LAST FRIDAY, my local late night newscast got hijacked by a car chase — again.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a little background:
If you like local news, you have a lot of options when you live in Southern California. During the work week, once you get past the dinner hour you can find at least one local newscast continuously from 8 pm until 11:30 pm. And for the most part, you have multiple options. At 10 pm, you have three to choose from; at 11 pm there are four.
In other words, you usually have no problem getting a fix on what is going on in the news if you live in the greater Los Angeles area — unless there’s a car chase going on somewhere.
That’s because when a SoCal car chase happens — and they happen with maddening regularity — EVERY local TV station loses all sense of perspective and jumps into covering it.
Car chases are a SoCal news staple
Once the local stations start in on a car chase, you’re SOL when it comes to the stations going back to regular news, because they won’t until the chase is over. If this happens during an hour-long newscast at say, 10:05 pm, the station goes to the chase in lieu of everything else they have planned and promoted all day, including weather and sports.
If the chase eats up the rest of the newscast, well, tough luck. And if it spills into the 11 o’clock hour, ALL of those competing newscasts do the same thing too.
It doesn’t matter what else is going on in the news, or how important anything else may be, because to a SoCal TV News Director, a car chase trumps all
You know what they stop covering a chase for? When something that actually gets ratings and makes them money — like Jimmy Fallon and The Tonight Show — kicks in at 11:35 pm. Hey, they have to have SOME priorities, don’t they?
There are a lot of reasons why LA is the world capital of televised car chases, and Los Angeles Magazine dug into them back in 2003 when it wrote about how Southern California “car chases (became) a nightly staple — and an international industry”:
(Starting) with the slow-speed chase of O.J. Simpson in 1994, the pursuit would become an international phenomenon. With plotline references in TV programs as disparate as The Larry Sanders Show and Seventh Heaven, it would become part of L.A.’s vernacular. With Fox specials such as World’s Scariest Police Chases and best-selling video games like Grand Theft Autoand Need for Speed, it would become an industry.
On a simple level, L.A.’s obsession with car chases results from a confluence of factors: the LAPD’s aggressive pursuit policy (which is under review by the police commission), the city’s horizontality, an abundance of freeways, advances in camera technology, and a competitive TV news market that encourages imitation rather than innovation.
Take away just one of those factors, perhaps, and there might not be a car chase filling the screen every time you flick on the remote.”
Why don’t local stations cover the real issues with car chases?
Back in April, The New York Times wrote a giddy, almost news-free article touting The Allure of the Los Angeles Car Chase. Although The Times‘ claims that their reporter was “born outside Sacramento … raised in San Juan Capistrano (and) lives in Davis,” the tenor and tone of his article suggests he hasn’t spent much time actually watching many Southern California car chases.
If he had, he probably would have dug a little more into many of the real issues that flow out of how LA-area TV stations cover these pseudo-news events. For example:
- What’s the news value in covering a car chase, an event that’s not all that uncommon and rarely has a surprising resolution? Why does it top ANYTHING else that is going on?
- Why are SoCal stations so ready and willing to throw out everything they’ve worked on all day for something that happens so frequently and results in so little of consequence? What message does that send to their news staff?
- Isn’t it possible that televising every two-bit car chase actually encourages more of them because of the overblown coverage that seems to give any idiot who decides to run from the authorities their “15 minutes of fame?”
- And, why doesn’t anyone talk much about the tragic downside to these police chases? The LA Grand Jury issued a report earlier this year and found they were “causing unnecessary bystander injuries and deaths,” with 1 in 10 initiated by the LAPD from 2006 to 2014 resulting in civilian injuries, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Once in a while, somebody actually gets away from law enforcement while being chased, but it’s pretty rare — 18 percent, according to a 2015 comment by a LAPD official. As an unwilling consumer of televised car chases, that sounds a little high to me, but even that is hardly a reason to over cover these things.
This is the textbook definition of “fake news”
Here’s the bottom line: the ubiquitous Southern California car chase doesn’t meet anyone’s definition of news, at least not as I have practiced it as a newspaper and magazine editor for the last 40 years.
Yes, I’ve heard all the BS from TV news directors that car chases are a “legitimate news event,” and sometimes they even like to claim that the overblown coverage actually is a public service because it helps to show would-be suspects that they shouldn’t do it because you almost never get away.
Even if you’ve never seen a televised car chase, you probably have the good sense to know that all of it is complete and utter crap. It’s spectacle masquerading as news.
When I’m watching my late local newscast and see them jumping on one of these televised car chases, I usually give them 5 minutes to see if it gets resolved, and if it doesn’t, I watch something else or turn off the TV completely.
Given how bad local news values are, and how shoddy their regular, every-day coverage usually is, all the local SoCal TV news directors are doing with this is training me to turn them off.
Forget what you hear coming out of Washington; THIS is the textbook definition of “fake news.”
If getting me to turn my local newscast off is their goal, well, they’re succeeding.