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

The Washington television veteran says his NBC4 reporting “should affect you emotionally.”
Collins (right) honed his writing style at the now-defunct Washington Daily News. Photograph by Chris Flynn.
Collins (right) honed his writing style at the now-defunct Washington Daily News. Photograph by Chris Flynn.

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

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

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
and Doreen Gentzler to reporters
Steve Handelsman, Julie Carey, and Tom
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.

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