My News Shoes

Being a television news reporter in Portland requires fancy footwork. And sensible footwear.

By Jamie Wilson May 19, 2009 Published in the December 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Gilbert Ford

I OFTEN ENVY MY counterparts in New York or Los Angeles, imagining the sleek heels, sexy boots or strappy sandals they wear while covering, say, Fashion Week or a Hollywood premiere. I like to believe my gig as a television news reporter in Portland requires a more sensible (and complex) arsenal of footwear. And I have a trunkful of shoes to prove it.

My fleece-lined Sorel snow boots are always at the ready for those days I’m expected to announce the first flake on Sylvan Hill; I rely on my rubber hip-waders for February floods at Johnson Creek; a nighttime Forest Park report on illegal homeless camps necessitates Columbia Razor Ridge hiking boots; and I lace up my Adidas Supernova running shoes on days I know I’ll be squeezing into the backseat of a cop car for an undercover marijuana bust. You never know when you might have to sprint.

My sole savvy somehow lapsed the day the United States went to war in Iraq, though. On that particular morning, I’d decided to slip on a pair of uncomfortable brown pumps, and was subsequently forced to jog—make that hobble—through downtown Portland for almost six hours while covering the biggest protest I’d encountered as a general assignment reporter for FOX 12.

It was nearly 6 p.m. on March 20, 2003, when my photographer and I waded into the mayhem at SW 2nd Ave and W Burnside. Hundreds of protesters brandishing cardboard signs were blocking the streets and chanting slogans against President Bush. They stood face-to-face with about 75 grimly determined police officers, clad in full riot gear, who were ordering the crowd to disperse and, when it didn’t, dragging the most defiant individuals to a paddy wagon. Then the cops transformed into human street-sweepers, herding the crowd south, heading straight toward me. And so I ran. My photographer ran. And as I ran I called in a live report on my cell phone: “Um, now we’re running! I have to go!”

It was chaos. And chaos is news, especially in laid-back Portland.

Later, as protesters sabotaged our 10 p.m. live coverage by screaming “Fuck the corporate media! Fuck FOX News! We don’t want you here!” (while my feet screamed bloody murder), I felt the familiar, daily wave of humility wash over me. Ahhh, Portland. Always there to keep a local news reporter on her swollen toes.

My broadcast news career began much more quietly nine years ago in Eugene. After a brief stint as the evening producer for the ABC affiliate, I was eventually hired as a general assignment reporter for the city’s NBC station. At $7.50 an hour, my salary closely rivaled that of a burger flipper, and I endured the silliness requisite of any newbie reporter working in a small TV news market: “Escaped pet wallaby seen hopping through traffic on Main Street. Details at 11!” You get the idea.

In the fall of 2000, however, I got my big break as a reporter for the FOX affiliate in my hometown of Portland. Well aware that most of my peers were forced to slog it out for years in Tiny Town, USA, I felt lucky to get the gig. And it didn’t take long to get into the groove of my new job because, frankly, there wasn’t time for a learning curve. My life soon became a blur of live shots in horizontal rain from I-5 overpasses (rubber boots from Kmart) and meth-lab busts (track shoes are best). I delivered warnings about sex offenders and burglars on the loose (I’m never quite sure: low, wedge heels or comfy flats?) and “Winter Blast” dispatches from a Troutdale truck stop (definitely snow boots).

Sure, my job can be tough—working nearly every Friday night throughout my twenties was a drag—but through it all, there’s been one reassuring constant: the discerning attention of Portland viewers.

Whether asking me about my eyelashes when they see me on the streets (they are real, for the record), cornering me in bar bathrooms (“Hey, TV lady!”) or e-mailing me messages of support (“Thanks for sticking it out in the snow!”) or utter disgust (“I’m never watching you again!”), Portlanders have really been watching me.

This first sank in during the spring of 2001, when I reported a two-part series on the possible connection between autism and vaccines. Exasperated parents of autistic children thanked me via e-mail and phone for finally talking about the issue. But I received equally emotional feedback from angry viewers in Portland’s medical community, one of whom promised I would be solely responsible for the deaths of thousands because I scared parents away from vaccinating their children.

Then, after September 11, 2001, being a television journalist suddenly had new meaning. As the profile of certain flag-waving, right-leaning political pundits on cable news heightened, Portland viewers became increasingly aware that KPTV’s newscast happened to air on a FOX station. It amazed me that so many folks in liberal Portland thought—and still think—that I share a cubicle wall with Bill O’Reilly or that Rupert Murdoch himself leads our editorial meetings. I know this because many of you have transmitted your feelings on the matter using spirited finger gestures when you see the FOX 12 news truck in traffic. Message received, loud and clear!

(By the way, my station is owned by the Meredith Corporation, which is based in Des Moines, Iowa. I’m pretty sure O’Reilly has his own office in New York, and that he doesn’t even have to think about what shoes he wears to work each day.)

Of course, there are some days when Portlanders would rather not watch us at all. On November 7, 2006, the day Democrats reclaimed power in Congress and Nancy Pelosi was named the first female Speaker of the House, I was assigned to cover the Oregon Democrats’ party at the Benson Hotel. By 9 p.m., Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski had won re-election, and rumors quickly spread through the festive crowd that he was ready to make a victory speech.

By 9:30, we’d broken into FOX’s primetime programming, the über-popular medical drama “House,” to carry the speech live. There was one problem: Politicians are never on time. So there was yours truly, performing a 10-minute verbal tap-dance routine (no, I don’t own tap shoes, but I would have given up my microphone-holding right hand for a pair) to keep viewers interested until the governor showed. By the end of the night, our station had received 40,000 calls from viewers complaining that I’d ruined their evening.

Note to self: Never come between the Rose City and its favorite television drama, even on election night.

I hardly let such setbacks deter me, though. As a TV reporter in Portland, every day is another opportunity for adventure, whether it’s being spat upon by Critical Mass cyclists, dissed by city officials or helping the police to find a missing child—maybe even saving someone’s life.

All I know is that when I wake up in the morning, anything is possible, and I don’t plan on trading my Adidas in for Manolos anytime soon.

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