I didn’t want to write on this… But I think it’s something we need to talk about.
Earlier today, Fox News covered the live event of a man involved in a high-speed car chase in Phoenix. Anchor Shepard Smith was giving moment-by-moment commentary on the chase, as apparently he does somewhat often. In a heartbreaking moment, the driver jumps out of his car, weaves through a field, looks around, then raises a gun to his head and pulls the trigger.
And Fox News aired it.
Now, I think I should make clear that while I’m not a fan of Fox News’ politics all the time, I don’t hate on them for sport. They’ve done some good reporting and offer some very good coverage. But this… This is atrocious. I’m horrified.
The moment the gun went to the man’s head, Shepard Smith starts insisting, “get off, get off, get off it! Get off it!” at which point ANY director or producer working in that control room could’ve switched cameras to Smith.
But they didn’t.
The Media Decoder at The New York Times explains:
Mr. Smith said on the air afterward: “When the guy pulled over and got out of the vehicle, we went on delay. So that’s why I didn’t talk for about 10 seconds. 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 we would see in the studio what was happening five seconds before you did, so that if anything went horribly wrong, we’d be able to cut away from it without subjecting you to it.”
But the Fox control room did not cut away in time. Then, Mr. Smith realized, it was too late.
He leaned back in his chair, disgusted, and the network cut to a commercial break.
After the break, Mr. Smith apologized at length. “We really messed up,” he said. “And we’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on TV.”
No, it did not belong on TV. So how did it get on the air with a 5 second delay?
Here’s how live news works:
There are a producer (or multiple producers) and a director in charge of what you see on television at any given moment. They say to the controllers, “Go to Studio” or “Go to helicopter” or “Go to commercial” or whatever terminology they’re using depending upon what they’re shooting. If for some reason in an emergency they don’t want to go back to the studio full-screen shot, they can go to black or to a commercial.
With a five second delay, just as Smith says, you have 5 seconds to cut away—to black, to commercial, to wherever. Count it out right now: one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand, four-thousand, five-thousand… It’s a long time. In that the time it took me to count it out, I picked up my phone, entered the password and was even able to hit a name in my Favorites and begin a call. Someone could have switched off the helicopter feed in time to prevent what may very well be this man’s death from airing on national television.
Upon seeing this horrifying footage, I got on the phone with a friend who has been producing live television for years. He explained, “Sure, there’s the off chance that both the director and producer were asleep at that moment. No matter what Shepard Smith says, the guys in the control room won’t cut away without word from a producer or director, even if the anchor is telling them to. But the truth is, what bleeds leads. I don’t know it for sure, but it seems like someone wanted that to air.”
My hunch is that they did do it on purpose. I know that’s a huge accusation to make. It certainly wasn’t a thought-out decision on the part of the director and/or producer in charge, it obviously happened in less than 5 seconds, but in knowing how control rooms work and how easily they can navigate from one feed to another, I think this has to have been intentional. Most likely, someone in charge hesitated in that moment, thinking “What should I do?” and instead of choosing to protect this man, his family, and the public, he or she let it run.
After all, what bleeds leads.
Editor’s note: the video embedded above is of Smith’s apology, not of the alleged perpetrator in the car chase.