Active or Retired: We All Feel the Pain of Roanoke

AllIn my years as an active daily broadcast journalist, I was physically threatened three times.  One of those threats came from a man who made infamous history this summer—-Louisiana theater shooter Rusty Houser, who erupted at me via phone after he called a bizarre news conference in Columbus, Ga., 36 years ago.

In the ’70s, deranged or disturbed people were not randomly shooting innocent victims.  Yet, one learns early in a journalism career that the celebrity factor that accompanies appearing regularly on local television does carry with it a degree of vulnerability to danger.

A friend and colleague, Dave Stanton, was left with a crippling injury in the summer of 1977 when an out-of-control protester drove a car through a crowd marching about agricultural concerns in President Carter’s hometown of Plains, Ga.  Dave and CBS correspondent Betsy Aaron were the most seriously hurt.  Had the car swerved a few feet to the right, either or both of them could have been killed.

The moment I was alerted via email Wednesday of the senseless and brutal killing of reporter Allison Parker and videographer Adam Ward by former WDBJ employee Vester Flanagan, I realized several things:

—-In an earlier era, I probably encountered at least four and possibly a half-dozen situations of newsroom employee dismissals that led to inflamed emotions.  Had we been living in a period where random acts of violence had been more prevalent, we could have seen a similar incident.

—-All of us, whether active or retired in the journalism profession, share in the pain of the newsroom of WDBJ.   We didn’t work with Allison or Adam, but we have all worked with people like them who were young, vibrant, energetic and hard-working.  They had such promise for a huge future.  Had any of us seen colleagues like Allison or Adam suddenly snuffed out by a despicable act, our emotions would be overflowing with grief.

—-My former general manager Bob Lee is a retired GM of WDBJ.  No doubt he is feeling a sense of concern as if he were still the man at the helm.

However, the most vivid emotion I had Wednesday morning was of a news team who knew, worked with and loved these young victims.  The people left behind faced the near-insurmountable task of having to “go on with the show” while their hearts were breaking.

If you are not in television news—-and most people are not—-picture yourself having to be the one who delivers the news of a loved one’s death to a friend or a fellow family member.  Imagine working as part of an office staff in any profession and suddenly learning that a co-worker has been abruptly cut down in the prime of life.  In Jackson, Tn., where I live, a local bank staff faced that tragedy last spring when a gunman entered their building and shot and killed a former girlfriend who worked there.

If violent tragedy happens in a bank, a church, or an investment trading business—-and we have seen those occurrences in all of these locations in recent years, the victims and the staffs become the news.

What happened at WDBJ, the victims and the staff are not just the news.  Emotions of grief are no different to broadcasters or journalists than with anyone else in any walk of life.  I have no doubt that the WDBJ news staff had moments Wednesday and today in which they wished they could put up an on-air sign at news time that reads CLOSED IN THE MEMORY OF OUR FRIENDS ALLISON AND ADAM.

You don’t have that luxury in TV news.  Those grief-stricken people had to tell the most difficult story of their careers, the story of how their colleagues are no longer there to cover their next story, to participate in community public service events, or to see how far their careers would take them.

I have watched online today the courageous faces of WDBJ journalists fighting back tears, some successfully and some not.  I saw the outstretched hands of three anchors clinging to each other for support.  When anchor Kim McBroom said, “We’re going to try to get through this,” any of us who have ever worked in a newsroom were sending out collective hands of support.

As we have learned from social media posts, Allison and Adam also had personal relationships with people within the newsroom that will never have a chance to see a future or perhaps even a long life together.

I remarked today to a lifelong friend and former colleague Phil Scoggins of WRBL in Columbus a phrase that has become a cliche:  “We’re living in a different day.”  I added, “There but for the grace of God, it could have been any of us at any time.”

As a believer and a man of faith, I have prayed for the families and closest friends of Allison and Adam and their many co-workers who will have to press on despite cups running over with grief and having to deal with the inexplicable.  A large fraternity and sorority of fellow journalists they don’t even know are doing the same.

At some point in the future, circumstances will be right for people to once again laugh and relax in the WDBJ newsroom.  Right now, they don’t know when or what will trigger a return to normal.

Normal is something that will happen on the outside.  Inwardly, for a circle of colleagues who only try to tell stories about what happens in their Virginia community, normal will never be the same.

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