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Is TV news being driven out of the chase business?

January 13, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Memo to the TV news staff:

Don't despair. We have set up psychological counseling to help you deal with the loss you're experiencing due to an outrageous decision by the Los Angeles Police Commission.

As you know, the commission voted Tuesday to ban vehicle pursuits prompted by minor infractions. Although the stated purpose is to reduce collisions and injuries resulting from these pursuits, this is a thinly disguised assault on our right to serve the public by treating minutiae as major news. Gratuitous coverage of trivial police pursuits is our bread and butter, after all.

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton doesn't like us going on the air with knee-jerk live reporting of cops chasing fleeing motorists in any circumstances. Bratton insists that our coverage tilts toward entertainment -- imagine -- and may even contribute to the danger inherent in chases by encouraging suspected criminals to take flight in their vehicles.

The chief is not our only critic.

For years, others have claimed that local news here nourishes a gridlock of stereotypes -- notably citywide vacuousness and beauty worship -- that fits the mythic L.A. of kookydom and movie-star maps seen from afar by those with no knowledge of the area's rich and fascinating cultural history.

More recently, our detractors charge, we've added to that by depicting L.A. to the world as a human video game featuring freeway mayhem and roads whizzing with fugitive motorists and cops in pursuit.

They insist this is news driven by technology, that the human contribution here is limited to flipping on a switch, that there is no editing process, no control and that whatever happens zooms wildly across the airwaves. They cite the Russian-roulette perils of this live coverage, bringing up the shootings captured live by news choppers, including the televised spectacle of a fugitive motorist who four years ago ended his life with a shotgun blast to the head on a freeway overpass.

Fellow TV journalists, do not let these misguided critics get you down. Do not lose heart. Do not curb the banal glibness for which you've become famous and beloved. Do not forget, it's why we pay you. Now, it's true that it's a real bummer no longer being able to erase entertainment programs or blow off entire newscasts with live coverage of cops chasing a motorist who has run a stop sign. It's true, also, that with our backs to the wall like this, we may have to take the extreme action of occasionally reporting something of importance.

But just because the commission has prohibited vehicle pursuits for small stuff -- maliciously depriving us of a major source of non-news -- that doesn't mean we are out of the chase business. No, sir.

In fact, this partial ban should inspire us. It will allow us to focus on doing an even more vapid job of reporting the chases that do occur. With that in mind, here is a brief refresher course to guide you when covering vehicle pursuits live:

1. You're a pro. So prepare to go on the air and begin blabbing immediately without having anything to impart. It's a shame to waste a mind by cluttering it with information.

2. Have the right attitude. You are a beacon for viewers who have nothing better to do with their lives than sprawl in front of a TV set and watch cars on a freeway. These creatures with flattened brain waves are transfixed hypnotically by movement and action, and expect you to provide this experience. Having total ignorance about the story you are reporting is no excuse for shrinking from this responsibility.

3. Context is essential. So do not refrain from speculation, which is a good way to share with viewers the inane thoughts that pop into your weak mind as you babble mindlessly.

Example A:

The way this motorist is driving he must be panicking. If he's panicking it must be because this will be his third strike, sending him to jail for life. If he's worried about a third strike sending him to jail for life, he is certainly desperate. If he is desperate, he will do anything to stay out of jail. If he will do anything to stay out of jail, he is probably armed. If he is armed, he will kill anyone who comes near him. If he will kill anyone who comes near him, he's a danger to everyone in Los Angeles.

RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!

Example B:

We have no information to indicate that the motorist being pursued is not a terrorist. If he is a terrorist, it's reasonable to assume he's carrying a bomb. If he's carrying a bomb, he is trying to reach his target to blow it up. If he is trying to reach his target to blow it up, that justifies us coming on the air live with this extremely important breaking news coverage of a fugitive who has not -- and we want to be clear as responsible journalists -- has NOT been identified as a non-terrorist.

And when we think of terrorism, we think of Oklahoma City and 9/11. As we split the screen and show you pictures of the twin towers, it's hard, even for experienced journalists like ourselves, to contain our emotions during this live coverage of a fleeing motorist who has not been identified as a non-terrorist. When we get that identification, we'll break into our coverage and bring it to you live.

Example C:

Y'know, I was just thinking how much this reminds me of when I used to play with my toy cars as a kid.

Please copy these examples and keep them handy for reference. In other words, staff, carry on. Your city is counting on you.

*

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.

com.

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