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

When I heard that Fox News aired a live, as-it-happens suicide, I was not surprised. This is not the first time a person has ended his life as viewers sat rapt and helicopters hovered above. Witnessing such a thing is stomach churning, even for TV newspeople who spend their days and nights trafficking in the misfortune of others.

The look on Shepard Smith’s face, just before the picture quickly and awkwardly cut to an ad about mesothelioma, said it all. Smith is widely considered the only real journalist on the Fox News payroll, a pro who’s seen a lot in his day, and he was clearly repulsed. As soon as he returned from the commercial break, he apologized to his viewers for what they had seen.

But this was not a Fox News thing. It was not the result of partisan hackery or some malevolent product of the conservative noise machine. It was the result of TV news doing what it does—grabbing the most viewers, no matter how.

I know this, because for many years, I was a TV news writer and producer. I have seen people die, live and onscreen, in newscasts I played a significant role in putting on the air. Sometimes it was a shock. Sometimes it was no surprise at all. Rarely was it newsworthy.

Newsworthy chases versus chasing ratings

One of those rarities occurred during the February 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery, in which two heavily armed and body-armored men engaged in a 44-minute shootout with Los Angeles police on public streets. It ended when one gunman, 31-year old Larry Phillips, shot himself in the head—captured in real time by the news choppers hovering above the scene. A short time later LAPD SWAT officers cornered his accomplice, Emil Matasareanu, and shot the 27-year old in a close-quarters gun battle. Matasareanu also died, slowly bleeding out as the helicopters captured it all. (Video is here; WARNING: Graphic violence.)

Another happened a year later, when 40-year old Daniel Jones stopped his truck on the busy 110 Freeway during rush hour in downtown LA, set himself and his dog on fire in it, then put a shotgun to his head a pulled the trigger. It was a grotesque, horrifying scene. But it was one desperate man’s public protest. Jones, HIV-positive and newly diagnosed with cancer, and reportedly getting the runaround from his insurer, also unfurled a banner for the newscopters above: "HMO's are in it for the money!! Live free, love safe or die." And then he took his own life while Los Angeles watched. (Video is here; WARNING: graphic violence.)

Distasteful as those events were, and as regrettable as broadcasting their unfiltered brutality was, they were newsworthy. They were not merely a high-def geek show for the morbidly curious. They had real impact on the community, and they had some deeper meaning for society. Or one could reasonably make those arguments.

But the car chase that led to Shep Smith’s on-air chagrin? Why was it necessary for a national news outlet to cut into its regular newscast to show this crime in progress? Was it more important than the presidential election, the drone attacks in Pakistan, the Iranian nuclear program and Israel’s saber-rattling response? You know, real, unquestionable, according-to-Hoyle news?

No, it was just another car chase. Nothing special about it. They happen all the time. They end in a variety of ways, typically falling into a few simple categories: run out of gas and surrender; run out of gas, flee on foot and get caught; or crash.

Most often, they’re sparked by routine traffic stops, but drivers under the influence or with suspended licenses figure making a run for it is better than taking their medicine. Their gamble often ends badly. The California Highway Patrol reported 10,000 injured and 300 killed, mostly innocent bystanders, in California over the past 10 years.  In LA, where live car chases get the most attention, even the police have asked news stations to stop airing them.

But, by gosh, people love them. So much so that the phenomenon spawned its own TV series, (plus a video game!) which has aired for the past 14 years. The show has legs, as they say, and a loyal following.

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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