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L.A.'s Twisted Pursuit of the 'News'

By Pete Noyes / May 8, 1998

For local television news directors and station executives, what happened on a Los Angeles freeway overpass last week was a bitter lesson in the dangers of live television coverage and a reminder of just how dramatically our news standards have tumbled.

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A deranged man in a pickup truck brandishing a shotgun brought freeway traffic to a halt. As at least six television news helicopters buzzed overhead broadcasting live, the man set himself, his dog ,and his truck on fire and then shot himself in the head.

It was a suicide, live on TV, witnessed by perhaps as many as a million viewers including thousands of youngsters whose afternoon children's programming was interrupted for the live coverage.

We in the TV news business simply never attempted to cover a freeway chase prior to 1994 and O.J. Simpson. As a TV-news executive, I just didn't consider such events newsworthy. Such coverage would have been impossible, anyway, because TV lacked the technology to rig helicopters with cameras that could get close-up shots from the skies.

But now the choppers have camera stabilizers, and powerful lenses that zoom in on targets from thousands of feet away.

The Simpson chase in 1994 - a helicopter-trailed odyssey winding around the Los Angeles freeway system - was the spark for a whole new TV-news genre. It was then that TV-news brass discovered the ratings potential in such pursuits.

The chase as news genre

And there's been no stopping it. The tabloid philosophy behind the chase coverage has done incredible damage to real news coverage.

Twenty years ago the three network stations in Los Angeles maintained news bureaus in Sacramento to cover the state legislature. Now not a single Los Angeles station has a reporter assigned to the capital.

NBC 4 - where I was a news executive for 17 years - sacrificed its Sacramento bureau in 1983 over the objections of news management to pay for the increased use of helicopters (at that time choppers were used mainly for transportation to news events and coverage of disasters).

Los Angeles TV viewers just don't get issue reporting - the stuff of poor visuals for TV news cameras.

Take Tuesday night this week, for example. NBC 4's evening news touched not at all on the California governor's race, heating up with primaries in just a few weeks. The two lead stories of the night? Highway chases - one in Los Angeles, the other hundreds of miles away in the Pacific Northwest.

A ballot measure that would bring an end to bilingual education in California merits little if any debate on local TV news.

One of the costliest public works projects in history, the Los Angeles subway system, appears to be going down the tubes but you won't hear about it on local TV. "Boring, boring," is what the TV news directors tell us.

While the Los Angeles Times exposes political corruption at City Hall, local television stations prefer to cover drive-by shootings in gang territory. It's much easier.

Reporters who can't find city hall

One recent night on one local TV station's hour-long newscast, I counted 14 consecutive crime stories. The fact is that the crime rate has dropped dramatically in the Los Angeles area in recent years, but you'd never know it by watching local TV.

And what about the sorry plight of the Los Angeles school system where there is a woeful shortage of textbooks and computers? It's hard to remember the last time a Los Angeles television reporter seriously covered the board of education.