Taser TV's Electrified Guinea Pigs

Who needs Tom DeLay when zapping reporters is so much more fun?

Thanks to KXAN's in-depth report last week, viewers now know that when reporter Jenny Hoff is blasted with a Taser she makes a noise vaguely resembling Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in the movie When Harry Met Sally. Hoff took the 50,000 volts in the name of TV journalism after those pansy reporters from the other stations refused the APD's kind offer to get Tased. That night, eager to report Hoff's scoop that a Taser can be fairly painful, the NBC affiliate made Hoff's electrocution the lead story for the 10pm program, ranking it just above news that the second most powerful Texan in the world had just been indicted.

All the local stations jumped on last Wednesday's Taser demonstration, the APD media office's response to the death two nights earlier of Michael Clark, who died after blasts from police Tasers. Cynics might wonder if the idea was a fairly obvious plan by those wacky pranksters at APD to Tase a few TV news reporters, but they deny it. "We educate the public through the media," said APD spokesman Kevin Buchman, who is known for his punchy sound bites.

TV crews eagerly trotted down for the "demonstration," ready and willing to accept a lil' educatin', not to mention cool pictures of electric bolts. But the big story hit a snag. Normally, the police might trot out a volunteer to get shot for the cameras, but on this hot September day, no one was eager to step forward to take one for the media. So the call went out for volunteers and up stepped Hoff, as well as photographers from KXAN and KEYE, who decided to take one in the name of TV investigative journalism.

"Shooting at a board told me nothing," said Hoff, who expressed cynicism at the millions of Taser demonstrations done for cameras in the last decade. "If I don't witness it myself, it means nothing to me." She wanted to learn first-hand about the recovery time and side effects of a good Taser jolt.

KEYE reporter Elizabeth Dannheim politely declined, though her photographer, Dennis Bateman, took a shot. "It didn't look like fun," said Dannheim, who apparently missed out on the Geraldo Rivera course at TV Reporter U. "I could see how it affected the photographer, and that was enough for me."

KTBC reporter Crystal Cotti called into the newsroom and was told to pass. "We went down to the news conference assuming they would be demonstrating on other officers," News Director Pam Vaught said. The Fox affiliate still aired video of the media zapping but didn't show the faces of competitors, and they used it for only a few seconds. "Personally, I think it trivializes the fact that someone is dead," Vaught said.

The demonstration created a much different dilemma for newsroom executives at KVUE, the ABC affiliate, who suddenly found themselves screwed by the cruel fortunes of TV news. Coincidentally, they already had a completed four-minute "Special Assignment" piece on Taser safety – including their own exclusive safety demonstration by the APD trainers – which was supposed to run weeks earlier, but it was bumped by hurricane coverage. After furrow-browed discussions, KVUE decided to use that day's exciting new video of the media volunteers getting shot early in the newscast, and then run the "Special Assignment" later in the show, changing the track to note that their APD demonstration was "put on for our cameras."

Of course, by then it was old news, thanks to KXAN's decision to open the show with Hoff reporting live from APD headquarters where, at that very moment, it was, well … dark. "APD was demonstrating against a target board, but that didn't really satisfy us," said Hoff, applying 50,000 volts to the line between reporting news and making news. "The shock coursed through my body," Hoff reported. "I lost every ounce of control. And then it was over."

Hoff was actually shocked twice, after the camera malfunctioned on the first take – or, at least, that's what photographer Chris Nelson said. Perhaps feeling guilty, Nelson also volunteered to take a jolt, while Hoff ran the camera. "Ouch," Nelson reported.

At the end of her report, Hoff noted that she was zapped for only two seconds – nothing close to the five-second bursts that hit Clark. "I can't even imagine what five seconds would be like," she reported, leading to an unusually pertinent question from anchor Robert Hadlock: "If there is no known connection yet to the death, what was the point of APD's demonstration?" He might also have asked why it was the lead story in the newscast.

"The idea was that this [the Clark case] was something people were still talking about," said John Thomas, KXAN executive producer and interim news director. In the realm of local TV news, DeLay's indictment was old news. "DeLay had played out a lot as the day went on," Thomas said. Hoff's report helped viewers understand the Taser issue and "was pretty solid," he said.

The decision to turn Hoff into an electrified guinea pig did spark newsroom discussion, however, primarily focusing on corporate liability issues, Thomas said. "Would we do it again? Maybe not."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

television news, KXAN, KEYE, KVUE, Jenny Hoff, Michael Clark, Kevin Buchman, Elizabeth Dannheim, Dennis Bateman, Pam Vaught, Chris Nelson, Robert Hadlock, John Thomas, Tom DeLay, Austin Police Department, Tasers

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