Be Outraged—or Smile: Pat Collins’ “Performance Art” Journalism

The Washington television veteran says his NBC4 reporting “should affect you emotionally.”

By: Harry Jaffe

Pat Collins leans over the table. His eyes lock on mine. I expect him to say in his rushed and raspy voice that there’s a dead body under the table at this sweet breakfast place in his Chevy Chase DC ’hood.

“I create my own pressure,” he says, “my own desperation.”

Collins has been creating his brand of desperation in crime reporting on TV since the day in 1973 when producers at Channel 9 stuck a mike in his face and told him to talk into the camera. Until then, he’d been writing about crime for the old Washington Daily News. “I was terrible,” he says. “I didn’t even own a TV.”

Collins, 66, is about as close as local DC journalism gets to an institution. He bounced around stations until he landed at Channel 4 in 1986. He’s been covering crime—and storms—ever since. His live shots are more performance art than straight reporting.

“If I’m doing my job, it should affect you emotionally,” Collins says. He pounds on the table. “I want you to be sad, or outraged—maybe have a smile on your face.”

Collins can trace his family back four generations in DC. His great-grandfather worked for the railroad. His grandfather was an engineer on the rail line from DC to Cumberland; he’d walk to work at Union Station from his house on H Street, Northeast. Collins’s father, Tom, grew up in that house and raised Collins and his two siblings there. Collins went to St. John’s High School.

At age 15, he started covering high-school sports for the Washington Daily News for five bucks a story. When he went off to Notre Dame, his father—a physician—warned him: “Reporters are nothing more than drunks, drifters, or deadbeats.” Collins promised to study medicine but wound up founding the Observer, Notre Dame’s first independent daily. After college he started covering murders for the Daily News.

“My style comes from writing the way the crusty old reporters at the Daily News wrote,” he says. “Short, hard-driving sentences. Every word should count. The best story is one that sings.”

Collins is still singing for Channel 4 after a quarter century because the station has bucked the trend toward the next young, pretty face. Its top talent is a lineup of veterans, from anchors Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler to reporters Steve Handelsman, Julie Carey, and Tom Sherwood. Comcast bought the station from GE last year, made the veterans welcome, restarted the investigative unit, hired new reporters, and let Pat be Pat.

Done with coffee, Collins heads off to sniff out the next bloody scene: “Time to go out and commit some journalism.”

This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.