It is odd despite the everyday nature of 24 hours news and the mass live broadcast public murder/suicide of September11, we remain shocked when ugly life happens in front of us. The latest outbreak of ugly life outrage occurred today, when Fox News apologised for showing a suicide from a live car chase in Arizona.
Shep Smith was the on air man providing explanation and context for Fox News viewers in the god voice from the point of view of the TV helicopter. As rhe chase ended on a dirt road, the hinted man went berserk He staggered around like a hunted deer in the spotlights fleeing from police but unable to escape the glare of the helicopter. Clearly cornered, this might have been the moment to end live coverage and let ;police do the job. Instead the camera kept rolling while Smith struggled with the interpretation for his viewers.
“I would just- he is looking rather erratic, isn’t he?,” said Smith sounding less godlike by the second.
While Smith waited for re-assurance from somewhere, his filled pauses of ums and dunnos and oh mys questioned what was happening. Both cornered men were increasingly out of options.
“Well, it looks like he’s a little disoriented or something…” Smith suggested about the other, desperate to re-assure viewers this could never happen to them "...It’s always possible he could be on something.”
While Smith invented the news, the cameras rolled on.
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.”
The mess up was not only the suicide but the strange editing error that followed immediately after it (36 seconds into the video) that makes a double-voiced Shep say incoherently “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 changed his voice to uplift for the next story: “Now, the attack on…”
The show must go on.
A lot of people weren’t going to wait for the Fox report or Shep's watch to see “how it went down.” His audience protection argument might have worked 10 years ago but not any more. It wouldn't take long for someone to send the footage viral. Gawker were quick off the mark with a link with caution to the original footage via Buzzfeed as well as the strange apology.
The first Gawker commenter picks up an obvious problem: “I'm confused. If they went to 10 second 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 the point holds up. Fox News overplayed its hand while Shep struggled and while it recovered in one second, it took the host six seconds to realise they had recovered. In panic, Shep did not realise for five seconds, someone has pressed “dump” button out of the broadcast. He was shouting at 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 by helicopter. When a chase unfolded on air in 2009, Smith quipped on air about the energiser bunny and how he had enjoyed this type of entertainment for many years.
So after Buzzfeed, Gawker and others quickly 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 saying the Fox hypocrisy deserved to be given the widest audience . Tomkins ask for the guidelines for broadcasting chases. Are they prepared to air the worst possible outcome from an unfolding story? What outcomes are they not willing to air? Why? How do they know know the worst possible outcome will not occur? Broadcasters will ignore Tomkins' inconvenient questions about motivations and consequences and show them for the same reason they show the 1-800-444-Meso ads: They make money.
Tompkins acknowledged chase coverage could be is useful for people near the scene. But his unspoken argument was that 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.