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Thursday, September 16, 2004

Finding my inner Muppet

"This is news. This is what we do."

The television news photographer had just been released from duty, released to drive through the outer bands of Tropical Storm Ivan, through the misty, foggy, driving rain to his wife and child just across the county line.

Tornadoes had been slipping up and down from thunderstorms for a couple of hours. The newsroom--always a hectic, but usually composed place--had degenerated into a cursing, desk-kicking, maelstrom of mistakes and, some would say, incompetence.

To be fair, it was an ugly day. Ivan had moved ashore in coastal Alabama and pushed across the southeastern states. It was knocking at our door and making a menace of itself. As had become commonplace during recent weather events, our advance planning had missed its mark. Our resources were in the wrong place. News was happening in places we were not. An automated school closing system that ran in a ticker at the bottom of our viewer's television screens had left our viewers with the impression that the biggest school district in the state had closed schools the next day. That was, to be sure, incorrect.

I had successfully extricated myself from the weather coverage earlier in the day. As a guy who routinely covers dead people and people who kill them, I had gone off on a trip into the foothills to cover the disappearance of a prominent businessman. After a highly public life as a rabidly successful economic development and advertising mogul, he'd retired to a dream life in the mountains. Tuesday, he'd gone to meet someone to close a car sale. He disappeared off the face of the Carolina earth and it was a story that begged telling.

I spent my day at a literal crossroads, sandwiched in between two places that fried chicken for hours at a time. I grew hungry and in serious need of some chicken. The South, friends, makes some good fried bird.

Then, as newstime approached, the western edge of our viewing area exploded in a sea of Doppler Radar Red and hook echoes. That's when a lot of the days plans went to hell.

As the half-hours passed, it became clear that Armageddon was not at hand. Still, the managers believed we needed more staff on board for the nightshift. I drew one of the shorter straws and found myself in the middle of a double shift.

So, there I sat as the people with the long straws made their way home toward their families. And the photographer who walked out the door--after being told he might have to come back if more news should break--said it.

"This is news. This is what we do."

I thought to myself, "Yeah, easy for you to say. You're going home to your wife and kid."

The managers were good enough to bring in food for the short straw staff. Turned out to be a fried chicken dinner which, curiously, was not quite as satisfying as I had imagined it being seven hours earlier.

As I sat picking the bird out of my teeth, I discovered that I was experiencing something new. Rarely before in my news career had I been genuinely disappointed to draw the short straw. In the past, I begged to be sent into the fray, to work inhumane hours, and tackle the often bewildering world that is the news business. I lived it, loved it, and based much of my personality on it. It was news. It was what I did.

Seven hours earlier I'd been sitting on a bench outside a home cooking restaurant in the mountains. Old folks and day laborers walked in and out with full bellies. Mrs. Otis had buzzed my cell phone with an uncommon plea.

"When you get home tonight, can I leave the house for a bit?"

I could hear the fatigue in her voice. She'd been suffering through the metamorphosis from career woman to career mom. She'd found the latter to be just as stressful and needed a break.

I vowed to her that I'd be home shortly after six and she'd get a much needed break. When I called to give her the short straw news, the resigned, zombie-like timbre of her voice made me wish I had the luxury of leaving work whenever I wanted. It actually made me feel something else, but I'm not sure what it is.

For those who don't know, Mrs. Otis is not your average news widow. She's lived the life longer than I have. She knows news and breathes it with unmatched competence. Up until the birth of L'il Otis, she'd made me a news widower many nights as she burned not only the midnight oil, but any oil she could find to burn.

I'd groused many times about the struggles of working with my wife. Butting heads professionally sometimes leads to butting heads personally. It's one thing when you're butting professional heads with work friends. It's another thing when you're still battling over the days news during a romantic moment at home (although, I do recommend make up after a news battle sex).

She left for maternity leave seven weeks ago and work hasn't been the same since. It is, in short, no fun. News battles with people I don't know leave me wanting. It's hard to battle with someone you don't fear. While most people don't care to understand how a news operation works, suffice it to say that such an operation requires strong wills, uncanny judgment, and firm belief in your work. Mrs. Otis, for all her silly quirks, had all of those things. Without her, work has ceased being interesting. What's worse, it has ceased being fun.

Her absence compounds an already waning interest I have in working for peanuts and putting my heart and soul into a machine that spits forth an occasional pat on the back and little else.

Lest you think I'm whining, let me assure you I'm not. Hours like these when I sit, still in suit and tie, waiting for news to break, are good times for reflection on one's future.

I've often referred to this business of mine as like a relationship with an impossible woman. While she's excellent in bed, she frequently destroys your heart, soul, psyche and stomach lining. You keep going back for the emotional abuse, because the sex is so good, but you know you're doing nothing but digging yourself deeper into the emotional hole.

That's the way the news business has been for me for several years. Now, though, I feel a decided shift in the relationship. These are the days when the relationship is on the wane. Both man and woman know that the relationship is bound to end, they just can't find the words to end it. So, they go through loveless acts of pseudo-passion and wait for the right time to walk out.

I've seen it happen to many friends of mine in the television news business. It's not a new phenomenon. I, like many masochistic addicts, believed I could survive it--or better yet--change it.

Though this isn't something many people would say, I should've paid attention to what Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Generation of Swine in 1988. Flip to page 43 and recite it with me:

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

While I shudder to believe Thompson's indictment is true, more and more I find myself believing it. It's only out of blind loyalty to some of the good men (and women) that I have stayed as along as I have. Well, that and the need to pay the mortgage.

Fortunately, I've recently developed a sense of optimism about my future. I've developed a drive to stop bitching and start making something happen. As my daddy likes to say of stagnation, "Do something, even if it's wrong."

For the time being, however, I'm stuck inside the windowless world that is my newsroom. My tie hangs askew. And I'm wishing, like many others around here, that Mrs. Otis was here to soothe the pain.

Instead, I'm taking heart in a link that a reformed newsie posted on her blog recently. Thanks, Su.

Manah, Manah to all y'all.


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