A News Bulletin? Well, Isn't That Special

By John Kelly
Monday, May 22, 2006

P aula from Vienna called the other day to whine about our local TV stations. They had cut into their daytime broadcasts to air a "Special Report" that she didn't think was all that special.

It was the day after the tragic shooting at a Fairfax County police station, and the special report was coverage of a news conference that, in Paula's opinion, didn't reveal too much new information. Worst of all, Channel 4 had interrupted "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," one of Paula's favorites.

It seems that we're living in the era of the perpetual special report. It wasn't always this way. Let me tell you what special reports were like when I was a lad (he said, settling into his rocking chair and pulling his cardigan tight around his shoulders).

For starters, back when I was coming up, special reports weren't slick. They didn't have fancy computer graphics and a catchy musical score. They simply featured a card that read "Special Report" and the booming voice of an announcer saying, "We interrupt this program. . ."

The card was usually frozen on-screen for a few agonizing moments. This delay between the announcement and the report itself was enough to make your blood run cold, for back then special reports were special . They weren't plopped on TV at the drop of a hat.

No, back then, the world pretty much had to be ending to warrant a special report. There are two televisual artifacts that people of my generation can recall with dread: the test of the Emergency Broadcasting System ("If this had been an actual emergency, you would be a pile of smoking ash right now") and the special report.

The rise of 24-hour cable news has forced the broadcast networks and local stations to lower their special report standards. Now the moment some goofball tries to elude the cops on a California freeway or some disgraced Hollywood celeb walks from his limo to the courthouse door, we can know about it in real time, even if it means cutting into "Ellen DeGeneres."

But there's something else on Washington TV news that bothers me more than the not-so-special report. Why is it that TV reporters like to say, "We can tell you . . ."? The Channel 5 guys are the worst:

"We can tell you a tornado destroyed the balloon factory."

"We can tell you the robber was wearing full Kabuki makeup and carrying a long-haired dachshund."

It's like they think they're letting us in on a little secret. Oooooo, they can tell us something.

But isn't that their job? To tell us something? Why make such a big deal out of it? Instead of saying, "We can tell you the police believe the assailant used a frozen kielbasa to bludgeon the victim," why don't they just say, "Police believe the assailant used a frozen kielbasa to bludgeon the victim"?

The fact that they are telling us sort of implies that they can tell us. And if there's something they can't tell us, why not?

Then there's the thing that irritates My Lovely Wife so much that I can barely stand to watch the news with her. She gets downright violent when exposed to the information-free remote location stand-up. This is when the TV news correspondent is standing, microphone in hand, in front of some place where some thing happened some time ago: A victim died, a car crashed, a criminal was arrested.

Usually it's dark and the spotlight from the TV camera illuminates only the reporter and a bare patch of grass or the trunk of a tree.

"Brian," says the reporter, "we can tell you that four hours ago this was a scene of incredible carnage."

Yes, four hours ago it was. Now there's just you: a nicely dressed woman with a head full of hairspray.

I'm so glad that newspapers never, ever do anything that's annoying. Right?


Bob Richardson of Lake Ridge read my column last week about how Tom Cruise pretends to be a traffic engineer from the Virginia Department of Transportation in "Mission: Impossible III."

Bob wasn't buying it: "Tom Cruise will only be credible as a VDOT traffic engineer if he is portrayed as studying a set of facts, drawing a conclusion completely at variance with the facts, in contradiction of all logic and common sense, and then defending his conclusion by stating 'Studies show . . .' That I will pay to see, even though I am not a big [Cruise] fan."

My e-mail:kellyj@washpost.com

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