A couple of days ago I was sitting on a park bench downtown with a friend eating lunch when a camera man from a local news station came over to us. He explained that they were collecting random statements from those interested in giving them, and some would be chosen for that night's news broadcast.
I've been interviewed on TV news a couple times in the past, and in both cases wound up cringing as I saw myself on the tube. But I wound up accepting the impromptu offer to pontificate on television.
As soon as I was handed the microphone and cued to make my schpiel, I dove into one my most frequent obsessions: turn signals. I explained how frustrating it is when other drivers simply drift from one lane into another, or around a corner from one street onto another, without signaling to other drivers what they're doing. It can be startling, unsettling and confusing.
For good measure, I also indulged the chance to talk about a second driving petpeeve: when someone is turning left at a green light across a lane of incoming traffic and doesn't inch his or her car into the intersection. When you wait to make that turn without moving forward, it traps the drivers behind you intending to go straight. With most green lights lasting only 30 seconds, one person's left turn can trap the drivers behind that car without getting through the green lighted intersection. It's very frustrating, and needlessly so.
In both cases, I'm particularly fixated on the issue of communication between drivers, and recognition of each others' needs. I've long been frustrated but fascinated by traffic. On a kind of mathematical, biological level, I'm intrigued by the patterns of people moving in their cars. But now there's way too many of us on the road, and it magnifies the importance of execution and courtesy among drivers.
I was only on camera for about twenty seconds, and I didn't really give it much thought afterward because it seemed like they were just collecting rainy-day footage to use later. I felt a little silly having been on camera again in light of how I took it before, but I also didn't feel it was worth making a big deal about. As it happens, though, a good friend of mine works at the same TV station, and he emailed me to tell me I was indeed on the news that evening:
"You are such a media whore," he said.
In a sense I had this coming because of a couple past exploits on the tube. Earlier this year, a neighbor of mine across the street was busted by the police for having an illegal marijuana growing operation in his basement. I and several other neighbors gathered on the sidewalk to watch as police officers broke down the front door and theatrically dumped all the pot plants into the front yard. A couple TV news stations were there, but no print reporters, which told me that it was a sensationalist story. I wasn't necessarily looking to be interviewed, but a few of us were asked by one of the camera people to be interviewed, and everyone else declined. Being politically in favor of legalizing certain less addictive drugs, I sensed the reporters were obviously going to villify Winston, the nice man I'd seen playing with his young daughter several time over the months. So I went on camera and gave the reporters a contrarian if tongue-in-cheek soundbite about how Winston was just a guy with a home-based business that happened to be needlessly illegal. The news station ate it up, even incorporating the comment into their pre-broadcast teasers: "Coming up, a pot bust in Southeast Portland, and what some of the neighbors have to say may surprise you."
Late last year, I was approached by a TV news reporter to comment on a new Portland Police policy of ticketing jaywalkers. I'd written a weblog post attacking the policy as petty, misguided and unrealistic. Again, I never thought about a blog post getting picked up by TV news, but when a reporter came calling, I recognized that my message could go from reaching a couple hundred people to scores of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
So I guess someone who winds up on TV news three times in less than six months can't plead complete innocence when a friend teases him about being a media whore. After all, I'm guilty of some degree of vanity, and there's a part of me that has always been giddy about being on TV. I watched several hours a day of television growing up, and in 3rd grade it was a huge thrill to be on the local Ramblin' Rod cartoon show.
But ultimately what's driven me to stick my neck out in front of the camera so willingly isn't vanity or even insecurity, although I possess a fair amount of that as well. It's the earnest crusader in me. It's a quality I'm somewhat embarrassed about, because it makes me look silly sometimes. And I hate looking silly. But although I'm cynical in many ways, part of me retains this naive conviction that if I can just get certain messages out there, somehow society will function just a little bit more efficiently.
But I also take issue with my TV appearances being all about me. However silly it may seem to others, all three times I've been interviewed recently have been for me personally about the chance to put forward a socio-political viewpoint I care about. The media is a big sea of voices, and even though I don't have very much respect for TV news overall compared to print journalism (TV is obviously far, far, far more sensationalistic and substantively vacant), I felt like in each case what I was doing was a kind of demonstration that was driven by the issue at hand more than my face being on the tube.
I guess as always, the truth lies somewhere in between. I argue vehemently that my motivations were more selfless than selfish, but naturally there is a flipside of every coin. Or every KOIN, as it were.