CNN’s Coverage of Man Who Set Himself on Fire Shows Challenges of Live News

CNN’s Coverage of Man Who Set Himself on Fire Shows Challenges of Live News

By Oghale Apr20,2024

Until Friday, at least, the cable news coverage of the first criminal trial of a former president carried a hint of anticlimax.

With the dry and slow-moving proceedings inside a Lower Manhattan courtroom closed to their cameras, the networks could only offer their usual interviews with experts and analysts, set to the sights and sounds of their outdoor, on-location camera positions.

That all changed on Friday when a man from Florida, Max Azzarello, set himself on fire near the courthouse — immediately bringing home the promise and perils of live cable news, especially for the network that invented the genre, CNN.

The network’s legal analyst and anchor, Laura Coates, was doing a live interview with a jury-selection expert when Mr. Azzarello began throwing a batch of conspiracy pamphlets into the air, then dousing himself with an accelerant and setting himself ablaze.

Ms. Coates broke away from a conversation about sequestration rules to dramatically convey what was unfolding nearby.

“An active shooter, an active shooter is in the park outside the court,’’ she shouted excitedly, and incorrectly, before quickly realizing what she was witnessing: “We have a man, he has set fire to himself, a man has emblazoned himself outside of the courthouse just now. Our cameras are turning right now.”

With that, the CNN screen filled with the blazing image of Mr. Azzarello on a park bench, fully engulfed, and Ms. Coates continued with a rapid-fire, radio-style recitation of the action: “We are watching multiple fires breaking out around his body,” she said. “There is chaos that is happening. People are wondering right now if people are in danger,” then adding, “We can smell the air, I can smell the burning of some sort of flesh, I can smell the burning of some sort of agent being used.”

While the other networks at the scene covered the incident, CNN’s coverage was the most dramatic and graphic. (Fox News promptly cut away from footage of the fire as it became clear what was happening, with the senior correspondent, Eric Shawn, telling viewers, “We apologize for showing this.”)

There was no doubt that it was a big moment for Ms. Coates, a one-time voting rights attorney in the Justice Department who now serves as CNN’s chief legal analyst and the anchor of an 11 p.m. show.

“CNN’s Laura Coates Draws High Praise for ‘Breathtaking’ Coverage of Trump Trial Fire,’’ The Daily Beast reported, as various journalists and influencers across the social media platforms X and Threads said that Ms. Coates was deserving of awards, a raise and a still-higher profile on CNN.

But there was also criticism for Ms. Coates’s initial misreport of an “active shooter” and CNN’s split-second decision to show the graphic footage of the self-immolation live.

“Mistakes are made in chaotic shocking circumstances,’’ the podcaster, commentator and former cable news host Keith Olbermann wrote in a critical post on X, disapprovingly noting that CNN had effectively provided “live coverage of a suicide attempt.”

The incident brought to mind other moments when cable news had to make split-second decisions over what to show during breaking news events featuring graphic and disturbing imagery — perhaps most notably immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, which took place just blocks from where Ms. Coates was standing.

Indeed, shortly after her report, CNN’s standards executives issued new guidance warning producers against re-airing the images that it had shown live.

The network declined to comment. An executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were concerns that re-airing the video might encourage copycats, but noted the network has to make such decisions every day, including in its coverage of the war in Gaza.

In this case, however, the action was unexpected and unusually close — so close that a CNN satellite truck operator was among the first on the scene, along with the police, to offer the use of his fire extinguisher.

On her show on Friday night, Ms. Coates said she initially thought Mr. Azzarello was an “active shooter” because of “the times we live in.” In the moment, she was “shocked,” she said, noting that she came to CNN as a legal expert, not a typical journalist with field experience. “My mouth narrated my eyes,’’ she said, “but my eyes — I wish I could unsee it; my nose wishes to unsmell it, my heart breaks for that man and his family.”

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By Oghale

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