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Fox News Suicide: A Cry for Help in a Medium Gone Mad

While working on a primetime newscast, I learned that viewers love car chases and TV bosses love ratings. Put it together and you've got insane "chopper logic."

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Chopper logic

I worked on a primetime newscast in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and when we’d put the helicopter over a car chase, we would follow it until it ended, our ratings climbing the entire time. And ratings are eyeballs, and eyeballs are what TV stations sell to their advertisers.

Attracting those eyeballs does not come cheap. My last TV station spent more than $3 million per year on its helicopter. In an enormous metropolitan area like L.A., much of it difficult to access by car in a  timely way , a helicopter is pretty much a necessity, albeit an expensive one. When a fire erupts in the rugged Angeles National Forest or a mudslide threatens to cast million-dollar Malibu villas into the ocean, the expense justifies itself.

But forest fires and mudslides are relatively rare occurrences. In order to justify the cost when those calamities are inconveniently absent, helicopters are often used when they serve no real purpose. Ever seen a helicopter shot of a long-cold crime scene, or a courthouse where some quasi-celebrity might be sentenced to jail? “Here you see the view from above….” No reason for it. It adds nothing to the story. But it validates the nine-digit number on the budget, marked “helicopter.”

I call this “chopper logic.”

Watching a guy die

One of my most vivid memories of my TV news career is of an episode of chopper logic gone pitifully wrong. A small pleasure boat had sunk in the Pacific between Long Beach and Catalina Island, and as we got our helicopter over the scene, the Coast Guard was pulling a middle aged man out of the water and onto their boat, which quickly sped toward the mainland. With our chopper capturing every moment of it, the rescuers pumped air into the man’s chest and performed compressions on his clearly stilled heart. Within a surprisingly short time, it was clear that the man was not coming back.

I suggested to the producer that this had ceased being news and had become a death watch, and we should go back to our newscast. Not my call, she said, take it upstairs. I went into the executive producer’s office and asked, “Do we really need to watch this guy die on our newscast?” She thought for a moment and said, “No,” then called the control room and told them to cut away.

I say this not to brag. I’m proud that I stood up and convinced my boss that we should do the right thing, but this is not what motivates the anecdote.

Rather, it’s shock and dismay at the fact that in a room full of distinguished and honorable journalists, with hundreds of years of collective experience, I was the only one who questioned the ethics of what we were doing.

Those questions often come after the fact, like they did after North Hollywood, and after Mr. Jones’s disturbing protest. When events rattle the cages of the people who decide what’s news, newsrooms buzz with introspection about the value of the lurid, the sensational, and the sordid product they label “news” and present to their voyeuristic audience. The more lurid, the greater the audience. The more sensational, the higher the ratings. The more sordid, the larger the pay day. But, the more reflective ask themselves, at what price to their profession and their souls?

I imagine Shep Smith and many of his Fox News colleagues are asking themselves that today. As for too many others, however, the question will never occur to them.

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