Amateur footage makes the news -- Regular people like George Holliday, who captured the Rodney King beating on video, are contributing to new reporting

Shortly after midnight on March 3, a 31-year-old plumber named George Holliday was jolted out of bed by blaring police sirens. He grabbed his new home video camera, pointed it over the balcony of his Los Angeles apartment, and began filming what would become the most famous amateur video in America. Holliday’s black-and-white footage showing a group of white police officers furiously beating and kicking a prone black motorist was aired repeatedly on newscasts, throughout the country, triggering a wave of public outrage and prompting a federal probe into police brutality across the nation.

”I knew it was going to be an important video while I was taping it,” Holliday recalls, ”but I had no idea just how important. I just kept my finger on the button and kept shooting.”

Holliday wasn’t the first video buff to have his hobby on the evening news. Over the years, amateurs have taped airplane crashes (Sioux City, Iowa, 1989), earthquakes (San Francisco, 1989), riots (New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, 1988), and revolutions (in Romania, Lithuania, and China since 1989). In fact, the most famous such footage dates back 27 years: On Nov. 22, 1963, a Dallas dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder aimed a home movie camera at a presidential motorcade and recorded the assassination of John F. Kennedy. ”There have always been eyewitnesses to news,” says Earl Casey, managing editor of CNN’s domestic news desk. ”The difference today is that we’ve got electronic eyewitnesses. They can actually play back what they’ve seen.”

Some time ago CNN and several other news services began running ads with 800 numbers, trying to court amateur newshounds like Holliday by offering $25-$500 per tape used. Not all the responses have been genuine scoops — ”We get a lot of chihuahuas playing pianos,” says Casey — but occasionally red-hot news does arrive over the transom. Says Lionel Chapman, executive producer of ABC’s The Koppel Report: ”We’ve actually given camcorders to civilians in countries where the press can’t get access. In some totalitarian states, that’s the only way we can get pictures.”

There’s a nice little irony at work here: Big Brother’s high-tech surveillance gadgetry turns out to be his own worst enemy. Armed with a handycam and a couple of battery packs, just about anyone can play reporter, ferreting out corruption or capturing criminal acts on tape.

Does this mean America’s Most Horrifying Home Videos will soon be appearing on a network near you? Probably not. Only about 2.5 million Americans own camcorders (about 10 percent of households), so the odds of actually getting newsworthy footage are still pretty slim. Even Holliday admits his newshound days are numbered. ”I’ll probably never have another experience like that one,” he says. ”It was a one-in-a-million sort of thing.” He pauses. ”But I take my camcorder with me wherever I go, just in case.”