Column: Keep the skinny reporters away from Crown Point
Kelly's advice to Portland media about how to cover December weather.
As a card-carrying member of the liberal media, I must admit that I sometimes do find my fellow fourth-estaters pretty embarrassing. And perhaps the best way to illustrate this (other than discussing our hysterical and superficial coverage of presidential candidates) is to talk about the way we cover the weather.
It is, after all, in how we report on the weather that may best show how insane we are as a society.
Now, first of all, let us recognize that during our most recent "winter storm coverage," in which 1 to 2 inches of snow brought a major metropolitan area to its knees, it was not the weather forecasters who let us down. The TV professionals — Mark Wilson on KPTV, Matt Zaffino on KGW and Sally Showman on KOIN come to mind — pretty much all nailed the last two big weather "events" by telling us precisely when they would strike and how significant they would be.
Then, in response to those faultless predictions, other "professionals" among us took that information and interpreted it in ways that did none of the rest of us any good whatsoever. The school officials in charge of interpreting the forecasts into rulings on whether or not to cancel school, for example, completely blew it. At least those in Portland and Beaverton did.
Bear in mind, now, that I spent more than four decades trying to explain to disgruntled readers how we could make a mistake in a newspaper that prints the equivalent of a book every time we roll the presses. When an irate caller told me, "I don't know how this could happen; you are, after all, the newspaper." No, I replied, I'm not a newspaper; I'm a person, and people make mistakes. Then I asked if the caller had never made a mistake doing his job, which, as I recall, never produced a very good answer.
So, no matter how much we'd like to blame the media, ODOT, the city, the school district or TriMet for our troubles, it's hard to forget about all the idiots who left their jobs at exactly the same time last week and completely jammed up the few frozen highways we had to work with.
It was an inch of snow, people.
We were told well in advance that there would be 1 to 3 inches on the valley floor, and that was correct. We were told it would hit Portland between noon and 1 p.m. last Wednesday, and that, too, is exactly what happened.
We can't even blame the TV stations because they were shrieking about their "storm team coverage" — complete with file footage of cars spinning out of control and smashing into other cars, ditches, etc. — long before the "storm" arrived. But, if their goal was to scare us to death (and it appears that's what it was), then they, too, failed. Too many of us totally ignored them.
I would like to take a minute, however, to criticize some of our most revered news practices. Here are some suggestions for future coverage of extreme weather events.
• When strong winds are blowing (or expected to blow), please don't send the newest member of your news staff up to Crown Point to show us what 60- or 70-mph winds look like when a 90-pound reporter tries to stand up in it. No normal person is going to go to Crown Point during a wind storm, and there's no reason we need to know how stupid one looks when the wind is blowing that hard. Still, you guys can't seem to resist doing that. It's like moths heading for a porchlight.
• If you insist on doing those standup reports on the side of a street or highway, please don't bother to even go to that person if it's not snowing, hailing, sleeting or something worth talking about. Having a reporter tell us there's no snow yet — or, better yet, to tiptoe into the gutter to poke some just-forming ice with their toe is not a demonstration of anything newsworthy. We all know you WANT there to be extreme weather happening, but simply wishing it is not good enough. And, for God's sake, stop interrupting the Ellen Degeneres show for this kind of foolishness.
• Please don't send reporters out in cars to report back on what they see when they're only lit by the light of a dashboard. They just look like those faces we used to make with flashlights on campouts when we were about to tell a ghost story. For all we know, Brent Weisberg is just sitting in his car in the KOIN TV parking lot — you know, like NASA did when it faked all those rocket trips and moon landings. And, if he's really out on the road, why are you adding to the traffic problem by adding even more vehicles?
As I've admitted already, I used to be a news person, so I understand what's involved with these things. Now, of course, I'm merely an entertainer. This is not news you're reading right now, and trying to make me feel bad by calling it bad journalism won't work.
But I would like to explain that, in the world of weekly newspapers, I spent years and years trying to tell the newer, younger members of our profession that it's not good enough to tell readers what happened. When you only come out once a week, we have to assume that everybody already has heard on TV or radio what happened (or read about it, back when The Oregonian actually delivered a paper every day), and that our job has to be to tell more of the story, such as why it happened, what happened after that, what it really means and so on.
The TV people could take a lesson here. After 10, 12 or 18 hours of yapping about the frozen roads, you need to tell us more. I, for instance, would really like to know what tomorrow (and maybe even the day after that) is going to bring. That is, after all, what you do best.