SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
On the Fox News Channel yesterday, there was a grisly reminder of some of the perils of live coverage. Viewers were presented with a police chase involving a man suspected of a car-jacking in Arizona. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik offers this essay breaking down what happened and what went wrong.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: There is a logic to broadcasting footage of a car chase live on the air. And local news helicopters make it so easy. It's ratings catnip and fast-moving, with an adrenaline rush, uncertainty, a whiff of peril and usually - usually - few real consequences. Not this time. Fox news anchor Shepard Smith is never shy about his tabloid TV sensibility. A lively car chase or fire rarely fails to stoke his interest. Around 3:26 p.m. Eastern time yesterday, Smith cuts back to footage from the Phoenix Fox affiliate.
SHEPARD SMITH: Well, look at this. Dingbat here has gotten off the freeway. Remember he was westbound on the...
FOLKENFLIK: The man gets out of his car and things start to go awry.
SMITH: Look at this. He's just running. Oh, my. Well, it looks like he's a little disoriented or something.
FOLKENFLIK: Smith is watching and speculating with us as the man wanders around serpentine in the brush.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (unintelligible)
FOLKENFLIK: The man pulls out what appears to be a gun and presses it against his head, and Smith starts yelling at his producers.
SMITH: Get off, get off, get off, get off, get off, get off, get off, get off it, get off it, get off it.
FOLKENFLIK: The man's gun begins to move and the camera turns back to Smith in studio wincing and what he's seen. After a short commercial break, Smith returns, his face drawn.
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SMITH: Well, I have some explaining to do. While we were taking that car chase and showing it to you live, when the guy pulled over and got out of the vehicle, we went on delay.
FOLKENFLIK: Smith says Fox created a five-second buffer as a precaution - it didn't work. His apology is abject.
SMITH: Sometimes, 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. And that won't happen again on my watch, and I'm sorry.
FOLKENFLIK: I think Smith deserves great credit for his immediate, forthright and transparent apology. But, absent a fugitive at least on the order of O.J. Simpson, a live car chase has no national news value. Remember the hoax flight of balloon boy who happened to be tucked away in his family attic? That was spectacle, not an everyday local crime suspect alluding cops. And at least that was genuinely transfixing. There was no need for what was shown yesterday, no point to this, especially not live or just about live, giving producers no real margin of error. In this case, the whiff of peril turned out to be quite real. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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SIMON: This is NPR News.