Fox News Aired Live Car Chase That Ended In Suicide

Not exactly journalism.

Not exactly a great moment for 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.

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FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. LCaution says:

    I agree almost 100% with your assessment. The little bit of difference? I can’t see any reason for airing any such incident live except on a local channel in the area of the chase as a way to alert people not yet in their cars.

  2. Nikki says:

    I have never regretted giving up television news programming.

  3. legion says:

    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.

    Exactly. In what friggin’ universe is stuff like this “national” news? Even the slow-mo chase of OJ Simpson had a nationally-know celebrity involved, but this? There’s absolutely no journalistic excuse for these kinds of things being on networks whatsoever – and I’ll go ahead and cop right now to the fact that this isn’t just Fox’s failing. It’s watching NASCAR for the wrecks, writ large, and it doesn’t say anything good about any of us.

  4. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Lowest common denominator principle.

  5. ernieyeball says:

    When Castro routed Batista Jan.1, 1959 it was two days before my 11th birthday.
    I have a very clear memory of the newsreels on the then 15 minute reports by the networks.
    Castro’s enemies were executed by firing squad.
    No sound. Just white puffs of smoke from the rifle barrels of the executioners as the poor saps fell backward into trenches they had probably dug themselves.
    I have always wondered how the networks got this footage.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    And people wonder how the Romans could have watched people slaughtering each other in the arena….

    This is only news to the locals in the area and it would have been much more productive if the car’s speed and location were being traced out on a map so people could know what to avoid. Otherwise, this is simply a horrible tragedy and the newscasts should be ashamed of posting it.

  7. ernieyeball says:

    …it doesn’t say anything good about any of us.

    Speak for yourself.
    I am not a big fan of auto races but I occasionally tune in and enjoy the competition.
    I am not looking for crashes and I don’t think most of the countless fans at the track or viewing on TV are either.
    Then again maybe we should have banned NFL football because of this:

    While initially only the players on the field could see the extent of the damage to Theismann’s leg, the reverse-angle instant replay provided a clearer view of what had actually happened—Theismann’s lower leg bones were broken midway between his knee and his ankle, such that his leg from his foot to his mid-shin was lying flat against the ground while the upper part of his shin up to his knee was at a 45-degree angle to the lower part of his leg.

  8. Gustopher says:

    At least no nipples were showing, so it’s all good for tv.

    Generally, I agree, there is no need to show this stuff. If the suicide was a political act, then maybe, but there’s no sign that’s the case here.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    There is absolutely no news value in a video of a man shooting himself in the head for reasons that we cannot possibly fathom.

    There is no news value in a car chase. This is nothing more than reality television not news. But in defense of FOX, something I rarely an really hate to do, $hit happens – they had a technician asleep at the wheel – the five second delay was not enough. Not the first time it’s happened and it won’t be the last.
    I saw it. Shep Smith is the a real journalist and started screaming for them to cut as soon as the guy started bringing the gun to his head.
    Since the cable news has become tabloid news this kind of thing is going to happen.

  10. Jc says:

    Call it Karma. See what happens when 24 hour “news” channels do anything for ratings? You set yourself up for a scenario like this. Think of all the stories you could be running on news from around the world, and there are plenty of stories out there, instead we get car chases and Kardashians.

  11. Herb says:

    Not sure I’m buying this delay stuff. I watched the tape. Shep and crew were in a panic I don’t think they would have been if it was on delay.

    Still, very sloppy.

  12. Fiona says:

    When I lived in LA, coverage of car chases was pretty much a weekly occurrence (or at least it seemed that way). I never understood the need for it then, and I surely don’t get the need to cover them on national cable news. Bread and circuses, yes. Newsworthy, rarely.

  13. I cannot understand at all why it’s considered newsworthy enough to air on a news network that broadcasts nationwide and around world

    The reality is that most of the time, there’s not realy 24 hours of news in a given day. Is there really anything else more newsworthy they could have been showing at the same time? What?

  14. Since I don’t watch the car chases, there’s one thing I’ve always wondered: does the car ever actually succeed in escaping? If not, why do people keep trying to escape and making things a whole lot worse on themselves in the process?

  15. @Fiona:

    When I lived in LA, coverage of car chases was pretty much a weekly occurrence (or at least it seemed that way).

    I still associate this kind of coverage with SoCal and LA afternoon news.

  16. @Steven L. Taylor:

    I still associate this kind of coverage with SoCal and LA afternoon news.

    That and people having to be rescued from the aqueduct because there as a light drizzle.

  17. @Stormy Dragon:

    That and people having to be rescued from the aqueduct because there as a light drizzle.

    Another classic.

  18. Just nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The saying in Oregon is that no matter how fast you drive, you can’t beat Motorola.
    @Nikki: Nor have I.
    Doug, good post.

  19. I was reminded of this JibJab parody video from a few years ago:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Q2EPKKVrqI

  20. Steve V says:

    @ernieyeball:
    OMG, I was a teenager when that game happened, and they replayed the grisly injury over and over again. It freaked me out. That, and Napoleon McCallum’s knee injury.

  21. Motopilot says:

    @Nikki: I’m with Nikki… TV news is terrible. Actually, more than terrible. Pretty trashy, actually, regardless of network, national or local… but Fox is “exceptionally” trashy.

  22. Franklin says:

    I agree that a car chase isn’t national news or exceptional journalism, but it’s just like everything else these days: Do viewers tune in? I bet they do. Does Buzzfeed and Mediaite get more hits? I bet they do. Now we can rightfully complain all we want, but someone out there is always going to make a buck by doing something that others won’t.

    That said, Shep’s reaction was immediate and apology was heartfelt, and I still think he is the only good asset at FNC.

  23. MarkedMan says:

    My reaction to the headline was “typical Fox news sleaze” but the description of Smith’s apology made me rethink my position on that. It doesn’t change the fact that Fox consistently shows out and out false information (foe example using two different metrics to measure unemployment rates for the Bush and Obama administrations, among dozens of other examples) but Shep Smith does seem to be in a different category. So – why does he continue to work there? Is it that hard to jump networks? Or does Fox just pay so much more than everyone else.

  24. ernieyeball says:

    @Stormy Dragon: …does the car ever actually succeed in escaping?

    SPOILER ALERT!

    Only in the movies. The Getaway (1972) McQueen/MacGraw
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068638/

  25. Fiona says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I still associate this kind of coverage with SoCal and LA afternoon news.

    Actually, quite a few of them were at night. Good excuse to use the traffic helicopters, I guess.

    Along with rescuing people from aqueducts, another local LA news staple was cars crashing into buildings. And then there were the random freeway shootings, which usually occurred in spring. One of our friends had a bullet go through his car and barely miss him.

    Is it any wonder why I’m glad to be out of that place?

  26. @Fiona:

    Actually, quite a few of them were at night.

    True enough. I was just thinking in terms of the fact that news would start on some channels at 4 or 4:30 go from there.

    I recall a time that there was a bank robbery that lead to a hostage situation and they broke into prime time coverage to show it live because the hostage takers allegedly had explosives (wouldn’t want to miss the chance to show that live on TV!).

  27. matt says:

    @Stormy Dragon: They actually do succeed a decent amount at getting away.