Patchy Fog, a former weather lady who’d morphed into a journalist, stood in the cold darkness in front of the State Capitol reporting on the governor’s proposed budget. She shivered in the cold but her hair looked great.
Patchy was quite popular as a forecaster, but one day someone who actually knew something about weather replaced her. The invasion of the meteorologists put an end to weather reporters untrained in weather. So Patchy decided to become a journalist. It was just a short walk down the hall.
Patchy arrived at about 4 a.m. to prepare for a story that had been written before she left the station. Inside the Capitol, a security guard opened his eyes in the middle of a sleepy work shift, looked out the window and wondered what that crazy television woman was up to.
She was doing the usual thing that television reporters do — going to the scene of news to report the news, even if it hasn’t happened yet or happened hours ago, even if they really don’t know much about the news they’re about to report.
I’ve done it too. A few years ago I stood in front of the state Health Department after it was closed to report on something the department was in charge of, I don’t remember what. Behind me, viewers were treated to a meaningless brick wall. I didn’t enter the building. It was closed. The information was on my computer at work, and that’s where I sat to create my script before I went downtown to find the Health Department to which I’d never been and still haven’t. I’ll go there someday, but only if I’m really bored.
At one station I worked we had what was laughingly called the sports bush. Outside our newsroom a bit of vegetation grew around the swimming pool, long closed because it leaked and was a liability anyway, where the sports director or a reporter would conduct interviews. Why the sports bush? Because back then we didn’t have the easy capacity to report live from the scene that best represented the story. But we didn’t want to do the interview in the studio because that would look like we were doing the interview in the studio. By standing the interview subject in front of the sports bush viewers could imagine it to be anywhere. There are bushes at the State Capitol too, and who knows, it could have been there. Good evening, welcome to the news featuring tonight the most grisly stories we can find. Plus! A live report from the sports bush!
Well, a lot has changed since then. That swimming pool out back has been filled with dirt, and those wonderful off-the-record, late-night parties are over. No longer can someone back their car up to the fence and crank up the boom box in the trunk while employees and an assortment of friends drink beer and dip in the pool whether or not they’re properly attired.
But much hasn’t changed. Reporters for all stations and every network report every morning and night from some version of a sports bush. NBC’s Pete Williams always seems to be camped out in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, even when the court’s closed and he couldn’t get inside without being shot, or at least shot at, the way the Secret Service is nowadays.
In fairness, reporters often report from the scene of news actually happening, such as floods, hurricanes, wars and so forth. But lacking that, they inevitably find a bush to hide in front of. Television technology has made great strides over the years to the point of exceeding good sense. We do it so routinely we think it’s real. Viewers see it so much they think it’s real. But it isn’t real. It is TV news, and TV news, in addition to covering the news, has created its own culture of nonsense. Reporters will always find a sports bush to lend credibility to their stuff.
There’s a lot of patchy fog on the evening news. S
Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.