Full Color: Budd Dwyer and His Impact on Journalistic Photography

You have R. Budd Dwyer to thank for color photos in the press being standard.

Budd Dwyer, warning onlookers against approaching him.

I will not hesitate to admit that I have an almost unhealthy interest in death in the media. But my heart rate won’t race for just anything. Anna Nicole Smith did nothing for me. September 11th didn’t even really do it. For me, it needs to be a personal matter, either to me or to the people directly involved.

I know, I know. Death is always a personal matter to someone. That’s not what I mean though. Think about it. When you see a news story about someone getting whacked in the middle of a crappy neighborhood, do you really think much of it? Does it bother you for the rest of the day? Usually not. But if, say, this person had the same job as you do and was murdered while in the process of doing it, the situation strikes a little closer, right? You might spend the rest of the day at your own job feeling wary of anyone who dares approach you.

I remember when the Twin Towers were attacked. I was in sophomore English class at the time, reading silently or perhaps learning about Greek mythology, when all the sudden the loud speaker comes on and the principal tells everyone to turn the televisions to channel something or other. Mrs. Whatsherface does as she’s told and there on the screen are two tall buildings in flames. I’ll confess that I didn’t understand just what it meant at the time, but even when I did, it didn’t bother me on a personal level. I went about the rest of my day as though nothing had happened. Until I got home, of course, and there wasn’t a goddamn thing on TV because it had all been preempted by news broadcasts.

At the time, I lived in Winter Haven, Florida. Much as everyone in their raging paranoia tried to convince me otherwise, I knew damn well that even if Disney World (which they claimed was only seven miles from my home) was a target of the terrorists, my little suburb was not. Considering how unlikely it would be that the terrorists would strike Disney (when there were plenty of government establishments to be had) on a day when I would be there as well (in the eight or ten years I lived in Florida, I went there twice), I was not likely to die in a terrorist attack.

9/11 did not concern me on a personal level.

Now the Columbine Massacre, on the other hand, did.

I also remember when the Columbine incident occurred. This time, I was in computer class, sixth grade. Same procedure, turn your tv’s to this channel, some serious business is going down. This was a whole different story. At the time, they were saying Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were outcast goth kids, angry at society, taking Marilyn Manson too seriously, all this happy crappy as the motive for rampaging through their school and killing an assload of people (most of which later turned out to be bullshit). I had seen these things first hand by now in my own school. I was pretty close to the same social position as they were myself. From where I was looking at the whole thing, while this wasn’t exactly an imminent threat, it was a possibility.

I wasn’t scared though. Well, not exactly anyway. The idea that I could easily be slaughtered by any of my classmates did perturb me, most definitely, but mostly I found the whole atmosphere thrilling. Everyone around me was terrified of the prospect. Columbine was the topic of discussion for weeks. People began speculating about who was likely to kill all of us. They bordered on being afraid of each other. All the publicity school shootings were getting at the time only confirmed their fears. We started receiving bomb threats on a daily basis shortly afterwards, which only made things more tense. And me… Well, I was diggin’ the vibe. It’s not every day we get everyone jumping like that. There’s something about mass fear that excites me.

9/11 didn’t do it for me because not only did I not feel I was in any danger from the circumstances, but neither did anyone else around me, despite what they said. The Sniper who was running around Washington shortly after, picking off people almost did it, but it was still to far away to scare anyone enough. George Carlin is right in that the closer it is to you, the more exciting it is, be it geographically close or a situational closeness. Columbine was nowhere near where I lived, but the situation was perfectly plausible in my school as it was in any other.

It doesn’t have to be something that’s happening right then and there, however, to get me going. For instance, when I read Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter”, the thrill of the Manson murders and subsequent trials was just as strong as they would’ve been had I lived three doors down from Roman Polanksi. This time, I speculate that it was more of a trial of the century mentality coupled with the fear I know residents of Los Angeles felt at the time. I remember the O.J. Simpson trial clearly enough to know how it felt when everyone’s interests were pinned one macabre subject. It wasn’t difficult to relate. I’m reasonably imaginative; it doesn’t take much for me to set myself back a few decades, even ones in which I was not born yet.

Like when I was watching E!’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” the other day. They did a story on a woman by the name of Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who committed suicide by shooting herself in the head on her news program. This too was a different experience for me, as this was a suicide. There wasn’t so much a fear factor with this one, nor a personal relation. Perhaps it was the backstory before the actual nitty gritty. Maybe I felt like I knew her a little better from what E! gave me about her. I didn’t even personally get to see her blow her own brains out, but simply imagining that I did get to see it right along with everyone else in Sarasota, Florida 1974.

Of course, it could’ve also been E!’s masterful grasp of atmosphere.

I’ve never felt guilty about all this though. And for good reason. I know the rest of the nation is just as perverted as I am. How do I know this?

R. Budd Dwyer.

I actually ran across the story of Budd Dwyer initially in an Encyclopedia Dramatica article that revered him as the most awesome man to ever grace our television screens. Basically, in 1987, Dwyer was convicted of taking bribes of huge fucking proportions and stood the chance of being imprisoned for up to fifty-five years. Instead of sticking around to be jailed, Dwyer called a press conference, gave a speech professing his innocence, took a .357 Magnum from a brown envelope, stuck it in his mouth, and blew the back of his fucking head out.

What did this prove? Nothing initially. It’s what happened afterward that proves everyone else digs this just as much as I do.

Prior to this incident, the Associated Press had most of its photos taken in black and white film as it was cheaper. You only got color film if you were doing something huge. Like, nationally goddamn important. Since this was just Pennsylvania bullshit, no one had color film. Of course, once it became apparent that, holy shit, Budd Dwyer just fucking shot himself on live goddamn television, demands for color pictures started rolling in. As a result, the AP made color photos the standard.

Somewhere out there, there’s a person who thinks I’m a vulgar necrophiliac just waiting for the next highly publicized slaughter. That’s fine. Because we all wanted to see the blood spewing out of Budd Dwyer’s nose in perfectly vivid red.

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July 2021