Monday, August 06, 2007

In Pursuit of Oblivion

It is difficult to characterize someone's death as senseless.

But when four newsmen died in Phoenix after two helicopters
collided while covering some low-grade cop chase, the conclusion was
inescapable: four good people gave their lives in an exercise that was as
meaningless as the story they were covering.

The incident occured as police chased a man who had fled a traffic stop.
An armada of five news helicopters swarmed over the pursuit, more resouces
than most TV stations devote to covering city hall in a given month.

It was a media feeding frenzy. And sometimes they can be dangerous.

That's no armchair observation. I became an unwitting participant in one
of these incidents several years back.

I had hooked up with KFWB reporter Jeff Baugh and his pilot at Van Nuys
airport while doing research for a column on traffic in L.A.

Our languid flight over the Southern California freeway network lasted
about 30 minutes before the word came over a police scanner.

The cops were in pursuit of an ex-con who refused to stop because he had a
broken taillight. Soon, we joined the chase.

"I counted 11 aircraft, including two from the police and at least one
fixed-wing plane above the chase," I wrote at the time. "All must have been
within a thousand feet of each other.

"This high wire act was complicated by the fact that the driver changed
directions and freeways at least eight times during the chase, prompting the
aeiral circus to do the same. In the late afternoon sky, visibility was often
murkey at best. This was clearly dangerous stuff.

"There's a curious protocol attached to police pursuits. The pilots
almost never watch the action. They are too busy looking out for each
other. Their position relative to the pursuit is dictated by others
on board. I observed that TV crews always fly on the left, radio and
others on the right. The reason? By flying on the left, TV cameramen
can shoot through the driver's side window and get a good look at
who's behind the wheel."

Finally, after an hour, the suspect pulled in front of a relative's
residence and quietly surrendered to police.

By the time the late evening news came on, the incident was nearly
forgotten. One station gave it a couple of minutes. Most ignored it.

The potential for disaster was great that day. The potential became
reality in Phoenix.

And now come the demands for reform, some calling for the grounding of TV

"If broadcasters won't do it voluntarily, then the Federal Aviation
Administration, acting on behalf of us innocents on the ground, ought to step
in and do it for them," wrote Alan D. Mutter, a veteran media executive.

"Apart from the lives of newsmen lost in helicopter crashes over the
years," he continued, "it cost no less that $1 million a year to operate a
modest-dsized news chopper carrying a crew of two...That's enough money to
hire 10 t0 15 journalists to develop real stories."

Another blogger wrote, "It's one thing to send journalists into a combat
zone to cover a war, with the understanding that they might be killed. It's
quite another to send pilots and cameramen out in breathless pursuit of a
highway chase, or something else that floats in over the police scanner.
Journalists should mourn the passing of their colleagues in Phoenix, but they
should also ask themselves a serious question: Was it really worth it, and
(without necessary reforms), how long will it be before it happens again?"

This is not new territory.

LAPD Chief William Bratton several years ago urged local television
stations to halt their coverage of "careless individuals" from seeking fame
in the media spotlight.

Bratton said that obsessive media coverage of car chases was dangerous
because it gave miscreants an incentive to flee from the police and become
the stars of their very own television shows.

"You know this isn't what your stations should be doing," Bratton said.
Television executives, in a curious bit of logic, responded that if
anything their coverage acted as a deterrent because televised chases
invariably ended in either the arrest or the death of the suspect.

And so the car chase remains a TV staple.

It's what TV does. Manufactured crises such as pursuits and endless
amounts of crime news drive TV ratings. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say
in the TV newsroom.

It's why you are 50 times more likely to see reports of murder, rape, or
car chases and 20 times more likely to see a story of a fire on your local
news than you are a story about education, science, marriage, or pollution,
according to media author Alan Mutter and his research of news coverage
compiled by the Local TV News Media Project at the University of Delaware.

So don't expect the EyewitnessLiveBreakingNews teams to leave the choppers
on the ground anytime soon.

In the meantime, Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris is threatening murder
charges against the suspect who was the focus of the coverage.

While that's legally dubious, massive civil awards to the families of the
victims are a real possibility.

And if that hastens the end of an empty journalistic practice, the four newsmen in Phoenix will not have died in vain.

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