This week I ran into two bothersome aspects of journalism that I’m not sure people outside of the business can truly appreciate.
One is the staged press event calling attention to something everyone already knows about and could very rarely meet the commonly accepted definition of “news.”
In spite of my chauvinistic news sense, I showed up Tuesday morning at the Oak Street on-ramp to I-880, not just to witness the spectacle of legislative staffers and Caltrans District 4 Director Bijan Sartipi picking up trash, but to participate in the event with my own mechanical stick with a trigger on one end and suction-cup pincers on the other.
“You could at least blog about this,” said Lauren Wonder, who runs the district’s public relations office in Oakland. Wanting to be a good sport, I had sheepisly agreed a month earlier, secretly hoping that some major transportation news event would pre-empt my appearance.
So I showed up Tuesday, donned a Caltrans hard hat (they always love to see the media wearing these) and, even better, an orange vest along with the trash picker-upper-device.
Before I picked up my first candy wrapper, however, I began chatting with the director about progress with the MacArthur Maze collapse. He seemed enthusiastic about the fact that Caltrans had gotten an incredibly low bid on the project to replace the I-580 connector ramp that melted in a gasoline fire April 29.
We talked about the contractor and previous rush jobs they had completed ahead of schedule and, while I was certainly happy to write down all of this, I started to feel a bit guilty that I wasn’t picking up any trash.
Finally, I picked up about 10 pieces of paper and plastic, pulled a half-buried grocery bag from the ground and returned my gear to Wonder as the Caltrans crew was packing up for a similar event in San José.
I concluded that my volunteering to pick up trash had entitled me to cash in on some good karma: Quotes for a real story from an actual Caltrans official.
As these things tend to go, I didn’t blog about it on Tuesday, as a diligent blogger like Josh Richman might do. I got caught up in other things, one day led to another and then it seemed silly to blog about litter awareness more than 48 hours after the fact.
It was about littering. In California.
That brings me to my second journalistic peeve: Getting scooped in your own backyard by a bigger, more prestigious news organization by a reporter who probably makes three times your salary.
I mean, when it comes to the New York Times, I can grudgingly accept that they will get the first news tip when Hamas decides to recognize Israel. I can also put up with them breaking news like, our government was all wrong about WMDs in Iraq.
But when it comes to the deadly problem of “road debris” in Pleasanton, it’s my job to own that story. But no, I was too proud to write about the litter threat. I had better things to do. Talk about karma.
So today I had to read this:
On eastbound Interstate 580 near Pleasanton recently, a rocking chair brought traffic to a near-standstill, while on southbound I-680 near Walnut Creek, a trampoline blocked two left lanes, wreaking havoc on the morning commute. Bagged loaves of sourdough bread blocked U.S. 101, near Petaluma. The highway patrol had to be dispatched.
No wonder they missed the WMD story. Doesn’t the New York friggin’ Times have better things to write about?
Then the gravity of the story begins to come through:
While by no means unique to California, pickup trucks and other vehicles piled high with improperly secured loads are a fact of life here, contributing — thanks to the laws of physics — to an estimated 140,000 cubic yards of road debris a year. That is enough to fill 8,750 garbage trucks, which would extend for 45 miles, said Tamie McGowen, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, the state transportation department.
Tamie! I was just in her office Monday. How was I supposed to know that a New York Times reporter was lurking behind the bookcase?
Then we come to the coup de grâce, the final insult proving that I was too stupid to realize that littering on that very Oak Street on-ramp was a world-class transportation story that USA Today would covet:
And it is increasingly hazardous, experts say.
In California, 155 people lost their lives in the last two years after accidents involving objects on highways, and states are beginning to address the issue.
Next week, a murder trial is set to begin in the death of a Los Angeles county deputy sheriff who was killed when he swerved to avoid a stolen stove that had fallen from a Long Beach man’s truck.
In California and across the nation, where some freeway shoulders have come to resemble weekend yard sales, the nature of road debris has changed, and litter anthropologists are now studying the phenomenon.
One hundred and fifty-five deaths! The trial of the century! And to top it off, anthropologists have turned litter into a “phenomenon!”
So, dear readers, I apologize. I let you down. Good thing our papers subscribe to the NYT news service, so you can find a version of it on our Web site and a local story written by my more responsible Vallejo-based colleague, Sarah Rohrs. I let hubris take hold of my news judgement and must now prostrate myself before the altar of Ivy League journalism.
The next time Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol put on a litter blitz, I’ll be there, well on my way to a five-part series.