For news directors at Los Angeles’ major TV stations, it seemed like an almost routine event, a freeway police pursuit that begged for live helicopter coverage.
An hour later, after six TV stations inadvertently wound up carrying live pictures of a man committing suicide, the incident marked a grisly turn in the cutthroat local competition for news viewers. And in its aftermath, the stations fell all over themselves apologizing to viewers for their apparent recklessness.
“The Channel 4 News sincerely apologizes for broadcasting the suicide of a man on a freeway in downtown Los Angeles. We did not anticipate this man’s actions in time to cut away, and we deeply regret that any of our viewers saw this tragedy on our air,” read a statement issued Thursday evening by NBC’s Los Angeles O&O.
The incident that snarled traffic on several major freeways began to unfold shortly after 3 p.m. The man, who had fired a shotgun, held police at a standoff on a connector bridge between the Harbor and Century freeways about 8 miles south of downtown. For an hour, TV cameras were trained on the truck as the man sat inside and occasionally talked on a cellular phone. He got out of the truck twice to unfold a banner that read: “HMO’s are in it for the money! Live free, love safe or die!”
About 3:45 p.m., after the man got into his truck and lit a cigarette, the vehicle burst into flames, possibly from a homemade Molotov cocktail stashed inside. The man jumped out of the truck with his dog still inside, stripping off his smoldering pants. He then climbed onto an overpass sidewall as if to jump off the connector bridge. Instead, he stepped down, retrieved the shotgun from the bed of the truck and blew his head off.
Eight stations offered live coverage of the standoff, but only KABC and Spanish-lingo KMEX were not live at the time of the suicide.
“We were fortunate,” said KABC spokesman Bill Burton. “We had just gone back to ‘Oprah Winfrey’ when the fire erupted. We went right back on, but we never showed the body. We stayed tight on the truck.”
The reverberations of the skin-crawling incident will prompt a rethinking of the coverage of breaking news events, local news directors said late Thursday. But at the same time, local TV execs defended their decision to go live with story.
“This is a seasoned helicopter market and a seasoned breaking news market. In most cases, good judgment prevails,” said KCBS news director Larry Perret. “But you’ve got the 105 and 110 freeways entirely closed. You can’t ignore this. It’s a news story. You use your best judgment, but that’s the danger of live television.”
Fox O&O KTTV broke into children’s programming to cover the event. A KTTV spokeswoman noted that station ran an advisory crawl beforehand that read: “Fox News will interrupt this children’s program with a special report. It may be best to watch with an adult’s supervision.”
WB affil KTLA also broke into children’s programming. Indie KCAL went live to the event at the start of its regularly scheduled 3:30 p.m. newscast. The horrendous scene unfolded so fast that some viewers could hear in-studio producers screaming “Pull back! Pull back!” as the man lifted the shotgun to his head.
“I’ve been in this business 29 years and I’ve personally never seen anything like this happen,” said KTLA news director Jeff Wald. “It was impossible for us to react quickly enough. There was no way we could predict what this guy was going to do.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)