A 37-year-old jobless man announces he will set himself on fire in the town square and a television camera is there to videotape it. This is not a script for prime-time fictional drama. It happened in a real-life incident March 4 in Jacksonville, Alabama, and, if it hasn't yet, it should raise profound questions about moral responsibility of the news media.
Cecil Andrews, married, roofer by trade, remains hospitalized, in stable condition now, with third-degree burns over more than half his body. His desperate act consumed 82 seconds on film before the fire he set to his clothing was extinguished. The scene was recorded by WHMA-TV, a station in Anniston, near Jacksonville. Interviews with local police and others confirm the following account of the incident, first reported in The Post in John Carmody's "TV Column" March 11.
Mr. Andrews telephoned WHMA- TV several times March 4 threatening self-immolation in protest against unemployment in America. The station's news director informed police, who said it was probably a "hoax." Arriving at the square at about 10 p.m., police found no one resembling the caller. They departed approximately 45 minutes later.
Shortly thereafter, Ronald Simmons and Gary Harris of WHMA-TV appeared and set up camera lights, whereupon Mr. Andrews came into view. His clothes, already doused with lighter fluid, did not ignite with the first match. Mr. Andrews "staggered" to a container, poured more fluid on his trousers, cupped a second match to his knees and the lower part of his body ignited. Engulfed by flames, he shouted inarticulately, leaped to his feet and began running across the square.
At this point, one of the cameramen said he ran toward Mr. Andrews, who by then was intercepted by a volunteer fireman. The fireman, initially attracted by the camera lights, had already obtained a fire extinguisher that he used to spray out the fire. Mr. Andrews was rushed to a hospital in Birmingham.
Police Chief Paul W. Locke, describing Mr. Andrews as slight of build and "obviously intoxicated," says he could easily have been subdued and the fire prevented had the cameramen made the attempt. They "stood there" running the camera, he said.
WHMA-TV news director Phillip D. Cox, says, "We had the impression we were going to Jacksonville to help the police. It is a serious question when to quit recording and when to intervene. Where do we draw the line?" Mr. Simmons and Mr. Harris, he said, "tried to delay the man," apparently telling him first that it took time for their equipment "to warm up."
There is no evidence the crew had any intention of filming anything but what Mr. Andrews would do to himself. In fact, those who have seen raw footage of the tape affirm that the container of lighter fluid was used to focus the camera's lens.
WHMA-TV is an affiliate of CBS. In a subsequent interview on the network's "Morning News" program, Mr. Simmons said it's his job "to record the facts. We wanted the videotape. We thought the police would come out." Asked why he and his partner did not try to stop Mr. Andrews, the reply was "we couldn't get to him."
On the same program, Richard Salant, former president of CBS News and now an adviser to NBC, equivocated. He was not prepared to "rush to judgment" on whether the medium "set the stage" for the victim's act; he said, "maybe." "It's terribly difficult . . . to second guess them. . . . They were really under a time crunch there." Interviewer Diane Sawyer's incisive questions were never met head-on.
As The Anniston Star, which incidentally is jointly owned with WHMA- TV, said in an editorial, it was "an avoidable tragedy." The crew could have "physically restained Mr. Andrews. They did not do so."
We do know--at least we occasionally hear--that in their annual conventions and campus speeches editors and news managers routinely pledge higher standards of integrity toward community interests. About this, most of the public "is from Missouri." It wants a better definition of what makes news. Obviously, there is need for a better definition of what is news. Is an attempted suicide--violence against one's self--as newsworthy as murder-- violence against society? Or, is the medium, in this case the camera, so intoxicated that vision is blurred and unable to distinguish?