Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Pennsylvania state treasurer Budd Dwyer was convicted of taking a bribe after he obtained a state contract for a computer company. On the day before his sentencing, he called a press conference to proclaim his innocence and criticize the media for the scandal. He then put a loaded gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Several news outlets aired the graphic footage of his death, leading to public outrage and debate about journalistic ethics, broadcast television, newsworthiness, and sensationalism.

Summary of Event

During the early 1980’s, Pennsylvania officials discovered that all public employees in the state had been overpaying their Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes. By 1984, the Pennsylvania Treasury Department was looking to hire a technology firm to determine how much to reimburse each taxpayer. On May 14, Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh received an anonymous memo, alerting him to bribes that had been paid to secure a no-bid, $4.6 million contract for Computer Technology Associates (CTA), a California-based company. [kw]Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference, Pennsylvania Politician (Jan. 22, 1987) Dwyer, Budd Bribery;Budd Dwyer[Dwyer] Dwyer, Budd Bribery;Budd Dwyer[Dwyer] [g]United States;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] [c]Murder and suicide;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] [c]Radio and television;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] [c]Communications and media;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] [c]Publishing and journalism;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] [c]Politics;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] [c]Corruption;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] [c]Government;Jan. 22, 1987: Pennsylvania Politician Kills Himself at Televised Press Conference[02250] Thornburgh, Dick Casey, Robert P.

Budd Dwyer, moments before he shoots himself to death in front of colleagues and media.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Thornburgh opened an investigation into the allegations. The investigation uncovered evidence that John Torquato, Jr., of CTA had approached several state officials with monetary offers to guarantee his company the contract. In particular, Torquato had allegedly promised to pay Pennsylvania state treasurer Budd Dwyer $300,000.

Dwyer was indicted two years later, on May 14, 1986, on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fra Mail fraud;Budd Dwyer[Dwyer] ud, interstate transportation in aid of racketeering, and perjury. Acting U.S. attorney James West offered Dwyer a deal that would have reduced his maximum jail time from fifty-five to five years, but Dwyer refused to plead guilty to gain a lighter sentence. Torquato accepted a plea bargain and agreed to testify against Dwyer. Dwyer was convicted in the fall of 1986 and scheduled for sentencing in early 1987.

On January 22, 1987, one day before his sentencing, Dwyer convened a press conference at his office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Given that upon sentencing he would lose his job, the public expected he was going to announce his resignation. Instead, Dwyer addressed the crowd of reporters, again declaring his innocence. He criticized the judge, the U.S. attorney, Governor Thornburgh, and even the media that had reported on his conviction for its part in painting him as a criminal. He compared himself to Job (the biblical character who faced many unjust hardships) and suggested that his imprisonment would be an act of political persecution. His rambling remarks lasted nearly half an hour, by which point the press was ready to leave. Dwyer urged the reporters to stay.

As he concluded his remarks, Dwyer handed envelopes to three of his staff members. He then pulled a .357 Magnum revolver from a fourth envelope. He then said that anyone who might be offended should leave the room. Members of the press began to urge Dwyer to lower the weapon. However, he ordered those who approached him to stand back, waving his arm and telling them that the gun could hurt someone. Dwyer then lifted the gun toward his face. He put the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The fatal moment was captured on film. Several cameramen had kept their tapes rolling throughout the incident. They took the footage back to their news directors, who were faced with the sudden dilemma of whether or not to broadcast Dwyer’s suicide on television. The event was certainly newsworthy, but the graphic nature of the film caused concern. Several local stations, including WPVI-TV in Philadelphia and WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh, chose to air at least part of the suicide tape.

Viewers in the region were shocked by the media’s decision to air the footage. Further complicating matters, many children had stayed home from school due to snow cancellations and saw the suicide as it was aired midday by WPXI. When those stations rebroadcast the film later in the day, it was edited to end just before Dwyer pulled the trigger. WCAU-TV in Philadelphia showed similarly edited footage, stopping as Dwyer put the gun in his mouth. Other stations, such as KYW-TV in Philadelphia, chose not to air the shooting at all.

The report was broadcast nationally, but not in its graphic entirety. NBC Nightly News edited the footage, including Dwyer with the gun and Dwyer’s fatally wounded body. ABC and CBS displayed still photos of Dwyer with their report of his death. The Associated Press also distributed still photos of Dwyer before and after the shooting, but included an alert about the graphic content.

The envelopes Dwyer handed to his aides turned out to contain various items. One envelope had a letter to his wife, Joanne; another envelope contained a letter to the new Pennsylvania governor, Robert P. Casey; and a third envelope had Dwyer’s organ-donor card and other items. The letter to his wife contained his request for funeral arrangements. The letter to the governor complimented Casey, and stressed that Dwyer had not resigned his post but had been treasurer to the end. He likely emphasized this point so that his wife and children could continue to collect benefits from the state after his death. Dwyer took the additional step of suggesting his wife as his successor in the job, though she was not hired. It is possible the suicide was at least partly motivated by Dwyer’s desire to protect his family financially.

Impact

The graphic television broadcasts of Dwyer’s final moments shocked the public, and it soon turned into a media scandal. Dwyer’s suicide would have been newsworthy even if conducted in private, but the public manner in which he chose to end his life was enough to shake the nation. People were disturbed by not only Dwyer’s plan but also the media’s handling of the incident, which seemingly magnified the act. Parents and teachers began to discuss and question the advisability of letting children watch live television broadcasts, whether in school or at home. Dwyer’s death was not broadcast live, but it highlighted the potential unpredictability of live television. Overall, viewers were most disturbed by the decision to rebroadcast the taped footage, especially unedited or underedited.

In academic circles, Dwyer’s suicide continues to fascinate as a case study in journalistic ethics. The question of whether such graphic footage should be broadcast requires journalists to weigh the responsibility of reporting incidents thoroughly and with accuracy against public pressure to keep news broadcast images acceptable for all viewers. It also sparks debate about the changing perceptions of what is acceptable for television broadcast.

Decades after Dwyer’s death, the footage of his final press conference is readily available on the World Wide Web. It is no longer current news, but the video’s continued presence speaks to a cultural fascination with violence and death. Pop culture references to the suicide include several tribute songs and appearances in film and advertising.

Dwyer’s suicide led the Associated Press (AP) to change its film protocols. Prior to 1987, AP photographers carried black-and-white film for everyday use and switched to color film only in anticipation of special events. Thus, the photographers present at Dwyer’s final press conference had cameras loaded with black-and-white film only. As the story broke nationwide, however, hungry news outlets requested color pictures. AP did not have color photos. From that point on, AP photographers shot with color film. Dwyer, Budd Bribery;Budd Dwyer[Dwyer]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Associated Press. “Facing Prison, Dwyer Kills Himself.” Philadelphia Daily News, January 22, 1987. A wire-service news report of Dwyer’s public suicide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, David. “TV’s Dilemma: How Much to Show.” Philadelphia Daily News, January 23, 1987. Discusses the behind-the-scenes controversy among media professionals, spotlighting news directors from three local stations who had to decide whether or not to show the taped footage of Dwyer’s suicide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Madelyn S. “Suicide and the Media.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 932 (April, 2001): 200-221. A focused scholarly article on the consequences of media reportage of suicides.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Pictures Raise News Issue.” The New York Times, January 24, 1987. Identifies the television stations that aired Dwyer’s suicide and describes the footage shown by each station.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stevens, William K. “Official Calls in Press and Kills Himself.” The New York Times, January 23, 1987. Provides concise details about the whole Dwyer scandal from the time of the bribe to Dwyer’s conviction to his suicide and its immediate aftermath.

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