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.
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.
One general assignment TV reporter who came to Los Angeles from another city told me that in three years on the job in Los Angeles he'd never been to City Hall or the school board.
The viewer outrage following last week's televised suicide was definitive - station switchboards were jammed by angry callers shocked by what they'd seen.
At NBC 4, which had its helicopter camera trained in a vivid tight shot of the man as he shot himself, the news anchors almost immediately told the audience they were sorry, very sorry.
"We apologize for what you just saw," said anchor woman Kelly Lange.
Station president Carole Black, who came to the NBC affiliate from the entertainment giant, Disney, said, "We thought we had safeguards in place to prevent this from happening. Obviously we didn't."
She did not elaborate on the nature of those safeguards, but obviously there was no time delay in NBC 4's coverage.
And who would be thinking about safeguards when pushing the limits is the key to the ratings game?
Local stations showed no reluctance several days before last week's freeway suicide in covering the dramatic - and as it turned out, happy - conclusion of a freeway pursuit that began in Los Angeles and ended at the Mexican border with a burglary suspect holding a knife to the throat of his young child. Police promised the man they would let him go if he gave up the child. The man did just that, then bolted across the border where he was captured by Mexican authorities.
Pity the poor desk editor who misses the latest freeway chase. The A.C. Nielsen instantaneous rating system shows the number of television sets in use in Los Angeles increases dramatically every time there is a freeway chase. News budgets contain big-dollar figures to fuel the choppers ($700 an hour) for such pursuits during the sweeps period - which coincidentally started around the time of last week's freeway suicide.
Howard Rosenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic of the Los Angeles Times, wrote that the freeway suicide "Represents the ultimate horror of the kind of live coverage that is increasingly practiced everywhere. No safety nets. No editing process. No control. Just a total abrogation of journalistic responsibility."
To that I add: amen.
But is there a solution other than a return to real journalism on TV, which seems unlikely at this point?
If indeed the airwaves really do belong to the public, and not General Electric, Disney, Westinghouse, and Rupert Murdoch, the time has come for the Federal Communications Commission to reinvent itself and start regulating the industry once more in the public interest.
The FCC could start by enforcing the fairness doctrine and the equal time provision on news broadcasts. Let's face it, the Reagan administration's deregulation of the industry may have been well-intentioned but it was truly a mistake that cost the viewers dearly because the people who run television news today simply can't be trusted with the public interest at stake.
* Pete Noyes, a Peabody Award-winning television journalist, worked from 1961 to 1997 as a news executive at three Los Angeles network affiliates. He teaches broadcast journalism at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.