ABC-owned WPVI-TV Philadelphia's news chopper didn't just get the story last week; its dramatic video of the violent arrest of a police-shooting suspect following a car chase became the story.
The incident, telecast live between ABC's daytime Port Charles and All My Children, soon became the focus of the story. Within hours, wpvi-tv's footage had gone around the world via ABC's NewsOne feed, its affiliation with CNN Newsource; CBS, 'Fox's and ABC's news-pooling venture NNS; and the Internet.
Calls continued to flood the station seeking the tape, which quickly became central in reactions to the incident by local politicians and pundits.
But the video was not intended to be shown over other Philadelphia broadcast stations. General Manager David Davis said that the story was embargoed in the local market but, by Thursday, "the embargo has already been broken by some of the stations. We have not lifted the embargo."
Both NBC and CBS said they ran the tape under the fair-use exception to copyright law. "News 10 used a brief excerpt of the Chopper 6 video because the tape was both critical to the story and has become a story in and of itself," said a statement from NBC-owned WCAU(TV), which first aired the tape on its late news Wednesday night. "News 10 gave wpvi credit for the use of the video each time it was used. News 10 believes it acted appropriately both from a legal standpoint and journalistic standpoint." Fox-owned WTXF-TV said it used the tape in a limited way with permission as did Tribune-owned wphl-tv.
And while CBS' Early Show was permitted to use the tape Thursday morning because of the network's membership in NNS, NBC is not a member, and The Today Show used it without permission. NBC said its network news management and attorneys had discussed the issue at length. Citing the widespread viewing of the tape and, in particular, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's reference to the tape in a press conference Wednesday, a network spokeswoman said, "At that point, when it's clear that the tape is the crux of the story, it falls under fair use."
Melissa Klinzing, news director at CBS-owned KYW-TV Philadelphia said her station first used the tape on its Thursday noon newscast, taking it from the CBS Newspath feed although "we had several versions around this building." The decision to use the video, she said, was made after lengthy discussion with CBS' legal department, which determined that the wide availability of the tape and "that the tape's existence had taken on a life of its own within the story" made it a fair use.
"It was important to talk with our lawyers," she said. "I would expect other stations to observe my copyright as a matter of courtesy. We were the last people on earth to use this tape."
ABC attorneys had contacted Klinzing at home to inform her personally of the embargo, she said. "I said I wouldn't use it [Wednesday night], but I told them we would reconsider in the morning." She said station lawyers tried to contact WPVI-TV on Thursday.
By late last week, WPVI-TV allowed limited use of the video locally, due to intense public interest.
WPVI-TV last week gave a copy of the tape aired to police for internal investigation and to the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, as radio and cable pundits debated whether the video legitimately exposed possible police brutality or presented the police in a negative light without context.
Helicopters are often a cause of friction between press and police but are particularly so during emergency situations when police fear that live long-shots could reveal strategic positions. On the other hand, news helicopters have also aided police in providing an observation point and helping track suspects.
Comparisons of the Philadelphia tape with the 1991 video that showed several white policemen beating black suspect Rodney King after a car chase in Los Angeles came quickly, although distinctions between the two were quickly drawn as well. Unlike in the King incident, there were black as well as white cops in the crowd around suspect Thomas Jones.
In another taped incident, in Lawrenceville, Ga., police officers appeared to punch and kick a drunk-driving suspect following a car chase. Although that tape received widespread airing, the incident did not get the attention of the one in Philadelphia. And, because it was captured by several Atlanta stations' news choppers, there were no embargo issues.