The recent on-air suicide of a Los Angeles man, broadcast live on MSNBC and a half-dozen other stations, has generated predictable outrage, apologies, and promises of reform from television executives.
MSNBC announced last week it will begin using a seven-second delay, long common in talk radio, to screen some live broadcasts. On the other hand, some stations continued rebroadcasting the dramatic scene hours after it occurred.
No one suggested abandoning live shots or the camera-carrying helicopters that filmed the suicide. The debate focused largely on whether newsroom producers should have anticipated that the victim was about to blow his brains out and broadcast tasteful, long-range footage instead of grisly close-ups.
Since Mathew Brady toured Civil War battlefields photographing the dead and dying, death has always been news. The Hindenburg crashed on film. Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. Some of the most famous photographs ever takenthe casual execution of a suspected North Vietnamese spy; a dying, Oklahoma City child held in the arms of a firemancapture the moment of death, as if the cameras could explain that mysterious crossing over.
What happened in L.A. was news, at least to viewers in Southern California, despite complaints from some who would rather not see the ugliness beyond their own doorstep.
The most troubling question about the L.A. incident is whether some stations breached the long-held, self-imposed prohibition against covering suicides. Underlying the mea culpas following the L.A. incident is the suspicion that a life might have been saved if the news helicopters had just flown away.
Unfortunately, that’s a problem a seven-second delay won’t fix.
Believe it, or not
Two days after the tornado, even the tabloid New York Post gave the Nashville tornado a Post-style headline: “Nashville’s Miraculous Mettle in Storm.”
After describing “devastated downtown Nashville,” Post reporter Rita Delfiner added this sentimental anecdote: “Nashville residents, including prison inmates whose jail windows were shattered, began a massive cleanup effort. ‘We let them out, and they pitched in and helped us do the job,’ said Sheriff Gayle Ray. ‘And not one of them made the slightest attempt to escape.’ ”
Inmates running loose? Criminals rehabilitated by community spirit? Sounds like a great story that the local media missed.
But it never happened, according to the sheriff’s spokeswoman Karla Crocker, who explained, “The jail windows didn’t break. We didn’t let the inmates out, and Sheriff Ray was never interviewed about this.” Crocker added that, as far as she knows, the bogus news ran only in the Post.
Crocker called Delfiner, who said she must have gotten the information from a wire service, “either the Associated Press or Reuters.” But her story didn’t credit either service.
It turned out to be Reuters. “I know I saw that quotation, but I can’t remember where it was,” said Pat Harris, Reuters’ local stringer. Harris said she copied the quotation “from another news story,” and then called someone in the sheriff’s office who confirmed it. She didn’t get a name.
“I was in a hurry,” Harris confessed. “It was right after the tornado.”
The source in the sheriff’s office who “confirmed” the phony story must have been in a hurry too.
In a one-newspaper town, even The Tennessean gets carried into the voting booth, according to poll workers. It’s a heady responsibility, one the paper’s editorial staff hasn’t yet learned how to handle.
Nashville’s only daily paper endorsed a candidate in all but one of last Tuesday’s elections, refusing to recommend anyone in a race for General Sessions Court because one candidate, Carlton Lewis, is the half-brother of Tennessean columnist and editorial board member Dwight Lewis.
Without mentioning either brother by name, the paper pompously declared that it “abstains from endorsing in this race” because “a member of the newspaper’s editorial board is related to one of the candidates.”
Carlton Lewis, according to a Nashville Bar Association poll, was more qualified than either of his opponents. He’s also an African American. Under ordinary circumstances, there’s no doubt The Tennessean would have endorsed him. He lost, just barely. In a race where none of the candidates was well known, the paper’s endorsement could have made the difference.
It’s one thing for reporters to try to appear neutral. It’s silly when editorial writers do it. They’re paid to write editorials reflecting the paper’s point of view. They’re supposed to be biased. In this case, all they had to do was acknowledge that the candidate’s half-brother works for the paperand then endorse him anyway.
Tennessean editorial-page editor Sandra Roberts knows plenty of lawyers. She’s even married to one. But that’s no reason to pretend that the editorial board is a court or that the newspaper’s opinions are now, or ever will be, disinterested.
Mark Drury, one of WTVF-Channel 5’s best and most experienced reporters, has resigned to become Mayor Phil Bredesen’s new press secretary at the end of the month, Drury told the Scene Monday.
Drury leaves behind a 20-year career in television news, including a decade at Channel 5, to take a job that may last only 15 months and was last held by 26-year-old Shannon Hunt.
“I want to see what it’s like on the other side,” the reporter said, adding that he’s taking the job with no expectations that Bredesen will run for reelection next summer. Bredesen himself is “genuinely undecided,” according to Drury.
Drury emphasized that he’s happy at Channel 5 and is leaving on good terms. Perhaps so. But Drury enjoys covering politics at a time when stories about campaigns and legislative developments are out of fashion. As local newscasts, especially the ones on Channels 5 and 2, race each other to the gutter, a short-term job with a millionaire politician may not look so bad after all.
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