Life, cameras, action: When is it all too much?

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When I was in high school, the more imaginative history teachers would ask us to conjure what it would have been like if the Sermon on the Mount was filmed or Caesar had included embedded journalists during the crossing of the Rubicon. OK, the teacher never actually used the word "embedded," but the idea was the same, and the scholastic exercise was one of the most fun we kids ever had.

Nowadays there's no need for such visual stimulation: Practically everything is "caught on tape," as it were, and the results are at times enlightening, sometimes unsettling and occasionally icky or ignominious.

Recent weeks have driven home more forcefully than ever just how impossible it is to escape the camera -- in life, in politics or, in one high-profile case, even in death.

Whether there is more light or truth revealed as a result of the ubiquity of lenses is an open question.

Although an untold number of Pakistanis captured the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on their cell phones, I'm betting that, just as in the much less photo-documented JFK shooting, they'll still be debating how she died and who killed her for years to come.

As for the icky on-air, I'd vote, this week anyway, for Fox's upcoming reality show "The Moment of Truth," which prods people to reveal unsavory things about their families, members of which get to cringe in the audience. Scheduled post-"American Idol," it probably will manage to become a big hit.

For ignominious, the last best example is a posting, now removed, on MySpace, where a couple of 14-year-old girls from Southern California get their kicks by beating up another girl -- and having their friends film it.

This, too, is user-generated content, and if ever there were a case to be made for regulation, this would be it.

There also have been other recent camera-unready incidents that are enlightening, including one that might become historic in the same way that the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate was.

Depending on whether she wins the nomination, Hillary Clinton's misty moment in New Hampshire might go down as a pivotal turning point in this grueling presidential campaign.

Responding to a question from a voter about the rigors of the campaign trail, Clinton teared up as she discussed how passionate she was about politics and how much she has invested emotionally in the race for the White House.

Partially as a result of the writers strike, the campaign has become the most dramatic and entertaining series on TV these days, and reporters on the trail did indeed make much of this impromptu performance, though most interpreted it as a sign of the candidate's incipient meltdown.

As it turned out, voters, especially women, saw it differently. And the episode, however calculated it might have been -- she is a Clinton after all -- propelled her to the Democratic primary win in that state.

Clinton wasn't the only one who inadvertently found herself at the center of a revelatory moment during that heady week.

Not that anyone bothered to write about it, but watching Katie Couric leaning in to listen to her political experts Jeff Greenfield and Bob Schieffer on the night of the primary was painful. Talk about preferring change over experience: Judging from that evening, the CBS anchor is having a hard time projecting the requisite gravitas in these complex exchanges.

No matter how practiced one is in front of it, the camera speaks volumes, and it's not always what one wants to hear.
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