The Eyes in the Sky
Viewers tuning in to KMGH-TV/Channel 7 around 5:30 p.m. on August 23 expecting to see World News Tonight with Peter Jennings soon discovered that the station's five o'clock newscast had been expanded as the result of a pre-season football game featuring the Denver Broncos, around whom so much in this city revolves. But few were disappointed -- because of the helicopter.
In the midst of the newscast, Channel 7 broke in with a live broadcast from its chopper. Police were shadowing a vehicle through the streets of downtown, and Channel 7 had it on video. Narrating the action from the sky was Steve Saunders, the Al Gore of local television reporters, and not surprisingly, this son of Rocky Mountain News media columnist Dusty Saunders didn't quite manage to paint a picture with words. Fortunately for him, the pictures didn't need his help. Thanks to the combined efforts of pilot Rich Westra, cameraman Tim Jensen and news director Diane Mulligan, who was calling shots from KMGH's earthbound studio, the footage was compelling and aesthetically pleasing. So seamlessly did the camera mirror the movements of the car as it weaved around obstacles and onto sidewalks (it didn't even cause one fender bender) that the whole thing seemed like an instructional video on how to make good time in heavy traffic.
Then everything changed. The car came to a dead end and stopped, and when the two suspects (who, along with a third man, were later charged with numerous drug-related crimes) emerged from their auto, several of the policemen who had been after them rushed forward and, in full view of TV-watchers across Denver, began whaling away. One officer cracked the butt of his gun across the back of a man's head, and although a dumpster obscured some of the action that followed, the camera still managed to capture what appeared to be kicks and punches aimed at a perp lying prone on the ground.
The fallout was immediate: The next day, amid community uproar, Mayor Wellington Webb demanded an investigation, and to that end, a judge appointed a special prosecutor. (The FBI announced that it would monitor the investigation, a move the Denver Post overzealously described as a "probe" in an August 26 front-page headline. The feds issued a news release later that day setting the record straight.) But while debate continues over whether the police actions were a justifiable response or a heinous breech of civil rights, there's been little discussion of the manner in which the incident reached the public and the way local television stations chose to cover it. Predictably, the public is only getting part of the story.
Channel 7's helicopter wasn't the only one aloft as the chase was in progress; KUSA-TV/Channel 9 and KCNC-TV/Channel 4 also had their birds in the air, and though they later ran tape of the pursuit, they chose not to cut in live. "We could have done it, but it was a volatile situation, with too many unknowns," says Patty Dennis, Channel 9's news director. "Even though our reaction time is pretty good, I'm not sure if we could have reacted to a pedestrian being hurt. So we waited for a conclusion and aired it after that." Angie Kucharski, news director for Channel 4, employed similar caution. "When you get in situations such as these, you have to take care about the nature of the material that's going on the air -- and because we wanted to make certain of what we had, we thought playing back the incident afterward was more appropriate."
As it turned out, Channel 7's footage was far superior to anything Dennis and Kucharski had: Channel 4 managed to get a rather unenlightening snippet showing police advancing on the suspects, but the vantage point was poor, and Channel 9 didn't even have that much good stuff. Still, their restraint had less to do with visual quality than with the sort of self-analysis prompted by a helicopter episode that took place in Los Angeles in April 1998. Daniel V. Jones, a forty-year-old HIV-positive man from Long Beach who had developed a deep hatred of HMOs, parked his truck on a transition between the Harbor and Century freeways, causing a commuting nightmare that attracted the attention of L.A. television stations. Several outlets, including two that had been running children's shows at the time, broke into regular programming with live reports. Hence, kiddies all over Southern California got an eyeful when Jones displayed a banner that read "HMOs are in it for the money!! Live free, love safe or die," set fire to his truck (which contained his dog), stripped off some of his flame-covered clothing and shot himself to death.
An editorial in Los Angeles's Daily News called it "a defining moment for the media and its responsibility in covering the news," and that turned out to be true. Stations across the country, which in the post-O.J. Simpson landscape had appeared willing to broadcast any and every chase happening in the vicinity of a lens, suddenly began thinking twice about such a tack. "I think that suicide on the L.A. freeway certainly reminded everyone that you can't predict the outcome of news as it's unfolding," Channel 9's Dennis says.
Mulligan, Dennis's counterpart at Channel 7, is equally aware of appearances. Instead of crowing about a scoop, she emphasizes how carefully she considered the situation before going live. "Initially, when we heard the scanner call, the helicopter was up anyway; they had just finished a live shot for a report on road rage," she says. "And we were also in the middle of a newscast, not some other type of programming. So I ran to the control room and went ahead with it. But even as things developed, we were ready to cut back to the set at any moment. If someone's life was being put in danger -- if someone had been walking across the sidewalk and been hit -- we would have gotten out of it right away, because we are fairly conservative about how we cover the news. When Patrick Ireland was falling out of that window at Columbine, we had that shot, but we cut back to the set."
By not doing so this time around, Channel 7 wound up with a valuable commodity -- one that it's not willing to share. The station has refused to release its footage to other local news outlets, as KWGN-TV/Channel 2 did in 1997 when one of its cameras videotaped paramedics and police allegedly mistreating Gil Webb II after he caused a crash that killed a young Denver cop. (A police-brutality suit filed on Webb's behalf by controversial attorney Anne Sulton is expected to be heard next year.) Channel 2 news director Steve Grund, who had to settle for covering last week's chase story by using tape from Channel 9, won't rip Channel 7 for its strategy, but he comes close.
"With Gil Webb, we thought it was important for the public to see not just the tape, but the unedited tape," Grund says. "And so the very next day, we made it available to everybody in the world that wanted it, because we thought that was the way to go. And I think that's true here, too. It's a community issue, so they should have made it available." He adds, "Before they turned us down, I wish they would have remembered their arguments when they asked us for the Webb tape."
With Channel 7 keeping its prize close to home, its competitors are going out of their way not to give credit where credit is due. To wit: Channels 2, 4 and 9 have widely covered the statements made by Mayor Webb and other officials about the videotape without once acknowledging that it came from Channel 7. At a minimum, referring to the footage generically is misleading, inaccurately implying that the comparatively weak images with which everyone else is stuck are the ones being scrutinized by the powers that be. (In fact, Webb's official statement about video of the bust mentions only Channel 7.) Moreover, it suggests that the stations care less about telling the tale truthfully than about trying to prevent Channel 7 from getting any more publicity. Not that the other news directors will admit it, however. Channel 4's Kucharski says, "I don't think that there were elements missing from our coverage." Channel 2's Grund concedes, "If I would have had Channel 7's tape, I would have courtesied them and mentioned Channel 7. But since I don't, there's no reason to mention them. That's more of a journalism debate, not a competition debate."
Meanwhile, Channel 7 is trying to publicize its exclusive without exploiting it. Sequences from the tape have appeared in almost all of its newscasts for over a week now, and KHOW-AM/630 talk-show host Peter Boyles, who helms a call-in bit dubbed 7 Speak Out on the station's late-morning weekday report, has done several segments on the issue, necessitating numerous re-airings of the footage. (On KHOW, Boyles has repeatedly likened the Channel 7 videotape to the notorious one starring Rodney King, and his afternoon counterpart, Reggie Rivers, has also been taking the police to task, in marked contrast to his predecessor, Jay Marvin, who saluted the boys and girls in blue on a daily basis.) But both Mulligan and general manager Cindy Velasquez emphasize that they have avoided glutting the airwaves with promos dominated by slow-motion closeups of the mayhem, and neither have they asked pundit after pundit to comment on it as an excuse to roll it again. "Because this story has blown up as big as it has, we're going to cover it -- and cover it hard," Mulligan says. "But we aren't going to sensationalize it. We're just going to keep asking the tough questions."
On at least a couple of occasions, the Denver police have displayed little appreciation for Channel 7's hard-nosed approach. According to several sources, an officer arrived at Channel 7 on August 24 to view the chase footage, but when he learned that Mulligan's staff planned to videotape him doing so, he stormed off rather than cooperating with this perfectly reasonable tradeoff; a few hours later he returned with a search warrant and was given a tape of material that aired the day before.
An even more extreme altercation took place this past May, following the arrest of jeweler and mohel Jay Feder, a onetime Westword profile subject ("A Cut Above," February 24, 1993), for allegedly purchasing stolen goods. Shortly after Feder was arrested, officers physically prevented a Channel 7 cameraman from shooting the scene. They damaged a camera in the process; they also handcuffed the cameraman briefly before setting him free without charges. Channel 7's claim against the city for the cost of the camera is still pending, and beyond confirming the basic facts of the case, Velasquez, speaking for the station, declines further comment.
It's too soon to know if Channel 7's ratings will improve as a result of the August 23 chase, but there are already signs that one of the station's rivals is eager to create some helicopter buzz of its own. On August 26, Channel 4's chopper tagged along on an early-morning chase, and when the suspects eluded police, the helicopter trailed their car to a Quality Inn, where two men got out and headed inside. The station didn't go live with the footage, which turned out to be mighty dull; replays broadcast moments after the fact showed one guy casually strolling across a parking lot and another jogging in leisurely fashion behind him. But Channel 4 later made a big deal of contributing to the arrest of one of the men (the other was never found), even though this assistance raises ethical issues of its own. Journalists are trained to observe situations, not get actively involved in them, yet this line is crossed with great regularity. During the April 20 siege at Columbine High School, for instance, Channel 7's John Ferrugia willingly gave up his helicopter seat to a deputy from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. "In that scenario, I think you have a community responsibility in addition to telling the news," says news director Mulligan. "If you can aid law enforcement, that's fine."
Of course, news directors have a vested interest in maintaining this stance. A handful of U.S. cities have recently placed restrictions on the use of TV helicopters in certain circumstances; if a hostage crisis crops up in Boston, Mulligan says, "there will be one pool helicopter and one pool photographer -- and stations have also agreed not to go live." In her opinion, "Blanket policies like that in breaking news are scary things, because you don't know what you've got, and if you sign off on them, you've got to follow the rules. That's why I'd rather prove to people that we're worthy of their trust."
Channel 9's Dennis sounds an even more wary note. "You have to be careful," she says, "because with this kind of thing, you may only be providing entertainment rather than actual news. On some days in Denver, there are a dozen police chases -- and just because we could cover them all doesn't mean that we should."
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.
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