News networks find it difficult to resist the cops and robbers lure of car chases

Monday, May 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ For the news networks, car chases are like giving Krispy Kreme doughnuts to a dieter. You know they're bad for you. You know you should resist. But, man, they're just so tasty ...

A few weeks back, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC all aired pictures of a car, its hood torn off, stuck in gravel alongside a rural California highway. Police officers with guns drawn surrounded it, preparing to unleash a dog to subdue the driver.

It was the endgame of a chase on Los Angeles area highways, followed by helicopters with cameras trained on the runaway vehicle.

Who was the driver? What motivated him? No one knew, or, frankly, cared. The New York Times, the Washington Post, even the hometown Los Angeles Times didn't write their own stories about it the next day. The chase didn't make the national news wire of The Associated Press.

Yet the chase was enough to push other news _ the Middle East crisis, the sex scandal in the Catholic church _ off the TV screens.

The reason became obvious through a set of numbers delivered by computer the next day.

Fox News Channel nearly doubled its typical daytime viewership for the 90 minutes the chase was on, to 1.38 million people. CNN had 900,000 viewers, compared to its April daytime average of 555,000. MSNBC's audience was 60 percent higher than normal.

``I think there's a kind of human drama in it that you can't deny, and that fits the definition of news,'' said Kevin Magee, vice president of programming at Fox News Channel. ``It's the good guys versus the bad guys. From their earliest days, most kids played cops and robbers.''

Magee readily admits Fox considers the ratings in covering car chases. He marvels at how viewers suddenly seem to materialize when a chase comes on the air.

``It proves to me that there's twice the audience trolling for something to watch at any given moment and it's up to you to find them and get them in the house,'' he said.

Ken Kuwahara has something to do with galvanizing that audience. The Los Angeles area police officer founded three years ago, a service that alerts members by beeper or phone whenever there's a televised car chase.

He has some 2,000 members who pay $5 a month. He's tried to expand the service nationally, but found that it's largely a Southern California phenomenon.'s members are attracted by the adrenaline rush of a live television event where the ultimate outcome is uncertain, he said.

One media watchdog said the televised car chases further blur lines between news and entertainment. ``News judgment about what is important takes second place to what is exciting viewing,'' said Danny Schechter, executive editor of

Sometimes, the internal battle over whether to cover a car chase is almost palpable.

CNN cut to the May 6 chase nearly 25 minutes after Fox began showing it, and periodically left for other reports. Fox covered another, briefer car chase the following day, and CNN ignored it.

When CNN and Fox devoted 40 minutes in November 2001 to a flaming lumber truck barreling through Dallas, MSNBC didn't cover it. A network spokesman at the time labeled his rivals' news judgment ``appalling.''

Things have changed. MSNBC carried this month's car chases as well as Fox.

``We have to look at whether or not this is something that viewers need to see,'' said Mary Lynn Ryan, managing editor of CNN/U.S. ``We're looking at news value and whether or not it's something that has news value based on what we already have on the air.''

CNN judged the May 6 chase newsworthy, eventually, because it snarled traffic throughout a major metropolitan area and, with the police standoff, lives were at stake, she said.

There was far less internal debate over at Fox. ``Our hands remain un-wrung over this one,'' Magee said, laughing.

Indeed, Fox threw itself into the chase with gusto. Its bird's-eye view of the runaway car was closer and clearer than its rivals, and anchor Shepard Smith kept up an entertaining, what-is-he-thinking commentary.

``The dude ... is finished for the day!'' Smith shouted when the motorist, Joel Eric Larasa, was taken into custody.

If viewers demonstrate they want to see this on a news channel, Fox will provide, Magee said.

``I could go all through the highfalutin justifications for it _ you know, it affects traffic in a major, metropolitan area _ but the audience has told us they think it's news.'' he said. ``I'm not smarter than the audience.''

Or in other words: you decide, they report.

CNN's new management has decided specifically to put the brakes on excessive chase coverage, Ryan said.

``We decided we would resist the temptation to chase ratings with gratuitous television when we have important stories to tell,'' she said. ``I don't think we need to stoop to doing this ... People who know CNN trust CNN, and that's part of our trust. We have to be good journalists.''