The Live PD Coverup at A&E

The Austin American-Statesman has reported the indictments by a Texas grand jury against Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and Jason Nassour, the former county attorney, on charges of evidence tampering in the death of Javier Ambler. Ambler, a Black man, died in a police incident while pleading for his life, and while the tragedy was filmed by a crew for the A&E Networks’ now-cancelled reality TV series Live PD.

Chody and Nassour were indicted on third-degree felony charges in connection with the destruction of the tape of the incident filmed by Live PD. The Statesman, along with a local television station in Austin, had first reported the existence of the tape and its subsequent destruction by A&E Networks executives and its Live PD creator, coproducer and star, Dan Abrams—also an ABC News correspondent.

Live PD—which masqueraded as journalism to become a ratings and financial juggernaut for A&E—was cancelled after details of a coverup of Mr. Ambler’s death and the video’s destruction became public. Abrams quickly did a series of appearances among friendly media on national TV news programs, defending the reality show, predicting its return and ignoring—as did his interviewers—his own potential culpability, and that of A&E executives for their ethical failures as “journalistsand “citizens” to report a crime.

Instead, Abrams and the top A&E executives and producers involved—Paul Buccieri, Rob Sharenow and Elaine Frontain Bryant—participated in an apparent coverup. The obvious question: Did the prosecutors in two counties who investigated Mr. Ambler’s death ask that grand jury what Abrams’ and A&E’s culpabilities might be? Do they yet intend to?

In its coverage of these egregious events, and amid the backdrop of national outrage over racial injustice in America’s police and criminal justice systems, the Statesman quoted two prominent university professors well-versed in police conduct. They each said that the presence of reality TV cameras encourages aggressive behavior by police and confrontational attitudes wherein minor violations are sometimes escalated into life-and-death scenarios—like the unnecessary police chase A&E filmed. Clearly the treatment of Mr. Ambler by police fell into those categories, even as Dan Abrams and A&E’s film crew pondered the ratings value of that episode live, as it unfolded—and decided to protect police and not air it, and to not turn it over to authorities.

Abrams has defended the decision as an automatic, since A&E has a policy, so described, under which they do not air video of a death. But that excuse and their contractual agreements with Sheriff Chody should have had no bearing on their ethical responsibilities.

They witnessed a crime. They did nothing. They said nothing. And they helped local authorities keep the public in the dark.

Unsurprisingly, the corporate-owned national news media and Abrams’ friends within it remain silent on the matter.

In the tangle of media ownership—and media’s endorsement of its own “news celebrities” like Abrams, and protection of reality TV executives at A&E—there is a tacit collegial understanding: that no one criticizes or even reports on the cynical, bigoted and racist view of A&E content providers, nor their exploitation of racial, economic and religious minorities. Never are these individuals, even in destroying evidence in a crime resulting in death, called to task by media for their “judgment”—at least not yet, and perhaps never, by criminal justice authorities, and certainly not by A&E owners Disney and Hearst.

At a small Midwestern newspaper in the mid-1970s, a staff photographer on assignment happened by a suburban house where a man and his wife were refinishing cabinets in the garage. When the man stepped out of the open double doors to light a cigarette, his match ignited solvent fumes trapped in the garage behind him and his wife inside was instantly consumed by an inferno.

The photographer, acting on instinct, raised his camera and captured in fine detail the woman’s last horrendous moments on Earth, screaming, her arms outstretched, surrounded by flame. Publishing his picture was not the photographer’s decision to make, but that of editors at that small paper. They did publish, on the front page, and the community outrage that descended upon them left them afraid to walk to their cars alone at night.

The local university, which then had a well-respected journalism program, for years used that example, and that controversy, in teaching its students the meaning of journalistic ethics and responsibility.

Dan Abrams was never in that class, nor were his fellow producers and promoters at A&E. Had they been, perhaps they would now have an inkling of the damage they do.

And as most media remain silent and turns their head—the Statesman a rare exception for its dogged coverage including Live PD’s role in the Ambler incident—they give license to Abrams, Buccieri, Sharenow, Frontain Bryant and their ilk to purvey the worst of “entertainment”—while pretending it’s journalism—and distorting it toward the ill of all.  

Related Topics