Despite the everyday nature of 24 hours news television and the mass public murder/suicide of 9-11, we continue to be shocked when ugly life happens on air. The latest outbreak of outrage occurred today, when Fox News was forced to apologise for showing a suicide following a live car chase in a Phoenix suburb.
Shep Smith was on air providing explanation and context for Fox News viewers in the god voice as the camera rolled, when the suspect went berserk at the end of the chase. Once out of his car, the man staggered around like a hunted deer in the spotlights fleeing from police and the incessant roar of the helicopter above. This might have been the moment to end live coverage but instead the camera kept rolling and Smith struggled with the interpretation for viewers at home. “I would just- he is looking rather erratic, isn’t he?,” said Smith sounding less godlike by the second.
While the cornered man on screen ran out of options, Smith continued the broadcast filling pauses with ums and dunnos and oh mys. Well, it looks like he’s a little disoriented or something…” Smith suggested. Desperate to re-assure viewers this could never happen to them, he invented a motivation: “it’s always possible he could be on something.”
Utterly helpless and hopeless, the man reached for a gun and killed himself. After a second, the video jerks back to the studio. There is the strange sight of Smith issuing repeated cries “get off” for six seconds. Each call is more urgent than the last, until he shouts one final “GET OFF IT”. He turns away from the camera before they finally break for an ad claiming to be for “mesothelioma families” – Call Now 1-800-444-Meso – but is actually for lawyers.
When he returned Smith didn’t apologise for the fake ad but there was extraordinary grovelling for airing the suicide footage. “We’ve got some explaining to do,” began Smith. With the “we” Smith spread the blame across the organisation. “While we were taking that car chase and showing it to you live, when the guy pulled out of the vehicle, they went on five second delay. So that’s why I didn’t talk for about ten seconds,” he said. “We created a five second delay as if you were to bleep back your DVR five seconds, that’s what we did with the picture we were showing you. So that if we would see in the studio five seconds before you did, so that if anything went horribly wrong, we’d be able to cut away from it without subjecting you it.” Smith paused before adding “And we really messed up.”
That they were continuing to mess it up was shown in the strange editing error that followed immediately afterwards (36 seconds into the video) that makes a double-voiced Shep say “I am all very sorry”. Shep said the footage “didn’t belong on TV” but he didn’t explain why. Instead he worried about the internal systems that failed to keep the content out. “We took every precaution, we knew how to keep that from being on TV,” he said. “And I personally apologise to you that is what happened. “
Looking to the side rather than direct into the camera, Shep continued: “Sometimes we see a lot of things we don’t let get to you, because it is not time appropriate, it’s insensitive, it’s just wrong.” He turned back to face the camera. “And that was wrong. And that won’t happen again on my watch and I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll update you on that guy and how that went down tonight on the Fox Report.” Smith repeated he was sorry and then set up his voice for the next story: “Now, the attack on…” It is 24 hour news after all and the show must go on.
Despite Smith’s hopes for “his watch”, a lot of people weren’t going to wait for the Fox report to see “how it went down.” Smith’s patriarchal protection of his audience might have worked 10 years ago but not any more. He must have known the footage would go viral. Gawker were quick off the mark publishing a link (with caution) to the original footage via Buzzfeed and also to Smith’s on air apology.
The first Gawker commenter picks up an obvious problem: “I’m confused. If they went to 10 delay, how did the suicide end up on screen anyway? I don’t understand Shep’s explanation,” Scout’s Honour said. It was five seconds not ten, but Scout’s point holds up. Wrapped up in narrator mode, Shep overplayed his hand and took six full seconds after the death to realise they had “gone too far”. In panic, he takes another five seconds to realise someone has pressed “dump” button out of the broadcast. So we get the strangeness of him shouting at someone to get rid of the delayed footage.
It was a category error on several levels that asked many questions of Fox and 24 hour news. Car chases are popular time sinks for the networks and easy to follow from a helicopter. While one chase unfolded on air in 2009, Smith quipped about the energiser bunny and how he had enjoyed this type of entertainment for many years. So after Buzzfeed, Gawker and others pounced on the mistake, it was surprising to hear several journalists blame the messenger. The Columbia Journalism Review tweeted, “Who’s worse? @FoxNews for airing the suicide, or @BuzzFeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?” while Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa asked “Why is Buzzfeed sharing a suicide video?”
Al Tomkins in Poynter answered both questions when he picked up on the hypocrisy of the apology. Tomkins wanted to know the guidelines for broadcasting chases. “Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story?” he asked the broadcasters. “What outcomes are you not willing to air? Why? How do you know the worst possible outcome will not occur?” It is unlikely any broadcaster has pondered too deeply on this or about Tomkins’ other concerns about car chase coverage: motivations, truth, consequences, tone, safety nets, training and time of day. Broadcasters show them for the same reason they show the 1-800-444-Meso ads: they make money.
Tompkins said he was not an absolutist and there are situations when chase coverage is useful for people near the scene. His unspoken argument was they served mostly commercial ends. “These are humans involved, struggling with their lives as we transform them into “stories,” he said. “They are humans, they are not ratings points.” But as long as there are ratings points, we will have to put up with the occasional pious homily about live deaths.