- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

During the annual May TV ratings sweep, stations in the Washington area usually treat their viewers to news reports about the big issues of the day — toxic mold, dirty nail salons, infested mattresses and the like.

This year, those kinds of stories took a back seat to the cicadas. The stations angled for new angles on the bugs all month long.

Stories about the “Star Trek”-style sounds the cicadas produce? Check.

Stories about people who eat cicadas? Of course.

Stories about merchants who sell cicada-inspired T-shirts? Why not?

ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) even named itself “Your Cicada Station” and had increasingly avuncular weatherman Doug Hill deliver daily updates on the bugs. By the end of the month, Mr. Hill had resorted to airing photos of Calvert County, Md., children who had dressed a statue to look like a cicada.

The stations left no stone unturned. Why would they? There might be cicadas hiding underneath.

Yes, the novelty of the insects make them a story worthy of airtime. After all, the cicadas emerge from the earth just once every 17 years to mate and die.

And yes, TV news is not a medium known for displaying restraint.

But even the most cynical viewers must have been shocked by the amount of coverage the stations gave the insect invasion.

In theory, the quarterly ratings sweeps are periods when local stations across the nation showcase their best reporting.

Not long ago, the stations in the Washington area specialized in meaningful investigative reporting, not only during sweeps, but all year long.

CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9) set the standard 20 years ago when its payroll included Mark Feldstein, who uncovered toxic waste dumping in Adamstown, Md., welfare hotel fraud in the District and taxi drivers who paid city inspectors bribes to approve faulty cabs.

In the 1990s, reporting by Del Walters, then of WJLA, prompted the federal government to mandate airbag-warning labels in cars.

The stations in this town used to help set the agenda for news coverage.

These days, viewers get wall-to-wall stories about cicadas — or worse, all those silly reports about toxic mold. Real investigative reporting still happens, but it is rare.

TV news directors now tell their reporters to deliver “back-fence stories,” the kind neighbors might share while chatting over their backyard fence.

There’s only one problem with the concept: No TV viewer in the Washington area dared venture into their back yard in May.

Too many cicadas were crawling around.

Together again

The Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of D.C. political punditry — Mark Plotkin and Kojo Nnamdi — finally will reunite June 11, almost one year after they announced plans to appear as guests on each other’s radio talk shows.

Mr. Nnamdi will be a guest on Mr. Plotkin’s WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM) show at 10 a.m. that day. Two hours later, Mr. Plotkin will guest on Mr. Nnamdi’s WAMU-FM (88.5) show, where Mr. Plotkin was a regular before bolting to WTOP in 2002.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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