Local stations confuse suspect for Chris Brown

For Los Angeles’ local TV news teams, old habits die hard.

Just when it seemed like they’d finally been weaning themselves off their live police chase addiction, L.A. stations have fallen off the wagon.

At least five police pursuits of a fleeing suspect have taken place here over the past two weeks – and stations are once again finding the allure of speeding cars and flashing lights irresistible.

The ultimate example came on Monday night, when every local news operation dropped what they were doing to focus on a slow-speed chase involving a white Bentley and a suspect accused of assaulting his girlfriend.

With visions of O.J. Simpson dancing in their eyes, the stations almost giddily hinted that the driver was a “significant figure” who had recently battered his galpal.

R&B artist Chris Brown had just been accused the night before of allegedly beating his girlfriend, the singer Rihanna. Mix in a pop culture stereotype – urban singers and rappers love to drive Bentleys – and, well, it was enough for stations to scrap their late night newscasts and go wall-to-wall with chase coverage.

Even KNBC – which has been leading the charge to stop televising car chases – gave in and dumped its 11 p.m. newscast in order to showcase the chase.

“On rare occasions we’ll make them a part of regular newscasts if it seems to rise to the level of legitimate news,” said KNBC news director Bob Long, who’s been vocal in the past on his dislike of televised chases. “This one smelled like it might. We got some information that turned out to be incorrect, that a person of some prominence was involved.”

But it wasn’t Brown – and Long admitted that covering the chase wound up being a mistake.

“It was a wasted newscast, and I feel terrible about that,” he said. “It irritates my serious news watchers. I got a lot of unpleasant mail today, and I answered everybody to explain my thinking.”

While Long was wringing his hands, others may also be wondering whether blowing out their newscasts – and giving up that ad revenue (some of which will likely be recouped via makegoods) – was the right call.

But there’s also likely some unrepentant news directors out there who feel that police chases – and the increased ratings that usually pop during the broadcast – are good for business.

“There are some people in our business who get a huge kick out of moving that needle,” Long said. “But that’s a meaningless number. It represents people who are in constant motion through the dial, who don’t actually watch anything.”

It was the Simpson chase that helped fuel a decade’s worth of frenzied police chase coverage. Stations have occasionally pulled back after chases that went arry – particularly after the 1999 coverage of a suspect who was shot by officers live on TV.

Earlier this decade, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton attempted to cut back on the chases as well, in the hopes of bringing down the number of events captured by the local TV stations.

But police chases have become a part of the local media fabric – KCBS/KCAL anchor Laura Diaz even called it an “L.A. moment” on Tuesday. Indeed, you could almost hear the excitement in news rooms across the Southland on Monday night, as the possibility of another celebrity chase got underway.

As the erroneous word spread that Brown was behind the wheel, a media circus converged in North Hollywood, where the Bentley driver finally stopped his vehicle and embarked on a standoff with police. The parallel to Simpson’s 1994 White Bronco chase were eerily similar: A slow-moving car. Throngs of bystanders gathering to watch. And in a 2009 twist, an even bigger throng of paparazzi and website videographers, capturing it all on the ground.

There was just one problem: That wasn’t Chris Brown in the car. Not even close. Even as word finally began to spread that it wasn’t Brown (believed to be first noted by KNBC, at least according to blogs also monitoring the coverage), some stations appeared to still hold out hope that there was still a celeb behind the wheel.

When the stations finally managed to broadcast a shot of the suspect – and it was apparent that Brown wasn’t pulling an O.J. – at least one station, KCBS/KCAL, announced that callers had identified the driver as Miami-based DJ/radio personality DJ Khaled.

But that turned out not to be true either. By Tuesday morning, police had announced that the driver – who wound up committing suicide – was an unknown luxury car dealer.

“I hope the next time we have to make that call, we’ll do it with the best information we have,” Long said. “Every case is different, and the hope is you approach it like a pro, and make sure the time is valuable to your viewer.”

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