M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Shepard Smith apologizes for the wrong thing

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Shepard Smith apologizes (YouTube via TPM)

Watch the full apology (YouTube via TPM)

After Fox News broadcast a man’s shooting himself in the head near Salome, Ariz., after a hundred-mile car chase Friday, anchor Shepard Smith abjectly apologized to his viewers:

“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.”

Hats off to Smith for the apology, which was richly merited — but not for the reason he gave.

What Fox viewers should have heard was an apology for the network’s having devoted any time at all to a local police chase involving some random guy whom nobody besides his friends and family have heard of.

Here’s what Michael Clemente, Fox’s executive vice president of news editorial, said, according to the AP:

We took every precaution to avoid any such live incident by putting the helicopter pictures on a five second delay. Unfortunately, this mistake was the result of a severe human error and we apologize for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen.

I’m sorry, Mr. Clemente, but you clearly didn’t take “every precaution.” Had you ignored the purported story in the first place, you wouldn’t have had to worry about showing the shooting.

As any cops reporter will tell you, all official police-civilian interactions carry the real risk of violence.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports (.pdf) that three police officers were shot to death during traffic arrests in the first half of this year, for example.

Those traffic confrontations didn’t merit the deployment of helicopters to send pictures into homes nationwide, but Friday’s did.

The only thing that was different about the Arizona story was that the car was in motion very fast. Had the driver legally pulled over when hailed by police before shooting himself, it wouldn’t have attracted anybody’s attention outside the region.

Car chases are suspenseful, and frankly, they’re fun to watch. But they’re unimportant to anyone not involved.

They’re strictly local news, but because they’re also a convenient way to fill air time, producers and directors can’t resist indulging their “Smokey and the Bandit” fantasies.

Where Fox went wrong was in picking up the chase at all. Where it went wrong further was in apologizing for having aired its dénouement, which betrays it lack of courage of its conviction that the chase was news.

Fox decided that this car chase was news. If you accept that premise, Fox was right to have aired the shooting — indeed, it had an obligation to air it. News organizations cover the news. They don’t switch off when the story stops being fun.

Smith’s apology took a lot of guts in today’s media environment, and I admire him for having issued it. I just regret that he apologized for the wrong thing.

(It should go without saying, but this is simply my opinion. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer, NBC News.)

Written by Alex

September 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm

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