We never see the beginnings of police chases on television. In order to be broadcast, a pursuit must last long enough for a helicopter pilot to pick up the action on police scanners, get into the air, and maneuver to wherever the vehicles actually are. In real life, most end in less than two minutes. Nor do we ever see a chase begin. In the movies, Steve McQueen winks into the rear-view mirror and smiles, and everybody—you, him, the stunt man in the next car—knows what's going to happen next. But in real life, it's a real person behind the wheel, looking back at those flashing lights and deciding for whatever reason not to do what the vast majority of people, even murderers and madmen, do at that point, which is pull the vehicle to the side of the road and accept what's coming.
On Friday, a man in Arizona named Jordan Romero made that decision. After allegedly carjacking a couple outside of a restaurant, Romero fled from police at high speeds, driving west on Interstate 10. He pulled the stolen sedan off the freeway in Tonopah, about 50 miles west of Phoenix. By this point, at least one local television channel was airing the pursuit, and so was Fox News. Shepherd Smith sat silent at the anchor desk during the final moments of the pursuit as the helicopter pilot, in what’s become the traditional fashion, provided play by play of events below. Romero was seen getting out of the car, running through the desert, stumbling into a brushy area, and finally lifting a pistol to his head and pulling the trigger. Smith, visibly agitated, could be seen and heard just after repeating to a producer: “get off it, get off it, get off it, get off it.”
But the promise of a grisly or dramatic ending is what gives the police pursuit its power. We generally know little about the crime or the driver (OJ excluded), who by the time we tune in has already made his—and its almost always “his”—decision, and is continuing to make it. The simple act of escape, forcefully passive and boldly irrational, has the power to captivate millions of spectators, ruin the days of an entire city of commuters, and render whatever crime preceded it secondary. Oftentimes the crimes themselves really are already secondary. Romero may indeed have carjacked the couple, but the International Association of Chiefs of Police has acknowledged that most pursuits begin with “traffic-related or other minor infractions.”
Viewed from television, in the context of a newscaster rambling and speculating his way through minutes or (OJ again) hours of live coverage, that driver looks like something different altogether. The thing about police pursuits at any velocity is that the longer they go, the better they get, even if the driver is merely procrastinating. The tension builds, the scope broadens, and the speculation on the part of newscasters grows increasingly unhinged as they work to fill the air time. Smith, in particular, is known to relish police pursuits. "I love car chases," he said last year. "We all need a break, and with the knowledge that this person's going to jail and the hope that nobody gets hurt … I don't know. It's fun."
Shep Smith's Car Chase Mea Culpa
Immediately after it happened, Smith apologized, explaining that there was supposed to be a delay to be sure that while viewers could thrill to the chase, “so that if anything went horribly wrong we’d be able to cut away from it without subjecting you to it. And we really messed up. And we’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on TV.”
Most of the time, the endings are fine for TV, just not as fun as the chases that come before them. The vehicle runs out of gas or is nudged into a spin with the PIT maneuver. The driver is inevitably a disappointment when seen outside the context of his car. He sprints off a short distance before being tackled by a collection of linebacker-size cops, or more likely emerges with his hands up and deliberately shrinks to the pavement with guns pointed at his head. Viewers are disappointed—not that the driver has failed at the impossible task of escape, but that their own escape was temporary, and is now over.
Television is a labor-intensive medium. Somebody has to talk and somebody has to run the camera and somebody has to edit and somebody has to direct and somebody has to sit at master control and on and on. Editing and writing for the website of a station in Seattle for the last year, I saw how much work goes into stitching together an hour of news, and even into the simplest segment on the dullest story: police scanners hissing behind the assignment desk, coworkers running frantically from one place to another as satellites beamed signals from places like Everett and Tacoma. And breaking news could happen at any minute, and render all that preparation completely wasted.
What I learned working in TV news: nothing lasts. When 10:59 becomes 11 p.m., and the programming changes to sitcom reruns, the events of the previous hour stop mattering. The anchors go home. The reporters and photographers out in the field pack up their gear and call it a night. Follow-up is inherently challenging. TV news broadcasts are not poems written with the vague hope that they might just maybe possibly ring through the subconscious of all humankind for all eternity. They are constructed with the more attainable goal of preventing us from changing the channel. If afterward, all the information disappears from our heads, that’s OK. If the stories seep together in our memories, that’s OK too. Momentum is crucial. The next shot, the next sentence, the next segment is always more important than the last.
"I love car chases," Smith said last year. “We all need a break, and with the knowledge that this person's going to jail and the hope that nobody gets hurt … I don't know. It's fun.”
The things we do remember from television news are often the things that aren’t supposed to be on television at all. Somebody slips up and curses on the air. Or the broadcast is able to shift into present tense: instead of telling you something compelling that happened, the news is able to show you something compelling that is happening—and happening means a better product. It nearly always means better ratings. If the happening is good enough, it breaks into the confines of regularly scheduled programming.
Police pursuits are everything regularly scheduled programming cannot be, and everything other media cannot capture. They are unpredictable and dynamic and, if you have a helicopter, relatively easy to cover. They are visual phenomena that require very little in the way of in-depth research and context —things that news broadcasts are often criticized for not having enough of. And when they end, they end. A police pursuit is a star that burns itself out.
A strong argument can be made, and has been made, that police pursuits are not particularly weighty or important. Then again, much of the time, it is the very act of covering a story that defines it as news. (Ironically, the local affiliate Fox News was using was not actually airing the chase.) When it comes to live police pursuits, drama trumps substance; the coverage often feels hollow and solipsistic—but is it any more hollow and solipsistic than stuffed suits rambling about the optics of a staged campaign event? In 1998, a man named Daniel Jones shot himself in the head on live television on a Los Angeles freeway interchange. A few years later, a writer for Los Angeles Magazine wrote that “Daniel Jones was newsworthy, in those last moments of his life, simply because he was holding up traffic.”
Smith told viewers that “we see a lot of things that we don’t let get to you, because it’s not time appropriate, it’s insensitive, it’s just wrong. And that was wrong.” But having aired even what was “just wrong” was still news. He ended: “We’ll update you on what happened with that guy and how that went down tonight on The Fox Report. I’m sorry.”
The reality is that for Jordan Romero, as for Daniel Jones, the story of the coverage has trumped the story itself. On Friday, a man stole a car, led police on a chase, and then shot himself in the head. But very few people would care about that, let alone know his name, had Fox News not broadcast it all live on television all across America.