Git 'er Done!

By Jarrett Bellini

I work in a television newsroom.

On a typical day, we cover any number of stories, from politics to sports, from world events to cute babies. But be it explosions in Iraq or the election of a new Pope, nothing, and I mean nothing, sends our rating through the roof like a good old fashioned car chase.

It usually starts out like this. A producer in the control room announces that there is a possible pursuit in progress, details forthcoming. Those of us with headphones, now privy to this information, begin the process of high-fives and chest bumps, for we know that it’s only a matter of time before we can put our feet up and let the show go on auto pilot for a while – no pun intended. Then, originating in a place that is still a mystery to me and could very well be the North Pole, a voice calls out over a speaker in our studio: “Attention all networks. Coming down, now, on router twenty is live coverage of a freeway chase in progress.”

Without even looking, we generally assume that our footage is coming in from KCAL. I might be making this up, and I am, but it’s a fact that the first thing they teach you in Los Angeles driving schools is how to blow past other vehicles at 90 miles-per-hour while holding a semi-automatic weapon.

Now, you have to understand, when you repeat the same boring news every fifteen minutes, a car chase, to put it in baseball terms, is like quietly sitting in the bleachers during a slow game, and then, for no apparent reason, the home plate umpire’s head explodes. It’s that good.

So, we let the story develop, gathering a few bits of information, and then our anchors finally break into our regular coverage.

“This just coming in to us, live, from Los Angeles… police are in pursuit of a red Mazda RX-8 on I-10 eastbound. The driver, we are being told, had just held up a bakery in Thousand Oaks, and is believed to be armed with bazooka.”

“That’s right. We don’t have many more details at this time, except to say that police are keeping their distance. And we are going to stick with this unless something really important happens. And it better be bloody.”

Now, at this point, with the anchors ad-libbing as they go, the teleprompter operator has fallen asleep face-first into the USA Today sports section, the floor director is scouring eBay for signed pictures of Wonder Woman, and the lighting guy has stepped outside for a cigarette. On a good day, this will last for several hours. Meanwhile, police representatives and other witnesses are being rounded up for on-air interviews that, generally, go something like this:

“On the line with us is Captain Ron Dinglewood from the California Highway Patrol. Mr. Dinglewood, thank you for coming on the air. What can you tell us?”

“Well, all I can really say is that officers are in pursuit of a red Mazda, now heading toward Denver.”

“So you have reason to believe that this man is trying to get to Colorado?”

“No. But he’s sort of heading in that direction.”

“I see. We understand that he had robbed a bakery and is armed with a bazooka. Can you confirm this?”

“At this time, I cannot confirm whether or not he is armed. However, we believe that he may be either holding, like you said, a bazooka, or, perhaps, a French baguette.”

It doesn’t really matter what is being said, because the viewers are only concerned with one thing – how will it end? Unlike a normal news story, where something has already happened and is now being reported, this car chase is not only live, but, by definition of all things that begin, it must come to a resolution. And, unlike, say, a conference on global warming, this one is likely to end in death and/or dismemberment.

During our most recent car chase, we followed a white van for about two hours until spike strips blew out the tires, and an officer spun it out by nudging the back of the guy’s car with the nose of his police cruiser. After it slammed into a retaining wall, the SWAT team pinned the car in so the driver couldn’t escape. For the next several hours, nothing happened. So, as any serious journalist would do, I made for some wagering. For the price of a quarter, those of us in the studio, anchors included, could purchase a square on a bingo card of sorts. Different squares, assigned at random, stood for different conclusions. My square would win me the pot if the suspect surrendered peacefully before five in the afternoon. Other squares were for death by police, surrender with a struggle, and other possible endings.

Well, the standoff lasted past my shift, meaning that I would have to learn of the final outcome from home. Of course, once I got to my house and started doing other things, I sort of forgot about the chase… until my phone rang.

“Jarrett, we have a problem.” It was one of my co-workers, Scott. It sounded urgent, as though I may have had to go back to work for other breaking news.

“What’s the matter, Scott?”

“I’m not sure if you’ve got your TV on, but we don’t have a corresponding square for K-9 attack after tear-gas grenade.”

No need to put my pants back on. “Hmm. I see. OK, well, let’s just file that under surrender with a struggle after 5PM, and we’ll take it to committee in the morning.”

And that’s how we settled the most bizarre chase we had covered in a long time. But there will be more. The viewers demand it, despite the fact that they complain how we never cover important news. Yet, they can’t turn away when we serve up sensationalism. People need to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to the media. If you want more hard news, tune in when we’re covering real stories. If you want less car chases, turn off your TV when we’re in hot pursuit. Remember, this is a business. We sell what people will buy.

For this reason, somewhere in a plush executive office in our building, somebody is praying for new video of Michael Jackson holding a cute baby while being chased down a freeway in Los Angeles.

It pains me to say this, but… it could happen.

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