On July 27th, two rival news station helicopters collided over Phoenix, AZ, as they shot competing live footage of a high-speed police chase. Both helicopters crashed, killing their crews, which included two pilots and two photographers (the term of choice for those who shoot video footage).
High-speed chases have been in the national spotlight not because of cultural schaudenfreude, but because so many high-speed chases result in destruction of property, both public and private, and personal injury to the suspects, the pursuers, and passersby (350 people die per year as a result of these chases).1 In fact, earlier this year the Supreme Court heard a case filed by a suspect who was paralyzed during a Coweta County, Georgia, high-speed chase when a police cruiser rammed the Cadillac he was driving, causing the teen to lose control of the vehicle and crash into the bottom of an embankment.
In this latest high-speed tragedy, perhaps the first including the deaths of "eye in the sky" television personnel, a new wrinkle has been added to the debate:
The police chief [Jack Harris] said the suspect will likely face criminal charges for the deaths in the helicopter crash."I think he will be held responsible for any of the deaths from this tragedy," Harris said. (CNN.com)While the death of a police officer or civilian bystander seems easily attributed to the participants involved in the chases—and here I mean to include the officers pursuing the suspect—Chief Harris's assertion is less easily justified.
In a culture that uses the words "personal accountability" to justify cutting social programs and retracting sympathy from those it deems deviant or criminal, all personal accountability for crew and bystander safety has been wrested from the helicopter pilots and their respective networks. As is a long-standing tradition in America, that responsibility has been judiciously given to the stigmatized individual, the criminal on the lam.
This transference of blame serves a crucial ideological function, and for this reason culture is likely to embrace Chief Harris' desire to attribute the deaths to the suspect. By blaming the suspect, we do not have to blame ourselves. As hungry consumers of spectacle masquerading as news, as viewers titillated by the rhetoric of "high-speed chases" (which so often are disappointingly dissimilar to Hollywood's representations of them), these news crews died in their attempt to deliver a valuable commodity that we, the consumers, by-and-large demand.
In an age when entertainment and news are often indistinguishable—consider the number of viewers whose knowledge of current events comes either from Bill O'Reilly or Jon Stewart—it has become increasingly important for us, the news consumers, to reject these spectacles and demand that time and other resources are put into actual reportage of legitimate news.
The story of the suspect in Arizona can be summarized in a single sentence—suspect in alleged stolen vehicle flees police. Car theft is, unfortunately, common. Since 2000, statistics show that a vehicle is stolen in the United States every 25.5 seconds, resulting in roughly 1.2 million thefts per year ("FBI Unified Crime Reports"). Yet for this theft, labeled a "high-speed chase," both Channel 13 and Channel 3 sent helicopters to cover events that unfold twice per minute.
Consider the following transcript of pilot-to-pilot communication immediately preceding the collision (only the voice of Craig Smith, the late pilot for Channel 15, could be heard):
"Where's 3?"Clearly, at least one of the pilots, Channel 3, was unaware of the location of the other helicopter, a mistake which seemingly caused the helicopters to collide, killing the crews.
"Like how far? Oh, jeez."
"3, I'm right over you. 15's right over you."
"Oh, jeez." (AZCentral.com)2
However, the network got the spectacle it wanted, as viewers on Channel 15 heard the collision live on air and saw the signal drop, that ubiquitous sign of things turning from bad to worse. Now, some major news agencies are running pictures of the collision on the front page of websites (perhaps you've seen it somewhere? I've elected to use a picture of the infamous low-speed chase of one Orenthal James Simpson), using the resultant spectacle from an otherwise unremarkable police chase to attract those news fans left unsatisfied after July 27th's interrupted high-speed coverage.
Instead of attempting to pin pilot error on the suspect below (could he or she be said to know that helicopters were involved?), let us pin the error on our own chests. The suggestion that we as individuals are somehow directly responsible for the welfare of those to whom we are in no way connected is a terrifying one (if I leaned out of my window to try to snap a picture of the chase to post to my blog, and if I fell out of that window, would that fall also be the fault of the suspect?). If we were not a culture addicted to the gruesome, if we did not readily accept spectacle and cheap entertainment as news, there would have been no need to send those helicopters into the sky where they collided, dropped signal, and made some great television.
1 Sherman, Mark. "High Speed Chase Reaches Supreme Court." USA Today. 24 Feb 2007. 28 July 2007
2 AZCentral gathers demographic information before allowing a user to proceed to the news story. Here is the link.