Thirty years ago this Sunday, R. Budd Dwyer, then Treasurer of Pennsylvania, held a press conference in his Harrisburg office. Attendees expected the statesman, who had been declared guilty on nearly a dozen charges of corruption and faced up to 55 years of jail time, to resign before being sentenced the following day. After delivering an erratic 30-minute speech protesting his innocence and condemning the criminal justice system, Dwyer pulled out a .357 Magnum revolver from a manilla envelope. As the onlookers gasped and screamed, he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He fell to the ground, and news cameras zoomed in on the deluge of blood that had begun pouring out the dead politician’s nostrils.
Today, R. Budd Dwyer’s public suicide is far more familiar in America’s collective conscious than the man himself. Footage of his press conference’s gruesome climax became a cult internet “shock video” in the mid-aughts, circulating through sites like eBaum’s World, Daily Motion and LiveLeak—where it’s currently the seventh highest-viewed video on the website, with over 3 million views since it was uploaded in 2006. On YouTube, you can find a series of Budd Dwyer suicide reaction videos as well as the original clip, which has garnered nearly 8.5 million views since it was uploaded in 2013. A number of bands have referenced the event in lyrics and album art over the years—notably Faith No More’s 1992 song “The World Is Yours,” which featured an audio sample of the moments just before and after Dwyer pulled the trigger.
The nightmarish footage has developed its own legacy as a decontextualized piece of media ephemera, not unlike “Mr. Hands” and countless other NSFW examples. And the video will likely continue to be watched well into the future, regardless of whether viewers know or care about Dwyer’s life. But the original news coverage surrounding the event in 1987, and how the media grappled with airing such violent imagery, illustrates a different legacy regarding Dwyer’s fate—one that feels more vital than ever today.
Dwyer’s death was filmed and photographed by a room full of journalists, but unlike the suicide of morning-show host Christine Chubbuck roughly 15 years prior, it was not broadcast live. Every news organization and publication had the choice of whether or not to air the uncut footage in their subsequent reports. While a number of networks stopped the video just as the gun entered Dwyer’s mouth, a handful aired the full suicide or graphic photos, including multiple Pennsylvania local news stations that ran their stories during a snow day when children were at home. Some outlets repeated the footage several times.
“To broadcast or not to broadcast that final image? To look or avert the eye?” asked Pulitzer-winner Ron Powers during a CBS News Editorial later that week, criticizing how the media covers violence. “The medium of television wanted to do both.” An article published by The Washington Post a day after the press conference also questioned how the media responded to the event and said editors and TV producers struggled “analyzing their instincts, trying to determine whether their reactions were appropriate as journalists and as human beings.” Their decisions, the piece added, “will become the stuff of journalism seminars and comment about the news media” for years to come. As Powers also noted in his CBS broadcast, Dwyer’s death highlights how complicated, flawed and hypocritical the media can be when handling sensitive subject matter.
Three decades later, we live in an era when we have more platforms and devices to watch and share death than Dwyer and his contemporaries could have imagined. Every time there’s a mass shooting or a person of color is killed by police, the available imagery spreads like wildfire across social media and the news tries to keep up, constantly updating the public with “the terrible individual details that always come at times like these,” writes Harry Cheadle in an article appropriately titled “The Week America Watched Death on Our Phones.” There are even new ways to see violence, such as Facebook’s Live feature, which has streamed in real-time fatal car crashes, funerals, the death of Philando Castile at the hands of a cop and a sniper attack on police in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest. After the latter two events were livestreamed on Facebook within 48 hours of each other, the New York Times wrote, “Now Facebook must navigate when, if it all, to draw the line if a live video is too graphic.” But even as the public reckons with tech companies’ newfound responsibilities when it comes to disseminating graphic content, it’s a different situation with the news media, which has been attacking and then reinforcing the cliche “if it bleeds it leads” since the advent of the printing press.
“The amount of time between [a violent] event happening and the deliberation period of how a media organization is going to internalize it and put it back out to the public, and in what context are they going to do it, has become so small,” says Dr. Chris Ferguson, a clinical psychologist who’s written about media violence for TIME and teaches a college class on forensic psychology where he shows students the Budd Dwyer video. In the lesson, he uses the footage to explain what a trigger warning is and how the media has utilized the advisories throughout various instances of news coverage. “When Dwyer shot himself, it was really quite rare to catch something like that on camera unless it was pre-planned,” he told me over the phone. “We show that video in the context of talking about this unexpected footage of gruesome acts, which is of course becoming more prevalent now.” Before starting the video, Dr. Ferguson tells students they can leave the room and shouldn’t feel ashamed if they choose to.
It’s not a question of to show or not to show, but how to show, how often to show, how to frame the showing of it.
“Right now we’re living in an age when trying to put a lid on information is largely a futile enterprise, so for me it becomes an issue of what can we do to cover a topic sensitively,” Dr. Ferguson adds. He believes Dwyer’s suicide is a potent precedent of this scenario, one that the modern media still has a lot to learn from.
“Dwyer’s death is more relevant now than ever,” says Jim Dirschberger, who directed the 2010 documentary Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer. “I think the media’s responsibility today is helping us understand what happened before someone pressed record and what has happened since they shut the camera off,” which it largely failed to do with Dwyer. “Without those two bookends, you’re just watching violence and jumping to your own conclusions; it’s more about the emotion of the act than the context of it.” In a phone interview, he also told me his primary goal with the doc was to “fill the kind of information vacuum around his suicide and around [Dwyer’s] life… because to show that footage unedited with very little context is just irresponsible.”
We see similar sentiments echoed today whenever a graphic video goes viral. In a Washington Post editorial titled “Why I Will Not Share the Video of Alton Sterling’s Death,” April Reign writes about the “morbid voyeurism” of the press in its coverage of the police killing. “While calling attention to the problems of state-sanctioned violence, it does not appear that repeated sharing of these videos has brought us any closer to justice…. For me, these videos are debilitating, senseless violence played over and over again.”
Her feelings are applicable to Dwyer. In that case, the media’s repeated circulation of the violent death didn’t add anything new to the story and may, in fact, have harmed people. Dirschberger would agree: “Having done this film, I saw how everything from the media coverage to the trial had a real impact on lives of Budd’s family, and a negative impact at that,” he says. Dirschberger hopes his documentary is “one step in the opposite direction against the flow of all the other instincts of the media at the time.”
“It’s not a question of to show or not to show, but how to show, how often to show, how to frame the showing of it,” says Henry Jenkins, a media scholar and author who’s written about depictions of violence in the media. He told me that the issue with how the news covered Dwyer’s death was not “the first time it was shown on TV, but the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth time, where none of that is pressing and where damage starts to be done.” Jenkins also believes the media can be effective when it utilizes violent imagery to draw attention to an urgent issue, such as when Emmett Till’s parents shared images of their son’s brutalized body to Jet magazine in the 1950s. But more times than not it sensationalizes graphic content to the point of the material becoming banal.
“There’s got to be a compelling reason to show the violence,” Jenkins adds. “The reason has to be articulated to the public, and it should be surrounded with a thoughtful discussion about what we’re seeing, what it means, why we’re seeing it.”
With Dwyer, with Alton Sterling and other victims of police brutality, with the 2015 deadly shooting of two broadcast journalists on live TV, we see the pitfalls of media history repeating itself, where the race to keep up with other publications can effectively turn human lives into punchlines—or analytics. “If an on-camera suicide were just another image… it would mean that the culture had ceased to believe that anything were important or trivial,” said Ron Powers in his 1987 broadcast, suggesting that mass desensitization to violence isn’t far off from straight-up nihilism.
How can we maintain context in the age of YouTube, social media and fake news? The complications have increased, now that any one of us can share and comment on the news instantaneously, and our access to an array of news media has skyrocketed. No one should try to live in a bubble or reject stories about violent events, but we should slow down and resist the urge to be the “first” to share something. Winning such a race is not only futile; more times than not it perpetuates the negative aspects of the media and hurts the positive ones. A fuller story is always out there if we take the time to find it—and willfully attempt to look past spin. It comes down to choice, and if we’re apathetic about what we choose to consume, the decision will fall into other people’s hands.
Before he could read the last paragraph of his speech, Dwyer was interrupted when he mistakenly thought an aid was attempting to grab the envelope with the gun inside. (His colleague was actually putting out a cigarette.) As a result, he took his life before saying his planned final words. The conclusion started, “Last May, I told you that after the trial I would give you the story of the decade. To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story.” He asked the public to “tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the US.”
Dwyer got his wish, but the message was lost in translation.