Manhunt shows that TV News is Still Relevant

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Former Reporter, Producer, TV Executive Robert Rand writes LA's biggest manhunt shows that Local TV News is still breathing - maybe on a respirator most days – as we roll into 2013. Since college, I’ve worked as a producer, reporter and executive at stations in Philadelphia, SF, Miami and LA. I thought old school TV news was dead more than once in recent years now that anybody can turn on their smart phone and be a reporter. Earlier this week, LA’s KCAL-TV led one of their prime time shows with a traditional doom and gloom tabloid headline open that a tsunami was heading for the Solomon Islands after a severe 8.0 earthquake. A Cal Tech scientist was introduced over the phone for details. The voice on the phone calmly announced that the tsunami warning had already been cancelled. Ooops. Why would anybody still sit through a half hour of stories that had little meaning and no connection with your life?  Now, you can just go online and have instant gratification if you happen to catch one of those 5 second prime time teases.

Early Thursday morning, I just happened to check in for the local LA headlines about 4 am after finishing a late night writing session. I couldn’t hit the off switch for three hours. It wasn’t the usual weekly LA staple of a car being chased down the freeways that sucked me in. Wednesday afternoon, Chris Dorner, a 33-year old former LAPD officer and Navy Seal, was tied to last weekend’s murder of a young woman and her fiancé in Orange County, just south of LA. The victim was the daughter of a retired LAPD captain. Dorner had posted a “manifesto” on his Facebook wall announcing he was going to “terminate” the families of the LAPD officers responsible for getting him fired from the force in 2008. 

Dorner tried to boat jack an elderly man in San Diego just before nine Wednesday night. The possible run for the border didn’t work out when a rope became tangled in the boat’s propeller. By the time, I tuned in just after four early Thursday morning, Dorner had jumped from San Diego to Riverside and Corona – about 90 minutes east of LA -  where he shot at three cops around 1:30 am. He fired an automatic rifle at an LAPD officer (on security detail to protect one of the names on Dorner’s “manifesto” hit list) before ambushing two Riverside cops on routine patrol in a separate incident. The LAPD officer escaped with a graze wound. One of the Riverside cops was killed, the other seriously injured. The hunted fugitive had apparently morphed into a hunter of cops.  

As I furiously surfed between stations, local LA reporters filled in details during live updates from Corona, Riverside and downtown LA. Experienced veterans like KTLA’s Eric Spillman, KNBC’s Toni Guinyard, and Fox’s Phil Shuman were doing outstanding reporting. LA’s longtime, best all around TV reporter is Fox’s Hal Eisner. Eisner is a master story teller who effortlessly weaves together compelling features or hard news. Hal hits it out of the park daily.  Eisner explained a piece of minutia that might have seemed too obvious to some back in the newsrooms about why there were dozens of LA patrol cars and an LAPD command post set up in the city of Corona, far from their jurisdiction. It was a minor but key fact that the other stations assumed the viewers would figure out. The weakest part of the generally excellent coverage was the anchors back in the studio that were a bit spooked - deer in the headlights - without a teleprompter scripts. That’s just unacceptable for major market TV, even in the early morning broadcasts.  

Los Angeles has a long history of iconic TV news stories. The 1949 failed attempt at rescuing little Kathy Fiscus who fell into an abandoned well. The 1975 SLA shootout and search for Patty Hearst. The Manson and Menendez murders. Rodney King. O.J. and the chase.  But in this new century, the manhunt for Chris Dorner will be remembered like those stories for many years.

What made this pursuit much more compelling than a car chase was watching a story unfold in real time. You couldn’t turn away. One hour into my watching, Fox scored a major scoop with a helicopter report over a shooting in Torrance near Redondo Beach. LAPD cops there had shot up a truck similar to Dorner’s. Unfortunately, the occupants, two women delivering newspapers, were both injured. They survived but one is in the ICU tonight. It was fascinating to see the fear and apprehension on the faces of experienced police press information officers. At one point, one of them yelled with frustration at a pack of reporters ,“I’m not going to do this on camera – turn the cameras off and I’ll give you some information.”

Stern BOLO warnings went out from Palms Springs to Santa Barbara – from the desert to the sea, the catch phrase of legendary LA anchor Jerry Dunphy . Some reporters speculated that some schools and offices in Riverside might close Thursday because of the mysterious, elusive danger Chris Dorner represented. A single man had instilled widespread fear throughout all of Southern California. After three hours, I passed out. Before I went to sleep about 7 am, I glanced online at the LA Times and Riverside Press Enterprise web sites. I was surprised to see how far behind the online posts were compared to the TV news coverage. 

[Dorner’s manifesto ,by the way, included shout outs to Anderson Cooper, Charlie Sheen, Ellen Degeneres and LA’s best TV anchorwoman Pat Harvey: "Pat Harvey, I’ve always thought you carried yourself professionally and personally the way a strong black woman should. Your articulation and speech is second to none. You are the epitome of a journalist/anchor. You are America," the manifesto said.]

As I write this early Friday morning, the ski resort town of Big Bear, about an hour east of LA, is locked down. Dorner’s truck was discovered on fire there Thursday afternoon in a desolate mountain area. SWAT teams are going door to door searching for the fugitive in this tragic story that likely will end in another suicide by cop. But I have to apologize to TV news. I’ve harshly criticized your awkward attempt to evolve into the new media age. For several hours early on a chilly, Southern California February night, you showed me .  .  . you’re still relevant.

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