Agents Of Change


In the fall of 1963 the instant replay arrived as television highlighted the scrambles of the Navy quarterback Roger Staubach. Within weeks the nation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald over and over again. Poniatoff’s machines, installed in stations all over the country, had arrived just in time to turn the events of the sixties into a repetitious nightmare. A few weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy greeted a visitor to his home with the words “Hi, come in. We’re just watching my brother’s funeral on TV.”

PONIATOFF’S creation has helped change our sense of experience, by making it repeatable and editable.

By the time Poniatoff died, in 1980, Ampex was a half-billion-dollar-a-year company. But his engineers had been tube men, unfamiliar and uneasy with the world of transistors, and Ampex had licensed its tape technology to a rising Japanese company called Sony in return for Sony’s developing a smaller machine. Sony introduced the videocassette, while Ampex, used to selling only to radio and television stations, floundered in the new markets it opened. By 1972 Sony and other Japanese firms had already put Ampex to rout, just as the home market was about to open up. By the early eighties the Japanese home video-cassette recorder stood as a symbol of America’s economic decline.

But Poniatoff’s creation had helped change our sense of experience and especially the public experience of history by making it repeatable and editable, completing changes begun by phonograph, film, and audiotape. To see films at home, reduced in size but available on demand, both demystified them and made them objects of almost universal study. Not long ago Gene Kelly expressed amazement at the interest VCRs had created in the movie musicals he had starred in years earlier; they had been designed to survive for only a season or two at most. Old films were becoming more and more part of a common heritage, a language shared by a society that had lost many other mutual frames of reference.

Few Americans have noticed that the videotape business Poniatoff’s machine made possible has become a $15 billion industry. That’s more than twice the box-office receipts of the Hollywood feature-film business, the original American dream factory that now exists in part to feed the home machine.


He was called the Muhammad AIi of Arizona for his combative courtroom style but was celebrated only by other local attorneys, who often showed up in court to watch him in action. Then a public defender and the American Civil Liberties Union brought him in to argue the case of Miranda v. Arizona . The half-hour he spent before the U.S. Supreme Court one spring afternoon in 1966 helped change forever the debate over law and order.

The man on whose behalf he nominally spoke was languishing in a Spanish-style state prison in Florence, Arizona. Ernesto Miranda had confessed to rape and kidnapping and had even signed a statement that said he was aware of his legal rights. But since he had not specifically been informed of his right to counsel, the Supreme Court ruled, he had been deprived of due process. The wider consequences of the decision, which actually dealt with four cases raising related issues of the rights of the accused, were as much symbolic as practical. No one could show that police procedure really changed very much, but the decision, the Miranda warning, and the Miranda card became a focus for the debate over law and order.

There was a certain irony in Flynn’s involvement. A decorated Marine, he had gone AWOL in the Pacific during World War II—to return to the front. He had served as a prosecutor as well as a defender in Arizona, and when called into the Miranda case, he had had no ambition to change the nature of American law. But Miranda’s name became part of the language, as did the very phrase “You have the right to remain silent.” The card’s language was taken almost verbatim from the Court decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose references ranged as far afield as the Code of Hammurabi and the English Star Chamber.

The decision arose in the context of police third-degree practices that had long been a target of reform. You have only to read of the interrogations undergone by pre- Miranda fictional detectives—Philip Marlowe, say, in The Long Goodbye —to get an idea of the excesses of police practice at the time. But documenting the extent of those excesses, or the extent of change after Miranda , has always been hard.

The reading of a Miranda card has served nightly on American movie and TV screens to dramatize the contradictions at the heart of our system. The chase is followed by the collar, the suspect spread-eagled against car or alley wall, and then, all of a sudden, the grudging warning: “You have the right, you miserable —, to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. ...” The warning provides an absurdist caesura, a parenthesis in the action that sums up the paradoxes and, to many, the absurdities of the American system. It emerged from a whirlpool spun by tides both of desire for law and order and of pressure to end the days of back-room police tactics.