The Car Chase is the Best Thing on the Box

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In Monday's Unger Report, Day to Day offbeat correspondent Brian Unger shares his thoughts on a favorite television obsession: the car chase.


Two weeks ago, the Unger Report focused on television news and its obsession with oddball animal stories. Today, it's another TV news staple: the car chase, as captured by the ubiquitous news helicopter. `Is this news or something else?' asks Brian Unger in today's Unger Report.

BRIAN UNGER reporting:

Across the country, televised car chases are increasingly depicted as sport--some might even say entertainment--and the play-by-play announcer is usually a helicopter pilot, many, many helicopter pilots. From out of nowhere, a matrix of flying machines descend on cars racing away from other cars, and there's no escape.

(Soundbite of music)

UNGER: Take, for instance, the other night in Los Angeles around 9:30, as CBS' "The Amazing Race" was charging toward its compelling denouement. A sound from outside grew so loud, I couldn't hear my TV think for me. The sky lit up; the walls began to shake. Was this an earthquake? No, this was something more familiar. This was news, and it was breaking. I paused my TiVo, got up, walked to my front door, opened it, looked up and there in the sky was something awesome I'd never seen before.

(Soundbite of helicopters; theme from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind")

UNGER: Eight helicopters. Seven of them were news helicopter hovering at one altitude. One of them, a police helicopter, was circling at a few hundred feet below with its superduper light ray, you know, the kind of flashlight you wish you owned when you go down to the basement to flip the circuit breaker.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

UNGER: And the sound--it was a roar, deafening so, body chemistry altering, as a flotilla of Skycam 10's, Chopper 7's and News Bird 11's lined up. And there on the edge of night, Copter 9's, Rotor 5's and, you know, just lots of helicopters screamed across the horizon to join the formation. This was journalism!

(Soundbite of "Ride of the Valkyrie")

UNGER: That night, at that moment, on nearly every channel on my TV was something happening right outside my door: an uneventful car chase that ended with a routine arrest of a driver. A different car chase a few days later captured by helicopters in Long Beach, California, ended in a not-so-routine way, when the driver was fatally shot on live TV.

Now when this occurs, a debate is reignited: When should helicopters turn their cameras away from a car chase, and are these car chases really news at all? Addressing the first question, a local news director in Los Angeles who aired the shooting said, `Our people are instructed to pull out as quickly as possible when you see the end of a chase coming.' Now in birth control, this is called withdrawal, and in car chase journalism also a method that usually ends badly.

As for the second question--Is a car chase news?--another local news director offered this criteria: `It has to rise to the level of real news, not just eye candy.' Well, it seems a car chase becomes real news only when it gets too obscene to look at. Everything up to that moment that hasn't yet risen to news is sport, entertainment, perhaps even cinema. And to that end, as I stared at that armada of news helicopters hovering above my house, I thought, `What a waste of gas.' And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

(Soundbite of helicopters; "Ride of the Valkyrie")

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and I'm Alex Chadwick.

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