How ‘Telecopter’ creator changed the way we see news

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

John Silva — free-press icon? Well, maybe not quite. But the creator of the first news helicopter, the “Telecopter,” did change the way news is reported.

The New York Times reported recently that Silva, whose invention debuted in 1958 for Los Angeles TV station KTLA, died Nov. 27 at age 92. His legacy would have to include helping to reshape the identity of our modern free press, both in how it reports the news and in the public’s expectations of how news is presented.

Silva refitted a two-seat Bell 47G2 helicopter — a civilian version of the bubble-canopy chopper used in the “M*A*S*H” television series — with a camera adapted to the jittery aircraft, and an antenna could send a consistent signal back to the station.

That gave the news an eye in the sky. At first, Telecopter reporters focused on the L.A. freeways. But KTLA and other stations’ news choppers came to provide news and images from events as diverse as the 1994 O.J. Simpson “white Bronco” police chase, brush fires, urban riots and natural disasters.

Silva later earned two Emmy Awards for his pioneering engineering work. But the impact of his work was far from just technical.

Images of street riots in 1965 that wracked the Watts area and incidents such as the Rodney King beating in 1992 that sparked additional urban violence were available live and unfiltered from a bird’s-eye view. Ultimately broadcasters adopted self-imposed ethical guidelines to guard against prompting the news even as they reported it — out of a concern that some rioters might be encouraged by the cameras.

Similarly, an on-air suicide inadvertently shown live via airborne coverage led most TV stations either to put such news reports from the scene on time-delay or ban them — though those rules don’t always apply.

On Sept. 28, an Arizona carjacker who shot at police and at a news helicopter, later stopped, got out of his car and shot himself — and all aired live on Fox News Channel. Anchor Shepard Smith apologized, saying the video was on a five-second delay but the network failed to cut the video feed in time.

Then there are the car chases tracked endlessly from the air – not necessarily newsworthy, though they may appear to be. They make for good television, to the extent that TV series based on car vs. car are a staple of “reality” cable programming.

Journalists aloft have not always been welcomed by officials on the ground. Safety concerns have always limited the extent of aerial news reporting, but during last year’s Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, New York City police were accused of expanding a no-fly zone to exclude news helicopters from taking video of the police clearing public spaces of protesters.

News consumers’ appetites were dramatically whetted beginning in 1958, and have been conditioned ever since to expect the on-the-spot, immediate and “all-seeing” news coverage made possible by Silva’s new news tool. The Telecopter was the precursor of the 24/7, always on and available cable TV and Internet-based news culture.

Newsgathering is protected by the First Amendment as surely as is publishing — one without the other prevents a “free press” from operating freely. But the immediacy and rawness of live video inevitably will produce images we would sometimes rather not see, and news that officials sometimes would rather not be gathered.

Thus far, how and when we get news from the Telecopter’s progeny is fairly well regulated by the court of public opinion, rather than courts of law or legislative hallways. It’s a First Amendment-friendly approach.

Such is the legacy of John Silva, whose technical wisdom changed the way we see the news — and whose vision, at times, made it even more controversial.

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