A high-speed chase turned ugly for Fox News on Friday when it televised — live — a fleeing carjacking suspect shooting himself in the head in the Arizona desert.
Twitter exploded in reaction to the real-time broadcasting flub, while video of the graphic incident briefly found its way onto YouTube, as a badly shaken senior Fox News anchorman apologized profusely.
“We really messed up and we’re all very sorry,” said anchorman Shepard Smith, who told viewers that a five-second delay in the live feed ought to have enabled the graphic scene to be stopped before going on air.
“That didn’t belong on TV,” Smith said. “We took every precaution we knew how to take to keep that from being on TV. And I personally apologize to you that that happened. That won’t happen again on my watch.”
Fox News online later cited police confirming that the man had died. Yet even before that, Twitter users proclaimed that Fox News, part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, had telecast a “suicide” as it happened.
The Fox affiliate in Phoenix said police had pursued the carjacking suspect at speeds of up to 175km per hour for more than an hour.
From the expressway, the red Dodge Caliber hatchback veered onto dusty back roads in the vicinity of Salome, a town west of Phoenix.
The driver, wearing an American football jersey, was then seen abandoning the car and fleeing on foot, with no police officers visible in the tightly framed aerial shot.
“He’s looking kind of erratic, isn’t he? ... It’s always possible the guy could be on something,” Smith said in a running commentary.
Turning into some bushes, the suspect then pulled out a handgun, put it to his right temple and collapsed.
On air, Smith shouted “get off it, get off it” in a plea to his studio colleagues to halt the live feed.
In the hours that followed, YouTube scrambled to delete the video almost as quickly as its users were posting it, saying it violated its terms of service.
On Twitter, meanwhile, one viewer exclaimed: “Cannot believe I just watched a live car chase for an hour and then all the sudden watched him shoot himself in the head. Crazy.”
Live telecasts of car chases are a longtime staple of US television news, with the 1994 pursuit of disgraced football star and actor OJ Simpson in Los Angeles a classic of the genre.
The live broadcast of the car chase and bloody aftermath drew criticism from a number of media observers.
“There is simply no excuse for this. It is sensationalism to carry it in the first place,” Al Tompkins of the Florida-based Poynter Institute said.
“Whatever local reasons there might be to carry it do not apply to a national audience,” Tompkins said on the school’s Web site.
“And yet this happens time and again and has for more than a decade-and-a-half,” he said. “Each time, TV stations apologize while enjoying a temporary ratings bump.”
Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik commented: “I am not sure there is an explanation for this kind of gatekeeping ineptitude.”