There’s a great movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal that came out over the weekend called Nightcrawler. Most of the focus has rightfully been on a terrific, weirdo performance from Gyllenhaal, but the film itself is interesting for the way it takes local news tropes to their logical extremes. Gyllenhaal is a murder paparazzo, which is to say: He listens in on the police scanner and chases violence around the city so that he can capture close-up images of victims of violence and sell that footage to a struggling local news station. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the station’s news director (Rene Russo) says, and the movie itself is about amping up ratings by featuring increasingly horrific scenes of grisly violence, some scenes of which are staged — in a manner of speaking — by Gyllenhaal’s character, himself.
Our fascination with bloody violence is not new to the local news game, however. In fact, it dates back decades, and Nightcrawler actually ended up reminding me of two things: First, of Howard Beale’s “mad as hell” speech in the 1976 film, Network, and then of Christine Chubbock, a 29-year-old Florida news reporter who was reading the news one night in 1974.
This is the account of the scene from UPI:
Christine Chubbock flicked her long dark hair back away from her face, swallowed, twitched her lips only slightly, and reached with her left hand to turn the next page of her script. Looking down on her anchor desk, she began to read: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in” — she looked up from the script, directly into the camera and smiled a tentative smile. Her voice took on a sarcastic tone as she emphasized “blood and guts … and in living color.” She looked back down at her script. Her left hand shook almost unnoticeably.
Her right arm stiffened. “We bring you another first.” Her voice was steady. She looked up again into the camera. Her eyes were dark, direct, and challenging. “An attempted suicide.” Her right hand came from under the anchor desk. In it was a .38 caliber revolver. She pointed it at the lower back of her head and pulled the trigger. A loud crack was heard. A puff of smoke blew out from the gun and her hair flipped around her face as though a sudden gust of wind had caught it. Her face took on a fierce, contorted look, her mouth wrenched downward, her head shook. Then her body fell forward with a resounding thud against the anchor desk and slowly slipped out of sight.”
She died a few hours later in the hospital. She was 29, single, and suffered from depression.
On the desk, after Chubbock was rushed off to the hospital, a staff member found a piece of paper. It was the script of her own death written in long-hand describing the suicide attempt, how she was taken to the hospital, and it listed her in critical condition.
Like Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, Chubbock had made herself part of the narrative, and as though to illustrate her point about the our insatiable need for more “blood and guts,” the story of her suicide became front-page news all over the world.
“If it bleeds, it leads.”