Urban manhunts have captivated cities and provided fodder for a frenzied 24-hour media. But at what cost?
In 2003, Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Bratton and other city officials made a peculiar public appeal to journalists in Southern California: stop splattering TV screens with an incessant string of live images of car chases. They alleged that over-saturated coverage was dangerous, drew attention seekers to provoke a chase, and put gawkers' safety at risk.
But in a city where police pursuits were all the rage and generated huge ratings, the appeal was roundly dismissed by shrewd media executives.
Reporters in Los Angeles were keenly attuned to what their consumers wanted, and they weren't going to pull the plug on it anytime soon. Continuous aerial coverage of a swarm of police cars tailing a lone rebel provided the evening news with a glamorous edge that captivated viewers in Hollywood's backyard. Pepper in a little gunfire, a car accident, and maybe even a high profile pursuant and you had Nielsen gold.
Our insatiable appetite for a stirring police pursuit, riddled with dramatic obstacles, persists today. What became evident in the pervasive, engrossing coverage of the Boston bomber's manhunt, is that we have unearthed this decade's car chase.
As media has expanded to include newer mediums and more platforms, we have become more ravenous for news with a soaring thrill factor. In 1994, over 20 helicopters followed the LAPD's titillating chase of OJ Simpson in his iconic white Ford Bronco. The cavalcade garnered over 95 million viewers nationwide, even luring spectators to stand at freeway overpasses to wait for the procession to pass under. The celebrity chase ended peacefully, but gave rise to the enthralling appeal of tracking police pursuits as they unfold. In the years that followed, chases that drew media attention were often over an hour long, featured havoc and bloodshed, sometimes involved violent accidents, and on occasion ended in a harrowing suicide.
Earlier this year, when the LAPD hounded Christopher Dorner, we witnessed how manhunts have trumped the notorious police car chase. The gripping standoff resulted in record breaking ratings surges for local LA TV stations, and even cable networks raked in millions of views in their coverage of the confrontation. The Dorner manhunt however, was far more grim and gruesome than the sensational, action-packed car chase sequences that characterized the 90s and early 2000s, and the fact that viewers remained glued to their TV and computer screens indicates a devolution in our obsession with real life crime drama. News networks feed viewers pulsing images of violence as if it were grief pornography, providing lifeblood to the human impulse that thrives off that stimulation. The showdown between the LAPD and Dorner brimmed with elements of movie magic intrigue- obscenities made it on-air along with sounds of gunfire, the scene ending with Dorner trapped inside a cabin engulfed in flames.
But the Dorner manhunt doesn't hold a candle to the ferocious pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers, the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. The immersive live coverage followed the progress from the moment the first surveillance images were released, to the fiery shootout and hurling of explosives that caused the death of a police officer and the first suspect and the lockdown of an entire metropolis, and ultimately to the victory in the nabbing of a bloody second suspect. In a post 9/11 world, with suspects who happen to be Muslim, there couldn't have been a more evocative scene or a more perfect criminal. News stations, who had been tripping all over themselves to stay abreast of the situation, schlepped in huge ratings for their live coverage. Social media was ablaze with live updates serving up information (and at times, misinformation) about the hunt to those frantically searching for it. In the wake of a horrific tragedy where innocent civilians died and dozens were brutally and senselessly injured, the eyes of a nation were transfixed on a riveting, grimy, unnervingly real, manhunt.
Our persisting fascination with the pursuit and capture of alleged criminals is increasingly unsettling as it has evolved from chase to hunt. Just as wide-eyed onlookers watched Simpson's SUV race by, crowds erupted in cheer as a limp and wounded Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested. Ten years ago in Los Angeles, some experts speculated that excessive media attention on pursuits could be a good thing -- the spotlight could ensure accountability and police officers would be less inclined to rough up a suspect after a pursuit. Today however, even as cell phone to TV cameras follow law enforcement's every move, "roughing up" a suspect is sometimes lauded in the context of the black and white dichotomy we've projected on these manhunts. President Obama's vow that, "Yes, we'll find you and, yes, you will find justice and we'll hold you accountable," whet our appetite in seeing that these men were delivered retribution, however it was served.
Absorbed by the gory mayhem that ensued in Boston, we have glorified violence and death when it is inflicted on a suspected terrorist. The Boston PD are no doubt heroes in gallantly working to protect the city, just as sure as those responsible for the heinous crime should undeniably be held accountable. But as consumers of news, our desperate search for closure and clarity has hindered our ability to discern between fact and fiction. The two men tracked and discovered by authorities are suspects whose guilt has not yet been established in a court of law. So while the death of Suspect 1 brought mollifying relief to many, it's important to remember that shots fired by the police -- even in self-defense -- do not amount to justice. In the case of the Boston manhunt, once the media spotlight wanes and time has afforded us the ability to reflect, we must examine what complexities we may have sacrificed by reducing this story to a 'Boston manhunt.'
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.