With elements echoing many of the fixtures of Hollywood’s fictional crime tales, Tuesday’s showdown with real-life fugitive Christopher Dorner brought the conflicting agendas of law enforcement and the media into sharp relief, spotlighting the challenges — and pitfalls — of such immersive live coverage.
Uncensored obscenities made it on the air, phone conversations interrupted live coverage and journalists were asked by authorities to restrict their coverage to avoid tipping off the suspect.
The confrontation featured aspects that viewers have seen often in the reporting of real-life incidents (swarms of helicopters, roadside checkpoints) as well as fictional onscreen tales ranging from “The Negotiator” and “The Fugitive” to “High Sierra,” (rogue cops seeking to clear their name, a multi-jursidictional manhunt playing out in a remote locale).
The story hit Los Angeles airwaves around 1 p.m. PT, and law-enforcement officials asked the media to not broadcast live aerial coverage of the scene or to even tweet about it, concerned that doing so might tip off Dorner and threaten the safety of officers on the ground.
The cabin’s owner told news outlets the cabin had no Internet or television, butOfficials were clearly taking no chances as police and sheriff’s deputies closed in on the Big Bear cabin where Dorner — a former LAPD officer whose online manifesto threatened “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” against the department in the wake of his firing in 2007 — was holed up.
KCBS-TV Los Angeles was apparently first on the scene, breaking into its scheduled daytime programming with reporter Carter Evans on the ground near the gun battle feeding live audio from his cell phone. Dozens of shots could be heard, along with profanity from law-enforcement officers. (In later replays of the soundbite, the expletives were censored.)
The station was apparently broadcasting without a time delay, leading to a moment around 2:10 p.m., in which the station took a live call from someone claiming to have information about the scene. It turned out to be prank call from a fan of Howard Stern’s radio show.
KCBS quickly disconnected the call and returned to commentary on the scene, later apologizing to viewers.
Coverage of the showdown, with the cabin engulfed in flames and officials declaring Dorner dead inside, stretched past 6 p.m. PT, forcing local nets to choose between continuing with the story live or breaking away to President Obama’s state of the union address. KNBC directed viewers to its digital channels for the address.
In another reflection of the day’s media juxtapositions, an ad for TNT’s “Southland,” which bows its new season Wednesday, was pulled from the homepage of the Los Angeles Times’ website Tuesday. The ad featured actors pointing guns in police uniforms, and was framed around the site’s “Dorner in gun battle with authorities” story.