The shrapnel of grief

uga sadIt’s not supposed to happen this way.

In my line of work, it’s inevitable that you will confront tragedy. Grieving strangers suddenly aren’t strangers anymore. They pour out their hearts. You offer compassion and a sympathetic ear. Often, when I’m present, the interview ends with a hug. Some may see that as inappropriate, a violation of some journalistic canon. I don’t care. When I see suffering, I hug.

It’s not easy to walk away. You carry some of that second-hand grief home.

That’s the way it goes. Most of the time.

It’s not supposed to go like this.

At 2 a.m., as I was rising for another day of chasing news, a police officer was knocking at the front door of a friend’s house just a couple of miles away. A car crash was sending waves of sadness across my community, into my church, and deep into my heart. I didn’t learn for another five hours that I knew one of the victims. Word reached me as I was standing on the side of an Atlanta street, reporting on a series of car crashes impacting people I’d just met.

Halle Scott was 19-years-old. Her parents are in my Sunday school class. We’ve socialized together, worshiped together, prayed together. Hundreds of times, we’ve joined each other in prayer over others encountering hardship. It was only a few months ago that Halle attended a Sunday school class I helped teach for students home from college. My mind won’t let go of her peaceful face as I did my best to impart what little spiritual wisdom I possess.

After learning details of the crash, I tried to keep reporter Jerry separate from grieving Jerry. For a few hours, I struggled to focus on the remaining tasks of the day. Thankfully, my assignments did not involve coverage of the wreck that took Halle and three other University of Georgia students. That would have forced reporter Jerry and grieving Jerry to collide.

It’s not supposed to happen that way.

At noon, I was done with reporter Jerry. I broke away from work and headed to church. There, I found an entire room injured by the widespread shrapnel of grief. The entire building wept. I bowed. I asked God to bestow peace upon a family in desperate need of strength. I held my daughter’s hand and watched her weep. She and Halle were on the high school cheerleading squad together. Rachel was supposed to visit Halle in Athens on Saturday.

It’s my job to confront grief, not my daughter’s.

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Life isn’t fair. Halle was a wonderful child of powerful faith. In the name of the Lord, she traveled to faraway places to worship and serve others less fortunate. She was bold in her faith, unafraid to let you know her devotion to God. Her parents are equally strong in their convictions, and I’m comforted in knowing they can lean on Christ. They have a Sunday school class, a church, an entire community for support. They have me, if they need me.

So many times, I’ve reported on tragic losses that just aren’t fair.

It’s never involved anyone I know.

The car wreck that has impacted an entire college campus and well beyond will be in the news for awhile. I can’t bring myself to watch the coverage. I’m a newsman who can’t watch the news. When I see pictures of Halle, I think of her mom, her dad, and her brother, and I have the same thoughts as parents across the entire state. That could have my my child. The next time, that police officer might not be two miles away. Is my faith strong enough?

As a news reporter, there really is no exit strategy when it comes to tragic events. At some point, you need to detach from the grief, but you can’t. It lingers, even when it isn’t yours. After a few years, it gets pretty weighty.

It isn’t reporter Jerry who comes to the Scott family, ready to carry as much weight as they need. This is Jerry, a brother in Christ, a friend ready to listen, cry, celebrate, mourn, fetch, hug, and hug again. I can pray. I can ask God to wrap sweet Halle in his loving arms. I can ask Him to fill the hearts of all who are hurting with the assurance that Halle is in an amazing place. I can pray that it brings her family comfort.

Perhaps, in the face of incredible tragedy, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

 

As Luck would have it

luckI suffer from a very strange affliction that has no medical cure, and yet is nothing that should cause worry for my friends, family, or anyone at the Mayo Clinic.

It’s called FoMO.

Fear of Missing Out.

FoMO means you can’t take a hike through the north Georgia mountains without checking your inbox. There’s no enjoying an afternoon on the front porch swing without pondering the trending hashtags on Twitter. Your wife is in the midst of providing detail of Uncle Henry’s appendectomy, when you hear Facebook calling.

FoMO.

Imagine arriving at work to find your co-workers discussing the wildly popular video of Bigfoot chasing a DUI suspect on Georgia 400. You search your rancid breakroom coffee for a way to contribute. You spent the previous night organizing your collection of flavored dental floss. You’re a newsman who is out of the loop, a virtual sasquatch in a viral video world.

There’s nothing wrong with staying up-to-date, but my affliction goes above and beyond. I work the morning shift, which means I typically get home around 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The work day is over. Supposedly. Not for my brain. The rest of the world continues to work, and I need to know what the world is doing. I continue to check my emails. I check Twitter. Then my email. Then Twitter. Finally, I force myself to unplug by going on a long walk. Hey, iPhones need exercise, too. Step, step, Facebook. Step, step, email.

All day long, I’m stimulated by a bombardment of information. It’s more powerful than caffeine. I come home with a buzz that’s difficult to calm. I want more. I have to have more.

I’m reading a book written by a man who attempts one year adhering literally to the rules of the Bible. When he gets to the part about setting aside one day of the week for rest, he struggles. He makes his own rules. He decides it’s okay to check email, as long as he’s just reading the topic line. He knows that’s not following the Bible literally, but…he simply can’t help himself. One day away from the stimulation is like leaving a child on a deserted island.

There’s a reason why our brains have an off switch. No one can go full speed every moment of every day. You need to recharge. I’m not sure why I have to work so hard at not working.

I like the Chick-fil-A approach to the problem. The restaurant chain encourages diners to place their iphones in a “coop” during their meal. And leave it there. No Instagram checks. No looking at a text. Imagine. Your attention is free to have an actual conversation with your dining partner. Finish your meal without a single swipe of the screen, and you get a free ice cream.

Me? I’m lactose intolerant. Of course.

My brother owns a cabin that we visit on occasion where there is no cell service. None. It’s in a place called Luck, North Carolina, which isn’t a town as much as it is, well, my brother’s cabin. We spend peaceful days there going on hikes along the nearby Appalachian Trail. We sit by the fire pit and read. Conversations are filled with laughter rather than stress. With a little Luck, you’re forced to unplug.

I need bring a little Luck to my home. Maybe I’ll create a little coop where my urge-to-know can take a timeout for a few hours a day. I know my brain could use the rest.

There. I finished this blog without once pausing to check email or Twitter.

Now I need to work on my honesty.

The TK76 factor

tk76The times, they are a changin’.

On August 23, 1982, I walked into the newsroom of WRBL-TV, and entered the world of professional journalism. With one hand, the news director gave me a hearty pat on the back, and with the other, he handed me a camera as big as an armored car. With an RCA TK76 digging into my bony shoulder and sweat gushing from every pore, I shot my first news story.

The TK76 is now an extra-large part of television history. During my 34 years in the business, we’ve switched from hefty ¾” tape, to Beta, to digital video tape, to digital cards. Broadcast cameras, once large enough to break you in two, are now the size of the handheld version you cart to Disney World. The equipment has gotten smaller as our responsibilities have grown. We’re now asked to feed not just a newscast or two, but our website and several social media platforms. We can do live shots with our phones.

Change in television news is constant and inevitable. Sometimes, it’s downright sad.

I am lucky enough to have worked with some of Atlanta’s television legends. John Pruitt is a cherished mentor. There was Guy Sharpe, Chuck Moore, Johnny Beckman, Joe Washington, Randy Waters, and Bruce Erion. I once thought of them as irreplaceable. They’ve all been replaced.

The look of my television station is changing again by way of a mass retirement. Donna Lowry. Keith Whitney. Kevin Rowson. They are among a group of vastly experienced journalists who are saying good-bye to WXIA-TV. If you know these people only through their on-screen work, trust me, you’re missing out. They are much more than a one minute blip on the tube. These are loving parents, good friends, hard workers. They care about you. They do. If you happened upon them at the grocery store or a dinner party, you would like them. You would understand immediately why they’ve lasted so long in a challenging business.

None of these people got into television news for the money or the notoriety. Young journalists motivated by wealth and fame don’t last. Donna, Keith, Kevin, photographers Mike Zakel, Steve Flood, and Ron Nakfoor, they lasted decades in this business because of much more. They all got into it because of a hunger to tell good stories, a passion to find the truth, and their ability to relate to people. They all spent time working in snow, or with the sting of a hurricane against their cheek, or with the miserable feel of a TK76 on their shoulder. And they kept coming back. Because they love it.

Good journalism doesn’t come from a can of hairspray. Passion always outweighs discomfort.

Times change. People retire. I’ve witnessed a lot of departures during my 27-years with WXIA. This time, we’re talking about people who are close to my age.

Their exit brings reflection.

I wear a lot of gray now, but I don’t really notice because my vision isn’t so sharp. I don’t bounce back from long work days the way I once did. The passion is still there, but the body is struggling to keep pace.

More than once, I’ve contemplated the end of my broadcast career. It will happen one of several ways. I could leave on my own terms, when the body and the bank account agree there’s a nice comfortable chair waiting for me at the beach. It may require encouragement from bosses who feel I’ve outlived my usefulness. There are a few of my snarkier friends who may tell you that time has already arrived. I’m looking at you, Randy Waters.

I remember a conversation many years ago with affable weatherman Guy Sharpe. If Atlanta television had a Mt. Rushmore, Guy’s face would be on it. He was nearing the end of his television career, and he knew it. He accepted Father Time’s command with grace, refusing to grow bitter toward a business that often demands younger, faster, and better looking.

For now, I still have some good years left in me, and I get to work with journalism’s next generation. My desk is surrounded with energetic young reporters eager to dig, to work, to inform. They are not burdened with ego. They are the Donna Lowry, Kevin Rowson, and Keith Whitney of thirty years ago.

And they never had to work with that blasted TK76.

Right now, my heart is as heavy as that burdensome camera my boss dropped on my shoulder so long ago. Our newsroom is about to experience a void. We’re losing some classy people. Solid journalists. Treasured companions.

So long, friends. We will miss you.

See you on the late news, alligator

me and the gatorI’m fascinated with alligators.

Gators don’t worry. They take what the swamp gives them with slow confidence. They don’t bother you unless you mess with them, and why would you mess with a prehistoric creature wearing fangs? They don’t complain.

They have a thick skin.

While I lack the chops of an alligator, I find a thick skin comes in handy. It seems there are a great many people who have lost respect for my line of work, and aren’t afraid to tell you. Emphatically.

For example.

This past winter, I was stationed on an icy Cobb Parkway preparing to warn unknowing motorist of the slick hazards. A truck in bad need of a new muffler rolled by, driven by a man who was even louder than his faulty exhaust.

“Leave us alone you #@*% liberal commie.”

It’s not the first time I have been the target of drive-by insults, and it won’t be the last. Assumptions about my character based on my job confuses me a bit. It always has. I’d rather someone get to know me before deciding to dislike me.

There was actually a time when my profession wasn’t lumped together with carjackers and telemarketers. I remember the days when people viewed me as somewhat of an authority figure. It was a little weird. They felt an obligation to grant an interview, even when circumstance should have told them to steer clear. Now, it’s more likely I’ll find a lawyer, a pitbull, or a locked door standing between me and my quarry.

There are many who see journalists as biased. We have an agenda. Some of my own neighbors, even some members of my Sunday school class, believe journalists to be Godless, manipulative liars. Never referring to me specifically, they proclaim their displeasure with members of the dreaded media.

No one in my business is perfect. Some of us are hard to like. Many of us have inflated egos. Most are really good people trying to earn a living under circumstances that are often quite difficult and quite often downright depressing. That’s not a complaint or an excuse. That’s my job. I have seen death, grief, celebration, inspiration, confusion, anger, hatred, love, compassion…just about everything. It has molded me. It has helped make me who I am.

I’m willing to give you a glimpse into who I am so the next time you see me on television, you can render judgement based on my actual character rather something perceived.

I am a Christian. That means it is most important for me to love God and love others. All others. I often fail to do that. It doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it makes me human. I need forgiveness for the times I fail, so it is imperative that I extend grace to others. If I don’t forgive, that does make me a hypocrite.

I am a husband. I married my best friend, and I cherish my life with her. We were practically kids when we met. We’ve grown and changed a lot since then. She has put up with my weird hours and the second hand stress from my job. She deserves a Nobel Prize for tolerance. The longer we’re married, the more I appreciate her.

I am a father. I have three amazing children. My wife and I have tried very hard to let our children know how much we love them. Cady gave up her career to stay home and nurture them. I give her all the credit for raising three smart, compassionate children. We are very, very lucky.

I am a son. I lost my father to cancer, and the grief is still with me. He taught me the value of working hard and giving your best, and that stays with me, too. My mother taught me that adversity and pain can make you stronger and better. She’s faced challenges that would have toppled most people, and yet she’s 80-years-old and standing tall. My parents are a blessing to me.

I talk too much. I got in a lot of trouble during my formative years for opening my mouth when I should have kept it closed. Too often, I was loud and disruptive. There were teachers who tried, without much success, to stifle me. There were a few who channeled my verbal energy into something productive. From that, a career was born. I have grown to know the value of curbing your tongue, and I do struggle at times to control myself. I’m a work in progress. At the age of 57. Go figure.

Let me touch on the issue of bias. Journalists are biased. Of course we are. We are human beings. We are not automatons who lack feeling and emotion. We are shaped by our upbringing and experiences, just like you. Our job is to keep our bias from influencing our reporting. This can be tough. Take, for example, the issue of cancer. I’m a survivor. I lost my father to cancer. Now, ask me to report on the amount of money going toward cancer research, or the need for exams that might detect cancer. Clearly, I’m going to have a bias. Not everyone is going to view the issue the way I see it. My job, however, is to remain open minded. Hear all sides. Present all sides impartially. You try it. Try leaving your deep seeded emotions out of a conversation. That’s my job, and I take it quite seriously.

Here’s a little more insight into this particular journalist. I’m not going to try to claim I do everything just right. I can always do a better job. Always. I am open to hearing your critiques, criticisms, opinions, and recommendations. I may not share your opinion of my work, but I’d be foolish not to listen. You can even drive by and yell at me when I’m knee deep in snow. That’s fine. I prefer that you keep it clean, but that’s up to you. Whatever you say, I’ve likely heard it before.

This old alligator has been around a long time.