CNN is currently airing ”The Radical Story of Patty Hearst,” a multi-part documentary on the 1974 kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of media baron William Randolph Hearst. The Hearst saga foreshadowed spectacles such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial by two decades, as the heiress declared her allegiance to the terrorist group that had abducted her, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Bank robberies, shootouts, bombings and a fugitive run ensued before Ms. Hearst’s recapture in 1975. She was sent to prison, receiving a commutation from President Jimmy Carter and eventual pardon from President Bill Clinton.
The pinnacle of media coverage regarding Patty Hearst was the live broadcast of the Los Angeles Police Department’s shootout with the majority of the SLA in South Central LA (Hearst was not at the hideout). The real-time relay of the military-level battle on American streets was a television and technology breakthrough thanks to the minicam, a (relatively) portable video system comprising a camera and backpack. Washington Post writer Paul Farhi provides an illuminating history of the minicam including its pioneering use by KNXT (now KCBS), the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles that landed the video scoop.
As Farhi points out, live TV feeds were commonplace in 1974 but required pre-positioning bulky traditional video cameras. In 1955, Walt Disney unveiled Disneyland with a live broadcast, stationing nearly 30 big cameras around the park. In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald died on the air as news crews were in place to cover his transfer to county jail. Political events and space launches were routinely seen in real time but not without scrupulous planning and copious equipment. The minicam injected breaking news into the telecast—spontaneous scenes not captured on film hours earlier, not described in “a thousand words” by radio remote, not filtered by an in-studio anchor.
I was 12 years old when I watched LAPD’s SWAT battle the SLA. A news buff, I had followed the Hearst kidnapping. I felt fear and fascination knowing the story had come to “our town” although I was approximately 20 miles away from the firefight, safe at my family home in the Hollywood Hills. That night as I slept, the .22 rifle I had gotten for my birthday lay under the bed (five-round magazine loaded, chamber empty, safety on). The “era of televised terror” was underway, as commentator Jeffrey Toobin would write decades later.
Today, everyone with a smartphone is a one-person minicam crew. As I’ve blogged previously, the man/woman on the street creates the message. Toobin’s televised terror is constant, from tours of Aleppo’s ruins, to images inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during Nikolas Cruz’ rampage, to bullies immortalizing a beatdown on Facebook Live. We never have to miss a minute.