Fox News Aired Live Car Chase That Ended In Suicide
Not exactly journalism.
The Fox News Channel, in the course of following a car chase live in Arizona, on Friday broadcast the apparent suicide of the man who was being pursued by the authorities.
The network anchor at the time, Shepard Smith, apologized to viewers after returning from a sudden commercial break. “That won’t happen again on my watch, and I’m sorry,” Mr. Smith said, clearly shaken by the circumstances.
The broadcast immediately spurred scrutiny about the network’s tendency to take car chases live during its daytime newscasts. Mr. Smith, in particular, has developed a reputation for his colorful play-by-play coverage of such scenes.
Mr. Smith had been following the chase, then switched to other news, including the violence in Syria, before returning to Arizona as the man being pursued pulled his car over. “Looks like he’s a little disoriented or something,” Mr. Smith said as the man ran down a path.
The Associated Press reported that the chase may have been provoked by a carjacking, adding that “It wasn’t immediately clear if the man survived.”
The man left the car, then stepped a few feet off the path into a grassy area and pulled a gun out of his right pocket. He pulled the trigger and fell face-first to the ground before Fox cut to Mr. Smith, who was leaning forward and saying to his producers, “Get off, get off, get off, get off it.” He raised his voice and said again: “Get off it. Get off it.”
A Fox spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the network would continue to show such chases.
After the incident was over and Fox News Channel had returned from a commercial break, Smith said this:
“Well, some explaining to do. While we were taking that car chase and showing it to you live when the guy pulled over and got out of the vehicle, we went on delay. That’s why I didn’t talk for about 10 seconds. We created a five-second delay as if you were to bleep back your DVR five seconds, that was what we did with the picture we were showing you so that we would see in the studio what was happening five seconds before you did, so that if anything went horribly wrong we’d be able to cut away from it without subjecting you to it and we really messed up. And we’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on TV. We took every precaution we knew how to take to keep that from being on TV and I personally apologize to you that that happened.
“Sometimes we see a lot of things that we don’t let get to you because it’s not time appropriate. It’s insensitive. It’s just wrong. And that was wrong. And that won’t happen again on my watch. And I”m sorry.”
Buzzfeed and Mediate both immediately posted about the story, as did other high traffic websites devoted to sensationalism, and included the video of the incident, including the suicide itself. I’m not going to link to either one of them because, well, if you really want to go find a video of a guy shooting himself in the head, you can find it quite easily. Quite honestly, I think both web sites deserve condemnation for posting the video of a person’s suicide as traffic bait, and I’m not going to do it here.
Politico’s Dylan Byers posts responses from some of the websites that posted the video:
BuzzFeed spokesperson Ashley McCollum:
Making an editorial decision on how to cover a sensitive, tragic news event like this is never an easy one. But it is, indeed, a news event and we are a news organization. We posted both an edited version and the full version and we respect our readers’ judgment.
Mediaite spokesperson Jen Glickel:
Mediaite focuses on the way news is covered and this is clearly newsworthy in that world. In fact so much so that this could change the way cable news networks cover unpredictable and dangerous live events. Furthermore, the internet is different than television. With a live television event there are risks that an unsuspecting viewer will turn on the tv and suddenly be subjected to a horrifying image. On the internet, however, a user will have made a concerted decision to watch the video despite our large warnings about the graphic nature of the content.
Raw Story is one of the websites that didn’t post the video, and I like their comment:
Do you need to watch a man blow a hole in his head with a weapon to learn that he did it?
Every 13.7 minutes in America, someone takes their own life. According to CDC statistics, about 30 percent of women and 56.3 percent of men who commit suicide do so with a gun. A gun is the most fatal method for those who attempt suicide.
Do you need to watch a car chase to know that one happened, and that it was likely futile and certainly dangerous?
… In our estimation, the news story wasn’t necessarily that there was a car chase, that it was dangerous or that it resulted in a fatality — those things happen more or less every day. It wasn’t that a fellow American and fellow human took his life — which also happens every day. It was that he did so with television cameras following him (an apparent risk factor), and that those stations following him aired that footage of his suicide in violation of what are long-established cultural norms.
As I see it, Raw Story is right, and Mediaite and Buzzfeed are wrong. There is absolutely no news value in a video of a man shooting himself in the head for reasons that we cannot possibly fathom. Regardless of who he was or why he did it, he suicide is a tragedy that whatever family he has will be dealing with for quite some time. They don’t need to have the moment of his death become an Internet meme. In some ways, this story reminds me of the story of former Pennsylvania Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer who, in the midst of an investigation into corruption in his office, held a press conference on January 22, 1987 and proceeded to pull out a gun and shoot himself in the head in front of a full bank of cameras from all of the state’s major news stations. Several Pennsylvania television stations broadcast taped coverage of the suicide later the day, and there was much controversy about the appropriateness of this action.
I tend to take Shepard Smith at his word that the airing of the suicide was not intentional. Obviously, whoever had control over the delay button in the production booth did not act quickly enough to prevent the scene from going live. However, it’s worth noting that this would not have happened if FNC had not been airing coverage of the car chase to begin with. These types of scenes are apparently quite common on local news in areas like Los Angeles, but I cannot understand at all why it’s considered newsworthy enough to air on a news network that broadcasts nationwide and around world. Unless the person in the car happens to be a famous athlete, there’s not really any reason that anyone in America should car about a high speech chase in California or, in this case, Arizona.
What this is, of course, is just another example of what’s wrong with the whole cable “news” culture. They’ve got to fill up their time with something, and I suppose you get more viewer attention with footage of a guy driving at high rates of speed through residential neighborhoods than you do from a sane and rational discussion of the problems facing this country.