Thursday, April 7, 2011

I'm Live In Washington, And As You Can See, Everyone In America Is A Congressman

If you're from anywhere that isn't a national or at least regional media center, parachute journalism has probably happened to you at least once. Rick Larson of the Tri-City Herald in Washington state is putting up with it now. Parachute journalism, as he explains, comes when something notable happens in your hometown that you, being a local, can readily understand. Your local paper will probably do a pretty good job of reporting on it.

But that's not the report anyone outside your hometown is likely to see, because in come the bigger papers, the TV affiliates, to make camp, to do their reports on it for their larger audiences. And they, not being locals, are less capable of understanding what's going on or why, so their reporting is lackluster. They often do such a hack job of the story that the locals just end up wanting all the out-of-towners to go away.

Larson mentions it in relation to the area's Hanford nuclear reservation, the cleanup of which has caused many parachute journalists to come in and frown at it. Chronically high unemployment has been handwaved by the parachuters by basically going to the mall, failing to find a parking space, and marveling at a new store selling $800 handbags.

It has happened to us in Watertown. We're about halfway between Madison and Milwaukee. Some years ago, there was a tire fire just off the west end of town. Someone had stored way too many tires, it got to be unsafe, they caught fire somehow and off they went. You could see the black plume of smoke from any point in town, and probably a lot further afield as well. It was pretty bad- it took days to put it out- but beyond that, most of us in town treated it as something of a novelty. We found this bluff at a safe distance a couple farming fields away, parked our cars, set up lawn chairs and just watched the thing burn for a while. It was something different. The owner eventually ended up paying a huge fine; the fire engines involved got honored at a picnic in nearby Lebanon later that summer.

If you were to watch the news, though, you got a slightly different take on things. To hear the Madison and Milwaukee affiliates tell it, this was some huge, life-changing thing that brought Watertown to a screeching halt. A couple children's extracirricular activities were cancelled- you don't want the kids getting bits of rubber raining into their hair (something that didn't happen to me at any point)- but that was literally it as far as disruptions went. We get worse disruptions from snow in the winter. As far as the affiliates were concerned, though, that was enough to consider the city's collective life to be "on hold".

CNN's Wolf Blitzer, meanwhile, took the time to note that the plume of smoke was visible from a satellite photo. This is a distinction that becomes less meaningful every day. I can find my house on Google Earth. You can, and probably have, found your house too.

More recently, concerning the ongoing labor struggle and subsequent electoral fights, it's happened again. Wisconsinites have made a point of not really paying much attention to what out-of-state media was saying one way or the other. As soon as the national media began to assume that Wisconsin's state legislature worked just like Congress, and started asking why it doesn't, and why don't we make it like Congress, we pretty much tuned the out-of-towners out completely. When I was in Madison for the protests, I remember having to tell a CNBC guy from Cleveland not to stand under the tree that's shedding snow, because he's liable to get dumped on.

In their absence, we've gone to seeking coverage from the actual locals. The in-state affiliates, particularly the Madison affiliates. They're from Wisconsin. They send represenatives from their areas to Madison. They know how the state legislature works.

They have some idea what they're talking about.

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