Watching a Guy Kill Himself on the News

One of the most gruesome events in TV news history took place in the state of Pennsylvania thirty years ago today.

State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, on the eve of what was scheduled to be the start of a 55-year prison sentence for racketeering, fraud and other charges, called a press conference at 11 AM. He had given a disjointed speech, handed envelopes to staffers, then from a large Manila envelope removed a Smith & Wesson and, after warning those in attendance not to interfere with his plan because "this will hurt someone"... well, the rest is history. The contents of the other envelopes were suicide notes addressed to his wife and two children.

WHTM, the Smith Broadcasting-owned ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, where the shocking events unfolded, was the first station to run footage on a special newscast later in the 11 AM hour, which would pre-empt an ABC daytime rerun of the sitcom "Webster" - which may have had more younger viewers than usual because the snow kept them home from school that day. The decision by WHTM (now owned by Nexstar) to run Dwyer's suicide, albeit without even a warning, led to the station losing contracts with several sponsors.

Later that day, WPXI, the Cox-owned NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh, and Capital Cities' Philadelphia ABC affiliate WPVI - now an ABC O&O - aired the gory footage of the presser on their respective noontime newscasts; the latter station, despite receiving hundreds of complaint calls, decided to run it on their 5 PM newscast, as well.

Other stations such as Hearst's WTAE in Pittsburgh and New York Times-owned (now Tribune) WNEP in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre - both also ABC affiliates in the Keystone state - did not hesitate to refuse to carry the footage on their air. "It was one of the easiest decisions we ever had to make," said then-WNEP news director Paul Steuber "We weren't going to do it." (Steuber passed away on Christmas Day 2012.)

"The gruesomeness of the angle of the shot was a factor," opined Joe Rovitto, ND of WTAE at the time (he is currently involved with a broadcast research consulting firm). "It was a story that could have been told very easily with the gun being pulled out of the envelope."

Dywer's son, Robert, who was 21 years old when his father ended his life in his office in the state capital, recalled how he gave his dad a ride to work on that fateful day. "He was insistent when I was dropping him off, he said 'go right home after your class, go right home'.

"I’d tell anyone thinking about suicide that the scars and the emotional toll that it leaves on those left behind is immense," Robert said.

FTVLive is not going to embed the video, but you can find it on YouTube if it is something you want to see.