The insufferable Fox News was following a downtown LA Police chase live last night, and it bothered and fascinated me in so many ways. After the infamous OJ Bronco chase down the freeway, it seems that people have found that they really enjoy the idea of sitting down to watch a live police chase. Pop some popcorn, order a pizza and hunker down as the eye-in-the-sky news helicopters pipe every mundane detail of a relatively low-speed chase out into millions of homes--that's the pitch. With shows like "America's Worst Police Chases" and "COPS" adding fuel to the fire, it seems that media programmers have learned the value of putting crimes on television whether real or imagined.
What was particularly disturbing about the Fox New Chase, well, actually where should I start? For one, almost the instant that I turned it on, the anchor mentioned that the LAPD and CHiPs were "not talking" about the incident on police radio because they have learned that media coverage of daily automobile chases leads to more and more chases. Great, so Fox News' idea of "Fair and Balanced Coverage" is broadcasting a relatively routine traffic violation on national television. These chases happen with uncanny regularity in LA and on LA news, so while the event may seem more sensational in Dubuque, Iowa, it's very nearly a daily occurance in California. Conservative media pundits like to take movies like The Matrix to task for inspiring copycat crimes, and they cry "where is the responsibility?", yet those same watchdogs fail to take a serious look at Fox News and other outlets that cover these kinds of crimes and give other derranged whack-jobs the idea that their best shot at fame is starting a dangerous police chase in downtown LA.
In this case, the chase involved a florist van that had allegedly attempted to run over an undercover vice officer who had allegedly caught people in the van making a new episode of "Bang Bus" or some such lewd thing. Neither I nor Fox News can attest to those circumstances because coverage of the incident only began once the van was squeaking around corners and headed for the freeway. Nevertheless, Fox News got plenty of chances to sensationalize by talking about the driver's 'erratic' and 'dangerous' driving. Newsflash for Fox News: doing 80 mph on the freeway is not only not erratic, it's downright normal for most people. I'll admit that the van was driving dangerously in places, but the suggestion that doing 50 in a 35 was wild and crazed is anything but "Fair and Balanced" reporting. Most people do at least 45 in a 35 if there isn't much traffic, and from what I could see, this guy was not encountering much traffic at all. It was a challenge to find the pedestrians in the shot as the van sped down empty residential streets with the Fox News anchor saying "this is an area with a lot of pedestrian traffic." In fact, there was hardly any traffic, pedestrian or otherwise, at all!
To make matters worse, Fox News' impossibly plastic anchor Shepard Smith was so bold as to slip in a little bit of Fox News adspeak as he was running out of intelligent things to say. In fact, it's nearly impossible to continue speaking intelligently about an event that is unfolding in front of you with little development, which is what makes CNN's round-the-clock coverage of things like war so obnoxious. It's intollerable to listen to someone try and speculate about a situation that is happening miles and miles away, and speculation always leads to misinformation in the context of 'News'. (Doesn't anyone remember the 2000 election?) So, as Shepard Smith was recounting the play by play of the chase, he realized that no conclusions about anything could really be drawn at the moment, so he said "we'll report, you decide." This is no doubt a popular tagline with the Joe Sixpack crowd because it seems to empower the passive TV watcher with some sort ability to form an opinion and judge events for themselves. Unfortunately, this is not the way that good reporting should work. People will always be left to make a value judgement about a news story on their own, but they should be provided with enough factual information to have a clear understanding and to have a well-formed opinion. Fox News' coverage of this chase was sensational, live, and bereft of even basic details like the number of passengers in the van, the specifics of the chase's origin, and the motive of the driver. "We'll report, you decide" simply doesn't work when all that you can report is speculation. If you offer viewers a truncated narrative and commentary by a news anchor who obviously has an opinion on the matter, then you can't really expect anyone to be able to make a "fair and balanced" decision about anything. It says something seriously worth looking at that Fox News is the most highly rated cabel news service in America.