist working for a newspaper or other publication have to write your story for you.

You can do it yourself, thanks to computers and the internet. Or somebody, anybody, can or will do it for you, whether you like it or not.

The right to privacy has taken on new attention these days. From cameras in police cars and street corners to National Security Agency metadata collecting to Obamacare hacking warnings to drone surveillance, people are worried about who can know and what can they know.

And if people don’t like where we’re going with this, they also feel powerless to do anything about it. One report said a Walmart Thanksgiving videographer was told to leave when he was spotted recording the ruckus. How old-fashioned. It was a futile attempt at censorship, a desperate example of too little, too late.

In response, you can try and be on your best behavior all the time, just in case somebody is recording. But even if that were possible there still would be no guarantee that something beyond your control might break out around you, like getting caught in a crowd scene at Walmart.

And if all of this might drive you to go and hide under a rock, you’d still be left wondering if somebody has a microphone or camera at your air hole. With internet access.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.