It's been raining in southeastern Wisconsin this week. It's been raining a LOT. Some places are being flooded. Some of the places with floods are getting even more rain. The local television news departments -- I mean the weather people -- have been breaking in every 10 minutes with urgent and breathless updates about more rain.
Have you noticed the weather is now the only important part of local news? I was going to say the "most" important part but that doesn't seem accurate. Local news no longer covers local news: we never hear how the local city councils are spending our money and we certainly never hear a reporter ask "why" something might be happening. The only local stories we get are 'stories' about murder and mayhem and, to leaven the mix, wacky pets. The rest is whatever cool video the news director pulls off his satellite feed that he believes will keep you comfortably seated between commercials.
Maybe people aren't interested in reality anymore. I don't know.
I went nuts a few years ago after watching One Unnamed Local News-at-6 broadcast. I actually called the station. The first three stories were -- and you can't make this stuff up -- a cat up a tree, an incredibly cute kid with cancer (but in Oklahoma), and video of a car chase in L.A. I said something about their responsibility to let us know what was going on locally.
This was, I confess, naive.
The news director said -- rather tersely and with what I could only identify as the kind of edgy ridicule reserved for "people outside the business" -- that his channel "stood by its editorial decisions. "
I said something unhelpful like "you mean you actually made a decision to put those stories on the air?"
Yeah yeah, I know.
Anyway, I used to think sports was also pretty important, but it turns out that local sports coverage is becoming extinct. The Penn State Center for Sports Journalism released a report in 2006 that began:
Sports directors, anchors and reporters at local television stations in the top 50 demographic markets in the U.S. believe their segment on the local television newscast could become extinct.
According to a telephone survey of 216 sports personnel in major-market television news operations, many believe their role is diminishing and that “someday sports may not be part of the local television newscast.” Respondents are divided on how much ESPN, the Internet and regional sports networks may be chipping away at the relevance of the local sports report.
I'd just remembered hearing this somewhere, sometime, and Googled up "local sports coverage declining" a few minutes ago. The number of hits was surprising. Have a look.
Curiouser and curiouser.
So back to the weather.
It's been raining. It does that in Wisconsin when it's still too warm outside to snow.
The local NBC affiliate broke in to the NBC national Nightly News twice tonight to report rain falling from yet another rain storm -- this one just north of Racine. One time they even interrupted a story about flooding in Ohio.
Channel 57, the CBS affiliate, had a fixed banner across the bottom of the screen all night -- except during the commercials. Have you ever noticed that no weather reporter ever breaks into and interrupts a commercial with an "emergency" update?
That's interesting. -- oh, but while Channel 57 was eating up the screen with a miniature radar image to the left and a PowerPoint banner at the bottom that said "Flood warning for the following counties" and then listing them, felt compelled to add a big running header across the top of the screen, slicing through Gary Sinise's forehead during CSI: NY. The red streaming header warned people in exactly the same counties listed at the bottom of the screen that they were still under a flood warning.
I should stop thinking about things like this and simply accept the evidence: weather might be the only news any of us care about. Maybe it's the only thing that interests anybody because it's the only thing we can't predict. War? Economic distress? The Packers? There will always be wars and rumors of war. There will always be trouble in the Middle East and with the Russians. Brett Favre will always throw too many interceptions until he goes back to spending his time fishing off Gulfport. All are inevitable and, therefore, boring.
The weather remains the only unpredictable part of the news. Maybe Vince and Paul and Sally are our versions of tribal shaman, reading the bones and predicting the future.
I mention it in passing.