Blowing the Whistle on YouTube

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Michael De Kort has a face made for YouTube. He's not especially handsome, his on-camera demeanor is not especially polished, and his choice of subject matter — refitted Coast Guard ships — is not especially compelling. But De Kort has become the online video-sharing site's latest media peg, thanks to his hijacking of the technology for use as a whistle-blower megaphone.

A former Lockheed Martin contractor, De Kort became frustrated when he couldn't get attention for his complaints about alleged security flaws in the Coast Guard patrol boats — he insisted that they created blind spots for the boat's security cameras. So he took his case to YouTube. And even though his testimony has only netted thus far a modest 8,000-plus viewers, he did generate media coverage and — finally — a response from the government: The Coast Guard says it will investigate De Kort's claims, while Lockheed insists they are baseless. "Anybody with a webcam and something to say, regardless of whether it's true or not, can say it on YouTube," complained a Lockheed spokeswoman. This is, of course, the same charge leveled against bloggers and other amateur newsgatherers; and one could argue that is precisely the point.

In this particular case, De Kort's lack of tech savvy works for him — a flashy presentation of his bare-bones case would make his video look like a PR tool rather than an earnest documentary. And his mere presence makes the video more immediate than a faceless blog entry would be — it's an original production, not a series of cut and pasted snippets from elsewhere.

That said, aesthetics are not the same as evidence, and the style of his presentation doesn't give us any concrete reason to believe him. One suspects that the apparent authenticity of his video will be studied by real PR professionals, who will apply the same seemingly do-it-yourself techniques on clips generated from the boardroom rather than — as it seems with De Kort — from the kitchen.

In this new age of mass access to mass communication the viewer or consumer has to decide what to believe, because there is no longer much power in getting to decide what to publish. If De Kort is right, Coast Guard boats have video blind spots, but citizen-observers in the new mediasphere should be just as wary about their own.