A Fox News statement cited “severe human error” in allowing the disturbing scene to be carried live, despite the fact that the cabler has a five-second delay in place to avoid such situations.
The cabler’s helicopter footage of the incident showed the man running around erratically after leaving his car. In a split-second move, he pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
“That didn’t belong on TV,” Smith told viewers after returning from a commercial break. “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…that won’t happen again on my watch.”
The drama of the moment was heightened by the footage of Smith yelling at the production crew to “get off” the live feed as the man raised the gun to his head.
Michael Clemente, exec veep of news editorial at Fox News, issued a statement regarding the broadcast: “We took every precaution to avoid any such live incident by putting the helicopter pictures on a five-second delay. Unfortunately, this mistake was the result of a severe human error and we apologize for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen.”
The majority of live TV incidents that have entered public discourse have been considerably more mild, including Jon Stewart celebrating an Emmy win with profanity, and Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”
Friday’s broadcast on Fox News, however, underscores the volatility of live television and raises doubts about the effectiveness of time-delay technologies when events are unfolding at a rapid pace.
In May 1998, a similar suicide was telecast by local stations when a man committed suicide while parked the shoulder of a Los Angeles freeway.
That shooting led to much criticism of TV stations decision to offer live coverage of police pursuits. It spurred many stations to take precautions by keeping helicopter video feeds at a distance and offering time delays.
Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC, said that despite the apologies that always follow broadcasts of graphic or disturbing incidents, TV newsies can’t resist the lure of car-chase coverage because the outcomes are always so unpredictable — which makes for compelling TV.
“We can’t not watch,” he said. “The lizard part of our brains is in control, and holding our attention until the next ad is what TV news is all about. The stations and networks calculate that the odds that something like this would actually happen are low, and that they could always cut away. They’re wrong, of course, but there’s rarely any accountability for mesmerizing us with snuff porn.”