Every now and then – perhaps a decade, sometimes longer – a news story comes along that grips the entire nation as it breaks live on the airwaves (be it television or radio).
The types of stories we’re talking about are the ones during which everyone can recall exactly where they were, and what they were doing, when the news broke. The JFK assassination, 9/11 attacks, and Apollo moon landings are the most commonly cited examples, but what about the biggest news stories which LA broadcast journalism has ever seen?
Here are four headlines in particular, from recent Los Angeles history, that will go down as the most memorable of our time.
Robert Kennedy’s Assassination
“Senator Kennedy has been shot… is that possible? Oh my god, Senator Kennedy has been shot. I’m right here, Rafer Johnson has a hold of the man who has apparently fired the shot… he still has the gun; the gun is pointed at me at the moment [off mic, yelling] take a hold of his thumb and break it if you have to!” – Unknown Reporter, 1968
And so the broke the news of Robert Francis Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, shortly after addressing a crowd in Los Angeles. As well as being the most shocking murder of a politician in LA’s broadcast news history, it also gave us a first hand glimpse at one of those many occasions in which a broadcast journalist can literally put himself in the line of fire to break the news. On a media scale, Senator Kennedy’s death was eclipsed by the prior assassination of his presidential bother John F. Kennedy, but the media circus which began immediately after the shots were fired were no less frenzied.
Indeed, the speculation surrounding the exact circumstances and motivations behind RFK’s killing are still being examined today with more or less equal fervour.
Magic Johnson’s HIV Press Conference
“Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers. Today.” – Magic Johnson, 1991
Early on the morning of November 7, 1991, broadcast journalists across Los Angeles were telephoned with a curt message. The only details were that the Lakers were hosting a press conference at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and it involved a major message from none other than Magic Johnson, with his recent weight loss and absence from the sport looming over the situation.
Later that day, the whole world was aware that the basketball superstar had contracted HIV.
While initially explaining away the previous two weeks with a bout of influenza, Magic kept the actual diagnosis quiet from even close family members, making the LA press conference even more of a dramatic shock. At a time in which the HIV virus (and AIDS) was wildly misunderstood and only just becoming known to the general public, Johnson’s sudden announcement was one of the biggest broadcast news events in both Los Angeles and sporting history.
“Now, the story that may never have surfaced if somebody hadn’t picked up his home video camera.” – ABC News, 1991
In 1991, a man on a balcony shot footage of a construction worker being beaten by members of the LAPD following a car chase. With the footage quickly circulating around Los Angeles, and even national news media, many saw it as a clear case of unwarranted police brutality. A subsequent jury did not, acquitting the officers involved and sparking the 1992 LA riots which saw 53 people killed and over 2,000 more injured. Over $1 billion in financial losses to the city were subsequently reported.
The Rodney King story is, amongst many things, one which demonstrated the power of citizen journalism even before the age of the internet and ubiquitous video recording. With many parallels echoing the more recent Ferguson riots, big questions are raised on how broadcast journalism can affect cultures and communities as news stories are unfolding.
OJ Simpson Car Chase
“… You let the police know, you let them all know, I wasn’t running.” – O.J Simpson, 1994
Arguably more so than any other entry above, the O.J. Simpson car chase arrest was the biggest media event in Los Angeles broadcast journalism history (and ranks highly as one of the biggest news stories of the century). With most of the major television news networks broadcasting live footage of the 35mph car chase, 95 million people watched the events as they unfolded in real time with no indication as to how the nail-biting pursuit would end.
Another twist in the broadcast journalism angle of the story is that the KNX radio station managed to broadcast to Simpson himself during the chase, using the opportunity to have USC coach John McKay speak to him from the studio in an attempt to talk him into surrender. To add to the frenzy of the media circus, well over 20 news helicopters joined in the chase and , thanks to the nature of old analogue broadcasts, the crosstalk from all the camera signals caused some footage to appear on incorrect channels (this can be seen and heard at the start of the above footage.)
According to a Neilsen study, the low-speed pursuit and subsequent trial verdict were the most impactful televised news events of the past 50 years behind the 9/11 attacks and coverage of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina disaster. It’s likely that we won’t see another story of this magnitude in LA broadcasting for another 50 years…
Know of any momentous and iconic LA news events that are worthy of mention? Do you have any first-hand memories of the above stories as they broke? Head down to the comments below and let your voice be heard.