* Today I encountered my least favorite part of TV news: The “phoner.”
Overnight, Indiana State Police shut down 12 miles of I-94 due to ice. Then they reopened it. We said this at the top of my show. Then Andy spent 2 minutes talking about the snow in Northwest Indiana. Then we did news. Then Andy came back and spent 3 minutes talking about the snow in Northwest Indiana. All the while, our news crawl informed viewers that I-94 was reopened after being closed because of ice.
If this were the reading comprehension portion of the blog, I would ask the following question…
I assume you gathered that I-94 was closed, but now it’s open. Most people would, after bombarding them with that fact all show long. Instead, we dialed up the Indiana State Police and let them tell us that same thing.
Phoners in general are a gamble, since you never know whether the person you’re talking to is TV-ready. Phoners with police are especially dangerous because they use cop-speak. See if you can translate this sentence…
“At approximately 10:40 p.m., a juvenile was observed creating a disturbance in a motor vehicle on some private property. When area police arrived, the offender fled at a high rate of speed. He was apprehended when his vehicle collided with a telephone pole.”
In English, that means…
“Last night some stupid kid was driving like a jerk. We tried to catch him and he ran into a telephone pole.”
But cops are wordy. So doing a phoner with a police officer puts you at the mercy of their impenetrable jargon. And it’s live. You can’t edit down what they say like you can when you get them on videotape. You can’t decide that they have nothing useful to contribute. You just have to talk to them and hope to get some new information.
The sergeant told us the roads were slick, they shut down the highway, but reopened it. There were some accidents, but no one was seriously hurt. We said that. At the top of the show. So why did it take 90 seconds for a police officer to tell us this?
What’s more, the road was open. Everyone waking up this morning would have no idea it had been closed unless we told them. And it wouldn’t matter if the road was on fire because of that lava monster attack. It isn’t on fire now. Honestly, this was like leading the newscast with the breaking bulletin: You are still alive!
Let’s say the Bears were in a game where the referee negated a game-winning touchdown. Upon replay, the touchdown was approved. The Bears win. Now, hours later, instead of telling you the Bears won, we tell you that a referee initially ruled the Bears lost. But then he changed his mind. And the Bears won. And then we put some fan on the phone to talk about how bad it felt to have the Bears momentarily lose. (15 minutes of him saying the word “sucked” a lot.) And then you cap off the live conversation by saying, “Anyway, none of this matters because the Bears won.”
While all this was going on, one of the crew announced over the headset that he used to work in South Bend, Indiana… you know, where snow actually fell. (There was none in Chicago.) He said the South Bend station wouldn’t even cover snow unless there was 3-4 feet. You know why? It’s the Midwest. It’s winter. Everyone who lives here knows the deal.
Now I get that if the highway were still closed, it would be worth the extra attention. But it was open.
For two and a half years, I drove back and forth between Kalamazoo, Michigan and Chicago at least once a week. I drove 300 round-trip miles on I-94 through three winters in a beat-up, constantly malfunctioning 1989 Ford Probe with bare tires. There were times I couldn’t see the brake lights six inches from my front bumper.
And you know how many times I turned on a TV to learn about road conditions? Zero.
You know how many times I wrecked my car? Zero.
You know how many times I wish I had a state troooper telling me the slippery roads I was on were slippery? Zero.
And how many phoners did we do when I-94 was underwater this summer? Zero.
Phoners should be the news item of last resort. They should not be used to restate what can be said more eloquently and efficiently by the people whose job it is to report the news.
* Last night, I ventured out to sample the North Avenue pizzeria “Piece.” I was not impressed. I guess the atmosphere was okay, but the pizza was nothing special. Thin crust. Bland sauce. Standard toppings. At least, that was on my pizza.
It’s like the time when I was a kid and I thought, “I like milk. I like orange juice. Why not put them together?” I did, then tried to drink it. It was beyond disgusting. Too young to know better, I stashed the glass under my bed, afraid my parents would tag me for wasting food. I tried over the next several days to finish that glass, but it kept tasting worse. After about three days, I poured it down the sink and took the chance my parents wouldn’t find out.
So thank you, Piece, for making terrible pizza. I will never again give you money. (This is Chicago. You can throw a rock and hit an amazing pizza joint.)
I am baffled as to why her fellow “Check, Please” reviewers didn’t spew acid all over the woman who suggested it.
* I suppose prison wouldn’t be so bad as long as you could climb through the ceiling to nail a member of the opposite sex.
* Drew Peterson continues acting like a normal person whose wife has been missing more than a year by moving to divorce her.
* Dear Abby, I cut my hair short and now my husband is mad.
Dear Lady, this is Ben. What do you have against being pretty?
* Did you hear the one about the Victoria’s Secret model who has no belly button?
* Two phrases you never want to hear in the same story: “world’s fattest man” and “sex ramp.”
* Ooooooooklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the… (BANG!)
* Here are some blood-curdling crimes against the English language, courtesy of incredibly dumb community college students.
* Man it must be good to be an Obama staffer. They’re getting a bonus month of pay and they can keep their campaign computers and Blackberrys.
Here at NBC Chicago, the management is staging a Christmas contest, pitting the producers against each other for ratings. First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.
* It’s time to go now. I have to call a TV station and tell them that a situation that doesn’t affect them is over.