Was the City negligent when it didn't save Matthew Beaufort?
Was the Media negligent when it didn't report the story?
Monday's Dateline did something both of Philadelphia's daily newspapers should have done long before: investigate the story of Matthew Beaufort's death. Beaufort, who jumped from Falls Bridge in Fairmount Park on May 6, 2000, was threatening to commit suicide by jumping into the water below for at least 25 minutes before he actually did. Police and Fire Rescue had the area surrounded, and one bystander quoted on Dateline put the number of officers and firefighters in the hundreds.
Still, when Beaufort finally did jump, the police and firefighters watched him struggle without offering help, even as bystanders begged them to do something. Ultimately, Garrett Cupples, a medical student and former lifeguard did what all the police and rescue personnel didn't even begin to attempt: He dove into the water to save Beaufort. Aided by nurse Steve Lloyd, another bystander who swam to Beaufort, Cupples brought Beaufort back to shore, expecting there to be adequate equipment there to save Beaufort's life. They were met with a complete lack of action and Beaufort could not be saved.
The case of Matthew Beaufort is now "in litigation" so Philadelphia officials were not able to comment for the TV show. (Police Commissioner John Timoney has defended the actions of his personnel, saying they could not be expected to risk their lives for someone who "was clearly high on something and seemed intent on killing himself.")
Watching Dateline's expos�, the question of neglect seemed fairly open and shut. Sara James interviewed Cupples and Lloyd at length, played damning audio of bystanders wondering aloud why the cops didn't do anything. Cupples was angry, wondering why more wasn't done, while Lloyd got very emotional, his voice wavering as he repeated the phrase "There was time" in reference to saving Beaufort's life.
Aside from the obvious concerns, the show raised another unsettling question: Why did it take Dateline, a national program based in New York, to air Philadel-phia's dirty laundry? Why did only Dateline do an investigative story on the subject, close to one year later? Where, in other words, were the dailies?
The Inquirer did not cover the event at all, while the Daily News ran two stories on the incident, the first a full month after Beaufort died. In the Local section on page 3, staff writer Julia Chang first gave the details of the event, clearly noting that it was Howard Gilliam of the now-defunct cable news station Philly TV News that caught the proceedings on video. (Dateline used this video to substantiate their claim of inaction on the part of Philly cops and fire personnel.) Chang quoted Dan Hayden, assignment editor for Philly TV News, saying, "The only thing the police did was ticket people who had stopped to watch."
Getting the nearly 40-minute video was a coup for Philly TV News and they ran the tape numerous times on their own cable station, galvanizing a response from the Police Advisory Commission. Yet the whole issue was barely mentioned in print.
The second DN article, by Chang and DN staff writer Nicole Wiesensee, two months after the event, was headlined "AN AVOIDABLE TRAGEDY? WHERE WERE RESCUERS? QUESTIONS ARISE OVER POLICE'S HANDLING OF JUMPER ON BRIDGE." In this article, which appeared on July 6, 2000, the Daily News credited Philly TV News and gave the story plenty of space. They also secured the first interview with Timoney about the incident. In the same edition, staff writer Jim Nolan wrote about Philly TV News in an article headlined "NEW STATION HAD SCOOP," saying, "And the exclusive report that the station nabbed in May of Matthew Beaufort committing suicide from the Falls Bridge may help it ... [become] a go-to source of breaking local news on television."
Perhaps more confusing than the DN 's lackluster coverage is the Inquirer's silence. The paper didn't cover Matthew Beaufort's controversial death at all except in the context of an article in the Business section of the paper, about Channel 6 possibly going off-air. In that piece, Inky staff writer Patricia Horn noted that the station "made a name for itself when it had exclusive video of the May 6 suicide jump of Matthew Beaufort ... video that showed how police and rescue workers reacted. But it has scant ratings."
In light of this week's Dateline report, one has to wonder who's minding the store over at PNI. If it was a hot story for Philly TV News, why not for the Inquirer ? Inquirer Deputy Managing Editor Phillip Dixon told PW, "We're happy to tell the truth: We didn't cover it. If it turns out to be of interest to our readers, we will." Generally, Dixon explained, the paper doesn't cover suicides much unless they're very public. Wasn't this public enough? "This one didn't strike us," says Dixon. "We'll catch up."
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