Here is what happened.
After inadvertently airing live coverage of a car chase that ended with a man's suicide, Shepard Smith of Fox News has issued an apology to viewers of his show. The incident occurred as the cable network carried a live feed of a man fleeing police on the interstate west of Phoenix.I'm not linking the video. Yes, I was voyeuristic enough to find it on You Tube to see for myself. But that is not the point. Or perhaps it is. Like most ordinary people as soon as I heard the story some prurient impulse immediately drove me to take a look for myself in case it was about to be scrubbed. We have all had moments like that. Driving slowly past the aftermath of a car wreck, through the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, day or night, we can't help looking in the direction of the accident hoping to catch a glimpse of... what? A bleeding victim? Somebody trapped? An injured child being rescued? It's more tempting to look at than swimwear at the beach.
In the footage, the man abandoned his vehicle and began running across a field, before pulling out a gun and shooting himself in the head. Despite being filmed from a helicopter hovering above the scene, the footage was graphic enough to prompt immediate yelling in the Fox News studio.
The scene led anchor Shepard Smith, who had been speaking over the video and describing the man's actions, to yell "Get off it, get off it" several times to his studio crew. The broadcast abruptly cut to a commercial.
All that makes interesting navel-gazing, but Shep Smith's instinctive reaction and apology, less interesting or exciting, is the hidden treasure in this story. This is not the first time this guy has been put in a bad situation on live TV and it won't be the last. He must have a daredevil impulse driving him to work for the Fox network, the same need to flirt with danger that motivates sky-divers or snake handlers. Whatever it is comes wrapped in a near-perfect instinct to know when a mistake has been made and take instant corrective action. Here is what he said immediately. Not after reflecting overnight, looking for the right words, parsing the language to soften the impact of a mistake causing something to go horribly wrong -- none of that took place. Instead here is what he said instinctively.
That's why I tagged this post "Extra Points for Shep Smith." Despite all the ways I don't like Fox News at that moment Smith displayed perfect instincts.
This three-minute report from NPR captured and presented the lesson exactly right.
There is a logic to broadcasting footage of a car chase live on the air. And local news helicopters make it so easy. It's ratings catnip and fast-moving, with an adrenaline rush, uncertainty, a whiff of peril and usually - usually - few real consequences. Not this time. [snip] I think Smith deserves great credit for his immediate, forthright and transparent apology. But, absent a fugitive at least on the order of O.J. Simpson, a live car chase has no national news value. Remember the hoax flight of balloon boy who happened to be tucked away in his family attic? That was spectacle, not an everyday local crime suspect alluding cops. And at least that was genuinely transfixing. There was no need for what was shown yesterday, no point to this, especially not live or just about live, giving producers no real margin of error. In this case, the whiff of peril turned out to be quite real.