Correction: An earlier version of this story asserted that the suicide of R. Budd Dwyer was broadcast live on TV in 1987. A search of contemporaneous accounts indicates that some stations showed tapes of the suicide but no instances of it being broadcast as it happened. The story also said he shot himself at the beginning of a press conference; in fact, he did so some minutes into it.
Fox News and its viewers got a lesson in the perils of live television Friday afternoon when a driver chased by police emerged from a car and fatally shot himself in the head.
The episode was the rare instance in which a TV newscast showed an act of violence live. Most stations use delays of live broadcasts to avoid showing scenes that might be upsetting to their viewers.
Fox aired images, taken from a news helicopter, of the man running from the car, then stopping and apparently raising a gun to his head. He then collapsed.
The cable network immediately cut away from the incident outside of Phoenix and went to a commercial. Anchor Shepard Smith came back minutes later and offered a lengthy apology. “That didn’t belong on TV,” he said in part. “We took every precaution we knew how to take to keep that from being on TV, and I personally apologize to you that that happened. . . . I’m sorry.”
The network had a five-second delay on the helicopter feed of the chase but was unable to use it in time due to “severe human error,” Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news editorial, said in a statement. “We apologize for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen.”
The man was declared dead at the scene, according to news reports.
TV newscasts usually provide a warning when they intend to broadcast images that viewers might find objectionable. Delays of live feeds are also widely used, though they are usually employed to bleep out objectionable language rather than to counter upsetting footage.
The Arizona incident unfolded over several minutes and was tracked by a helicopter owned by a local Fox station. After evading authorities on an interstate highway after an alleged carjacking, the suspect parked a red SUV on a dirt path and emerged from the vehicle about 3:30 p.m. Eastern. He looked around nervously and began running from the car, falling at one point. He then ran into a grassy area and appeared to take a gun from his waistband, pointing it at his head and firing.
Veteran news director Bill Lord said “warning bells” should have gone off when the suspect got out of the car. Typically, news photographers are trained to go to a wide shot when an incident might become violent, said Lord, general manager of WJLA (Channel 7).
When he was the news director of a Los Angeles station, Lord oversaw live coverage of a lengthy shootout in 1997 between police and two heavily armed gunmen in North Hollywood that left several officers and the suspects injured. But that episode was far more newsworthy than the Arizona chase, justifying live coverage, Lord said.
“It’s hard to define where the line is in these cases, but it seemed more appropriate to stay on that” than Fox’s decision to continue showing the chase, he said.
Although rarely shown on TV, suicides have been televised.
The best known is that of R. Budd Dwyer, the Pennsylvania state treasurer who shot himself to death during a news conference in January 1987. Dwyer had called the news conference to respond to his conviction on corruption charges. As the meeting began, he pulled a handgun from a manila envelope and warned people to stay away from him. Amid shouts and screams from members of the media and assembled staffers, Dwyer put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Another notable on-air suicide occurred in 1974, when Florida anchor Christine Chubbuck shot herself during a morning broadcast. Right before she fired, she said: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.”