From the LA uprising of 1992 to O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed chase two years later, helicopter pilot/reporter Bob Tur and his now ex-wife Marika Gerrard were television news pioneers. With the advantage of their bird’s eye view, they were among the first to go beyond traffic reports and use their helicopter to cover broader news.
The chopper made it possible for them to bypass Southern California traffic and quickly arrive at locations of breaking news like wildfires and police pursuits. This became part of a bigger shift in how local journalists did their jobs.
That's the focus of a new documentary called "Whirlybird." Producer Matt Yoka says he decided to tell the story through the lens of Tur and Gerrard’s relationship.
“They met each other as basically kids and their first date involved going into a crime scene to take photos. Their relationship was completely intertwined with covering the news. It's sort of the foundation of who they were together. And as they fell in love and raised a family, the work that they did, the scale that they operated at, just grew and grew and grew,” Yoka says.
He continues, “Along their journey, they really pushed helicopter reporting into the next level of breaking news coverage, maybe the ‘entertainmentification’ of news. When we look back at the ‘80s and ‘90s, often the images that come to mind are the images that Zoe and Marika captured.”
Yoka says the context of life in Los Angeles at the time is important to understanding the shift to more sensational coverage.
“The city was undergoing a truly tumultuous time — the social upheaval that was coming in response to the treatment of the African American community and many different people of color. I think in one sense, the work that Zoe and Marika were doing was simply trying to bring that into the homes of the people of Los Angeles watching the nightly news. Over a period of time, the audience became accustomed to watching that and wanting to see the next tumultuous [event] or the next catastrophic moment. That's when you see it being ushered in — the era of high speed pursuit.”
At times, they became part of the story. During the Los Angeles uprisings, the beating of a truck driver named Reginald Denny was replayed over and over and became one of the searing images of that event. Bob Tur was heard saying live on air, “These are not people.”
That may have inflamed racial tensions and heightened fear in the city, Yoka acknowledges.
“I think that the experience for Zoe and Marika covering that story created a lot of trauma that you can hear plain out from the audio. There's no other way to describe it — that was a racist comment.”
That aggressive reporting style might have been driven by the testosterone in Tur’s system, according to Yoka. Tur transitioned in 2014 and now goes by Zoe instead of Bob.
“Much of ‘Whirlybird’ is Zoe exploring who she is and who she was. It's an honest, often difficult process of reflection. I think she was struggling in her efforts to try to reconcile the things that she did in the past. The goal of the film was not to cast judgment or to be prosecutorial in any sense, it was just to take a very human, raw look at what it's like for these two people to live their lives,” Yoka says.
He continues, “I think at the core of the film is really trying to tell a personal story, a relationship story. It's a marriage story set in Los Angeles. So the backdrop of that are these big historical events, and that the work that they did is completely inseparable from their relationship.”