2. Media coverage, confusion, and contradictions

The above reconstruction of Daniel Jones’ death is based on videotape of the event from official and unofficial sources, network news coverage of the event after the fact, official and unofficial news web sites, radio and television roundtables on journalism and ethics in the days following, and press reports accessed in a variety of print and electronic forms. Media coverage had been immediate, lasted for the duration, and was broadly disseminated, with six local television stations (KTLA, KNBC, KTTV, KCOP, KCAL, KCBS) covering at least the last 15 minutes of the event live. Web sites affiliated with local and national news networks such as KCBS Channel 2000 posted images and reportage, and provided discussion forums for viewer and reader feedback. The graphic footage itself circulated months and years afterward, on the Internet and in disaster video compilations. For example, one site www.everwonder.com (accessed 10/28/98) posted video clips of Jones in particularly dramatic moments for viewer download. interactive links from the page offering clips of Jones’ suicide led to additional pages providing digitized footage of the deaths of Kennedy and Rabin. Was everwonder.com simply exploiting gruesome consumer interest for graphic violence—or editorializing as to the import of Jones’ actions by associating his death with political killings?

The site’s presentation of this material indicates the nature of the significance of Jones’ death at the same time as it points to difficulties in grasping that significance. The fact that everwonder.com leads viewers from footage of Jones’ suicide to footage of the assassinations of Kennedy or Rabin suggests an ad hoc identification of this event as a political one. Since neither was Jones a recognized political figure nor was criticism of HMOs featured on the site apart from the banner visible in the video clips, Jones’ televised death operated in terms of a spectacular excess which both prompted response but interfered with accurate categorization of its content.

National news broadcasts also followed the story in their evening broadcasts, while viewer outrage prompted apologies beginning the night of Jones’ death. Local broadcasters who had eagerly pre-empted regular viewing to follow the Jones story, though, claimed Jones’ final act of suicide to be a surprise, with some stations saying that they had had insufficient warning to pull cameras to a more distant view or to switch to another view altogether in order to avoid broadcasting the fatal shot that ended the standoff. However, these claims may have been based as much on ratings as on viewer comments. Ratings figures indeed indicated shifts from normal daytime and evening news patterns: as ratings rose, coverage was maintained. After ratings dropped, apologies were issued. According to The Hollywood Reporter (5/4/98), combined ratings rose 2 points to 18 shares for the six stations carrying the event at 3:45, near the time of Jones’ death, rather a less momentous jump than the controversy might suggest. The same six stations’ 5:00 PM news shows gained 2 share points, while the 6 PM news broadcast showed an smaller increase of only 1 point. However, 4 PM news programs lost a combined 3 points. (Higher than average shares for the 10 PM news market were attributed by journalist Jonathan Davies to a lead-in by a Lakers basketball game.) At any rate, fluctuating ratings indicated contradictory reactions on the part of the audience.

As if in search of a formula for a calculus of violence, information, and mediation, arguments articulated by viewers and by television producers and journalists in a variety of forums held after the event found support for and against the censorship of live news in controversial broadcasts from recent memory: a shooting in a Burbank bank robbery the year before; the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, the 1992 riots against the ensuing verdicts (with the beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny cited numerous times); the notorious Jerry Springer talk show; the flight of O.J. Simpson and the particular genre of freeway pursuits that event helped to solidify; and so forth. There were also general references to social violence, fire arms, and memories of the rash of “road rage” freeway shootings from earlier years. In my research, the events cited as precedents belonged overwhelmingly to events having social and political dimensions, not natural disasters. This distinction between natural and unnatural disaster implied an agency, intent, responsibility. Broadcasters were widely, although by no means unanimously, condemned for breaking into afternoon viewing schedules and turning the attention of young, uninterested, or unwilling viewers to the catastrophic scene

The fact that afternoon television viewing is aimed at significant numbers of children and homemakers who constitute the daytime viewing public deserves consideration in an accounting of Jones’ actions along with, for example, the timing of his suicide during rush hour traffic. Numerous scholars (among them, Williams 1974, Morley 1986, Spigel 1992a, 1992b, or Haralovich 1992) have observed a specificity of television viewing by analyzing television programming as it intersects with social dynamics and cultural practices. Viewer habits have been understood in relation to, for example, youth- or family-oriented programming as media companies have sought demographic targets such as the suburban housewife or the teenage. Here, strategies of appeal may build on social identity (Morley or Spigel). More generally, Williams noted the larger problematic of television in relation to “mobile privatization.” “Televisual flow” enables a conflicted knitting together of private experience necessitated by the loss of public, social built space incurred in the process of suburbanization (Williams). The timing and placement of Jones’ television suicide and the conflicting responses it prompted becomes clear within these large-scale critical perspectives. Jones’ death interrupted the flow of traffic through a key freeway intersection of greater Los Angeles at the time of day commuters begin their return home, and so delineate the difference between afternoon and evening viewing.

In the media environment of the late 1990s, more specifically, the differentiation of less “serious” programming generally slotted for daytime viewing and the more serious nighttime news or other prime-time programming had already become porous with the increased profitability of local news operations and the steady availability of events with which to fill emergency coverage. In this context, the coverage of Jones’ suicide epitomized the ways in which ubiquitous news coverage, increasingly important for maximizing the profits of network affiliates before and after prime-time network broadcasts, had already frayed long-standing assumptions about television’s role and authority in framing the often contradictory aspects of our social world as symbolically cohesive events (see, for example, the problematic of television and crisis in Doane 1990; television and liveness, in Feuer 1983, see discussion below; and on the media event, Dayan and Katz 1992, Fiske 1996). In this sense, it is not surprising that the debate ensuing in the wake of Jones’ suicide tended to center on broadcasters, the regulation of live television news, and the mandate for social responsibility that ensures their licensing: when to broadcast and when to censor. Of course, in that debate, these two questions—when to broadcast, when to censor—were not articulated in mutually exclusive terms. Jones’ criticism of health maintenance organizations was largely sidelined by media organizations as they grappled with their own vulnerability to public criticism.

Section 3, full text:
Reality television: an economy of pre-emption

Section 3, abstract

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