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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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