Live Noir

Henry Ford McCrackens 1952 Santa Ana murder trial launched the age of broadcast voyeurism

"That's exactly how I would focus the story," I explain. "This is about the birth of crime and reality TV. Cops, Investigative Reports, The People's Court—all owe a debt to the Hull case. Think two words: 'live noir.'"

"Well, then," Meyer says. "I'll give my friend at Court TV a call. It might be something they'd be interested in."

The meeting is over. I drive to North Hollywood and bolt down a cup of coffee—reassuring myself that I can live with Court TV. Now, I just have to figure out if we've lost our innocence.

According to most late-20th-century cultural historians, the official date of America's "innocence lost" is Nov. 22, 1963—the day of JFK's assassination. The payoff for fans of early live crime coverage came two days later on Nov. 24, when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead before a live TV audience. Like a NASCAR race car hitting the wall on ESPN, Ruby's act of expedient justice was the spectators' defining moment in vicarious danger.

With those same visceral and yet unrealized expectations in mind, any Southern Californian who owned a TV in 1951 witnessed the spectacle of McCracken "live." How did this affect the audience? What innocence were we presumably losing? It occurs to me that the best point of view for my Hull tele-tragedy might be found through the eyes of someone on the scene.

"This was a groundbreaking event in television news," Stan Chambers tells me. Chambers, KTLA-TV's on-the-scene reporter, has covered most of the major events in Southern California over the past 50 years, including the Hull case.

"You really have to give credit to station manager Klaus Landsberg," Chambers says. "His philosophy was to get the cameras out of the studio and into the field. It all fell together on the Patty Jean Hull case. It was his idea to cover it."

So it's Landsberg who lost our innocence, I think.

"When the word came out that they were holding McCracken," Chambers says, "we went over to his house. Our cameras looked through his front window and saw all this pornographic material."

Pornography broadcast live in 1951 to all of Southern California? That's another first. I ask Chambers to describe it.

"It was mainly magazines," he says. "There wasn't that much pornography around, so it's hard to be relative about it."

When news of McCracken's whereabouts got out via live TV, a crowd of angry locals gathered at the Santa Ana Jail. "We were there live," Chambers says. "It was almost what you would call a lynch mob. There were some very nervous moments."

Later, during the trial, KTLA had cameras in the hallway outside the courtroom. "When people would come in and out of the courtroom door," Chambers says, "our cameras would get a peek as to what was going on. Then, when witnesses finished their testimonies, we would do interviews. There were little games being played."

The Hull case also marked the first time in California history that newspaper and TV reporters competed for a crime story.

"Once, someone mysteriously knocked the power line out of the wall so our cameras went off the air. We were looking around wondering where our signal went. It was chaos."

Then I ask Chambers the magic question: "Do you think we lost a part of our innocence as a result of our exposure to the Hull case?"

"The audience has changed a lot," he says. "In those days, there was such a thing as real shock. Nothing like this had happened to us as broadcasters before, and it hadn't happened to the people we were interviewing—or the audience either.

"The scope of news was broadened by events like this," Chambers says. "News became very much more visual and began to have a much stronger impact on people. You were there right as it was happening. It was reality."

There's "reality," and then there's "reality."

The instant communication of television removed the wall between crime and public reaction. We saw Patty Jean Hull's mother covering her own face from the camera's unblinking, shameless gaze. We saw her listless brother crying. We saw her father pleading for justice.

According to Baudrillard, "It is futile to imagine space if one can cross it in an instant. Picturing others and everything that brings you close to them is futile from the instant that 'communication' can make their presence immediate."

With the advent of live crime TV, an immediate presence confronted us. We could instantly see ourselves in a victim's circumstances. We could imagine what we would do. We could judge their reaction. But as viewers—as voyeurs—the current flows only one way. We could take in the victims' first-hand reactions—to place, time and circumstance. But we could not touch the scene through the airwaves.

"In the McCracken case, you've got the ingredients for making people watch: molestation, sex and a guy who's a sexual psychopath," Clay Calvert says.

Calvert is the author of Voyeur Nation, a study of the cultural phenomenon of media-driven voyeurism. He seemed the most likely candidate to help me determine if we've lost our innocence since this first electronic moment of truth. "When we watch things like the McCracken case on television, we are removed from actually dealing with those people. We dip in and out of their lives. We turn off the TV set, and our responsibility is nil. We're feeding off their tragedy and grief."

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