The catastrophe that created If It Bleeds
July 27, 2007. A typically sunny, hot as hell Arizona summer day. Thirty minutes from the end of my shift as morning editor for KPHO, the CBS-TV affiliate located off I-17 and Bethany Home Road in Phoenix.
I was manning the Capture center, the place where microwave signals from our remote live trucks are received and processed for broadcast. The helicopter was up following a dangerous police pursuit of a stolen vehicle. The video it was feeding back had the attention of the whole newsroom, as cop chases usually do. The suspect was driving like a maniac through the uptown streets, either hopped up on some illegal chemicals or trying to avoid being served one of a laundry list of warrants. We all thought it was over when he pulled into an empty construction site. The cops were right on his tail. But our foolish driver chose to hop out the car and run to a nearby pickup truck, which for some stupid reason still had the keys in the ignition. The truck started up, and the chase began anew.
That’s when our chopper pilot could be heard crying “Oh my God! Oh my God!” The helicopter camera turned away from the pursuit and focused on a flaming patch of grass in the middle of Steele Indian School Park. The wreckage of two news choppers lay in the middle, shadowed by a tower of black smoke.
We were live on the air. I was fighting to keep the camera’s signal from fading to static. That’s hard to do when you just watched someone die. Without the sounds of scanner traffic and reporters rushing out the door, the place would have been as silent as a morgue. We were all doing our jobs. Or trying to do our jobs.
But what was “our jobs”? Was it to inform or to titillate? To shine a light on the corrupt, or shine it on our worst nature? To connect with our community, or connect their eyeballs to their screens long enough to reach the next furniture store commercial? And those four men who perished that day, did they have to be casualties in this competition for the biggest story and the best video?
Those were the questions that ran through my head as I drove home late that afternoon and as I slept that evening. I was never that enthusiastic about TV news; I still had that radio deejay bug crawling through me even though rock radio was just about dead. But this tragedy cut me deeply. In the summer of 2007, I had never felt more contempt for my profession. My first book would be published two years later, but that horrible day was the impetus for all the ideas that would come to fruition in my second book, IF IT BLEEDS.
It would be nice if one day my books were the subject of academic study, though I doubt that will happen. Nevertheless, if any literature student is wondering exactly what I was trying to say in this novella, I would offer this: we are what we consume. Long ago in the early 1980’s, a TV news director somewhere in America made the bold decision to kick investigation and insight to the curb in favor of mayhem and fatal tragedies. This new direction in local news coverage was a huge success and became the template for all others to follow. An article in New York Magazine in 1989 would sound the alarm with the first use of the phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads,” decrying the endless barrage of violence without context and societal problems without solutions, how it was making us more paranoid, stressed, and hateful. IF IT BLEEDS carries this notion into a terrifying “eat-or-be-eaten” survivalist extreme.
At the time of this writing, I am taking steps to turn this story into an audiobook. Until then, you have the paperback or ebook to enjoy. I’ll leave you with this one thought: burst your bubble. Seek good in your world. And demand the same of your local news, so that no more good people have to die seeking the bad.