“Nature Boy”: Compelling Storytelling at Its Best, A Tragic Tale of the Price of Fame

I have been a non-fan of pro wrestling for nearly 20 years. However, ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ “Nature Boy,” a brilliant and honest portrayal of wrestling megastar Ric Flair, was one of the most compelling documentaries of its kind because of its storytelling.

I first saw Flair in 1974 during my first weekend at the University of Georgia.  I flipped on “Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling” on WFBC in Greenville, S.C.  The veteran Rip Hawk and Flair had just won the Mid-Atlantic tag team championship.  At the time, I didn’t see anything special about the young upper Midwesterner.  During interviews, Hawk—a veteran heel (as villains are termed inside the wrestling industry)—did most of the talking.  Flair was a couple of years away from developing the persona that propelled him to the top of his profession in the early 1980s.

Ric FlairWhen he based his ring character on the flamboyance of earlier star “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, Flair struck gold.  His work ethic was unsurpassed in his field.  Ed Capral, one of the great announcers of the era between 1955 and 1975, told me Flair was “the greatest showman I’ve ever seen in wrestling.”  Capral had seen the original Gorgeous George, the legendary Haystacks Calhoun and Andre the Giant.  In his field, Capral knew of which he spoke.

In the microcosm world of pro wrestling, Ric Flair was regarded by people who grew up well before the Hulk Hogan transformation of 1984 as the greatest performer in the genre’s history.  However, as the documentary indicated, Flair sacrificed wives, children, his health and relationships to experience the love from entertainment he obviously never found from his adoptive parents.  In the early moments of “Nature Boy,” we learned that the Fleiers were major patrons of the arts.  Their son Richard was far more interested in the theater of sport.  Behavioral conflicts resulted in him being sent away to a boarding school as an older teen.  People who only knew of Ric Flair as a master of a figure-four leglock may not have been aware of the juxtapositions of his childhood.  He had parents; yet, he conveyed his own emotions that he felt they were never “there” for him.

Flair talked of the difficult year of recovery after suffering a broken back in a plane crash on the way to a Sunday afternoon card in Wilmington, N.C., October 4, 1975.  He experienced days rethinking his presentation in the ring if, against the odds, he could physically return to wrestling.

By 1981, he was the consummate star in his profession.  He won the NWA world heavyweight championship from his consistent foe of the eighties, Dusty Rhodes.  As several of his colleagues related in “Nature Boy,” Richard Morgan Fleier began living the character of Ric Flair.  His first wife Leslie detailed how he would come home for a day, say how bored he was, and leave.  A world of women, sex, expensive clothes and alcohol to a degree few could fathom became Flair’s environment.  He detailed a period of nearly three years in which “I was never at home.” At the end of the documentary, he admitted to being anything but a model husband and father.  I was taken back to an interview with one of the late Jack Webb’s associates on “The Stu Shostak Show” a few years back.  Webb became a television legend with two successful incarnations of the police series “Dragnet” and developed a television empire.  With all that success, Webb had multiple marriages and could not escape his true marriage to television.  “Jack was a bad father,” said one of his long-time colleagues to Shostak.

“Nature Boy” revealed the heartbreak of Flair’s son Reid’s death from a drug overdose.  Ric obviously had a relationship with Reid that he never had with his own father or his older son David.  Reid emulated his father’s alter ego, only the issues with alcohol expanded into drugs.  

The documentary portrayed a man who could not leave the stage.  In sports, I remember the sadness of seeing Johnny Unitas in a San Diego Chargers uniform.  One of the all-time greats of the NFL simply did not know when to quit.  In his last year with the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle could only muster a .236 batting average and took three feeble swings in a final All-Star game in which he should never have been included.  Ric Flair in his 60s is far more of a nostalgic figure that in some respects is sad to watch.

The two key lines I took away from “Nature Boy” were from one of his younger colleagues and his son David.  Said Michaels:  “Ric doesn’t know Richard Fleier. I don’t think he’s ever taken the time to get to know who he is.”  From David Fleier,  his son from his first marriage: “I don’t want my children to have the kind of life I had.”  David was referring to his perpetually absentee father.

Many of Flair’s long-time fans are probably dissecting the documentary for its omissions of some of pro wrestling history they hoped would be included. Those who are miss the point of “Nature Boy” or any other documentary.

I teach a news documentary class at Union University every spring.  For five years, students are assigned a semester-long project to develop a half-hour examination of an issue of significant community interest.  Some of them have difficulty grasping that documentaries that hit the spot are not just facts and figures, nor are they solely historical.  They are stories.  Storytelling at its most compelling is what sells a documentary to viewers.

The production of “Nature Boy” was a deep and penetrating character study that showed adulation, fame and so-called perks that go with stardom and the contradiction of the selfishness of a man who never should have married or had children. The emotional pain we saw from his first wife Leslie in her interview and from Ric’s oldest son were clearly evident.

While watching, I was reminded how we all are guilty of putting entertainment stars on pedestals because we love or obsess over how they entertain us.  Yet, life away from the stage is often a dichotomy.  Many of us paid to watch Ric Flair deliver a textbook performance in sports entertainment on multiple occasions. He always gave us our money’s worth.  His life away from the ring and the bright lights was another story. 

Ric Flair almost died three months ago.  Years of alcohol to the excess finally took a toll doctors and friends had warned him of for years.  In an interview on SiriusXM radio three weeks ago, Flair said, “It’s a miracle that I’m even here talking to you.  I’m never going to have a drop of alcohol again.”  I hope he sticks to that.  He may not have another comeback remaining.

“Nature Boy” held my interest because of its depth in a fashion that a puff piece on Flair’s career would not have.   Many of those who have showered him with adulation through the decades probably do not see the story through the same glasses as did I.  As the tale unfolded, I was reminded of the closing days of Mickey Mantle when he learned cancer was about to take him after years of alcohol abuse.  The Mick was one of my childhood heroes.  Yet, in the last interview he gave before he died, he said, “Don’t be like me.” Flair did not have to say that in “Nature Boy.” The 90-minute story did.

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Combating Cliches in Television News

As one who teaches young people to enter the profession of broadcast journalism, I find interesting and often puzzling the things I have to do differently than I did 25 years ago.

For one, I struggle more and more to slow the pace of my students’ speech. I have no idea what happened a decade ago but, year by year, they talk faster and faster and faster.

They don’t just do it on the air. That’s the pace they address each other in conversation. I call it machine gun speech because they rattle out their words just about as fast.

I try to explain it this way: the viewer has one shot at hearing your delivery. They typically do not DVR newscasts. If you are delivering your copy as if you are in a hurry to get home, they will never grasp your information.

In years past, I often cringed or turned the channel when Jen Carfagno started at The Weather Channel. The young woman is popular enough now to be part of the early morning “AMHQ” team. I am sure she is a delightful person. When she began, she discussed cold fronts and high pressure systems as if she were racing a contender at the Kentucky Derby. How many times did I yell at the screen: “SLOW DOWN!” Someone must have worked with Carfagno. I can actually comprehend her detail now because her rate of speech has seriously declined from seven words per second.

A couple of weekends ago, I was watching the same network’s Saturday remote from an outdoor festival. Reagan Medgie, a correspondent for TWC, is engaging and pleasant. I am certain I would like her if I met her. However, she has a case of the Carfagnos from past years. When she tossed the segment back to Maria LaRosa and Paul Goodloe, so help me, I had no idea what she said, where she was or who she was because she was speaking at the speed of a hurricane.

Interestingly, some of my students give me pushback. “Well, that’s the way I normally talk,” I have heard more than one complain. That is when we go into the control room and look at their tape. Occasionally, I will bring in a colleague who will verify my assessment. Most pay attention, though begrudgingly at times. A few are just insistent that their high school flash-and-dash conversational rate of speech is acceptable.

The other challenge we face is to eliminate terrible use of the language, some of which the TV news industry has sadly adopted. Twitter has two identities, @tiredtvterms and @producerprobs. Both are dedicated to people like me who gripe about worn out clichés and bad phrases, even if we sound like old men in a rocking chair in front of a senior citizens’ center.

My biggest pet peeve is one I have been harping on for five years. When, oh when, are anchors and reporters going to stop using the ridiculous and incorrect phrase “went missing?”

Somehow, around the start of this decade, broadcast news adopted that phrase. Here’s how it typically is presented: “Thirty-two-year-old Brenda Kaddidlehopper went missing three days ago. Law enforcement authorities are asking for your help in finding her.”

To say one “went missing” or “has gone missing” is to suggest an active or planned intent by an individual to be missing. A person can be “reported missing” to authorities. You can say that same person “is missing.” Went missing or gone missing? Don’t ever say that in my presence. Yet, I will wager you will hear it on your local newscast in a matter of days.

On a similar note, I heard a new one last week. On the local news in the city where I live, an anchor received a press release from an area police department. I was emailed the same release. The anchor reported, “Police are searching for the whereabouts of 14-year-old ____________.”

Were police not searching for the girl? That is absolutely the first time I have ever heard a reporter state that officers were “searching for the whereabouts.”

I continue to cringe when I hear a reporter say, “Some 30,000 people marched in protest today.” I scream at my TV screen: “Which 30,000 people?”

More than 40 years ago, my major professor at the University of Georgia, the late Bill Martin, confronted “60 Minutes” commentator James J. Kilpatrick at a seminar about the inexplicable use of the word “some.” I’m paraphrasing but Kilpatrick said, in effect, “I don’t really know why we do it. I think we think it sounds good, so we do it.”

Here’s another irritant. I nearly come unglued if I watch morning television and the anchors switch to a reporter for a live segment on a murder, shooting or some other tragedy. The reporter in the field will, without fail, say: “Good morning, Jan and Richard.” Good morning?? When you are about to report on death or violence? Could we all agree to drop the happy greeting on the scene of disaster?

As for clichés, sportscasters are the absolute worst and I was one for 25 years. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, whose “Mike and Mike in the Morning” will soon end on ESPN2 after 18 years, are arguably the worst practitioners.

I wish I had $10 for every time either one has said “throw him under the bus” when a coach blames a player for a loss. I perhaps could retire before 2021.

As for another, I am convinced Golic invented the term “it is what it is,” an absolutely meaningless phrase he uses to describe something otherwise inexplicable.

When a team attempts to rebound after an off year, count on Mike or Mike to say, “They’re coming in with a chip on their shoulders.”

Once Greenberg or Golic establish a phrase enough times, count on the rest of the sports talk fraternity to adopt the same clichés ad nauseum.

News is not off the hook. During my first year in television news, I cannot count the number of times reporters would lead off stories depicting commemorative dates or events with, “It’s that time of year again.” I vowed never to use those six words in a news story. I never have.

I tell my student reporters if any of them send me a script that ends with “only time will tell,” that script will be sent right back until they come up with something original. That happened to me in the tenth grade when my English teacher Hazel Mancil returned a paper to me which ended with that very phrase.

I am also a curmudgeon about sentences that begin with the word “there,” such as “There are new tax proposals on the table from City Council.” I go back to one of the great English professors in history, Dr. Marvin Evans. He would toss back any paper that had sentences beginning with the word “there,” except in a direct quote. “There” is an existential. “There” is never a subject of a sentence, but always requires a verb.

Recently, I was watching a midday newscast on NewsON from the Southwest. A reporter actually said, “Police used firearms to shoot the suspect.” I had no idea an alternative form of ballistics had been developed.

Next time a hurricane begins making its way up the Florida coast, count how many times meteorologists or anchors will say, “Hurricane Otto is really packing a punch.” I never knew punches were packed. They are usually thrown in boxing matches or pier six brawls. I’d like to ask such people, “Did Otto pack his punch in American Tourister luggage (does that still exist?).

Thank goodness most news producers sent emails to their reporters last week after the O.J. Simpson parole hearing. The journalists were told not to say, “The Juice is loose.” Note that I said “most” news producers. Before the hearing, I saw this graphic on a local newscast: “Will the Juice get loose?”

In a few other choice examples of tired TV terms (and these are offered by interviewees as well as reporters), try these:

  • At the end of the day
  • It has a lot of moving parts
  • There, you see it (a favorite of sportscasters when a graphic appears)
  • Gave chase (to whom was the chase presented?)
  • Using -gate at the end of a term to depict every major scandal. Forty-five years ago, Watergate sent us on this long path. Most producers or young reporters have no idea that Watergate is an apartment complex.

Here is one more for your consideration. I would like to send a year’s supply of sour milk to the person who decided the proper way to begin a response to a question is with the word “so.” I see this happening largely when younger people are interviewed on midday newscasts. I am also seeing this creep into reporters’ answers to anchor questions during a remote. So help me, in scanning newscasts last week, I saw an anchor ask, “When do you expect the next briefing from the police?” Said the reporter: “Soooooo, we think that will probably happen in the next hour and a half to two hours.”

Every once in a while, though, phrases can be a bit original and creative. The one depicted in the accompanying picture was developed for a story involving a robbery in Jackson, Tn.  Police ultimately discovered the culprit hiding in an abandoned home.  The official police report indicated that the man charged showed officers where he had hidden the $432 taken from a convenience store—-in a toilet.

A rather inventive graphic headline writer offered the phrase:  Johnny Cash? Robbery Money Found in Toilet.

When I saw that, I was reminded of the year Tennessee Ernie Ford hosted the Country Music Association Awards. He said, “When I was young, I dated a girl who was so dumb she thought Johnny Cash was money you found in the commode.”

Television news and sports often rely far too much on worn out clichés. Despite this cry from the wildnerness, those stale phrases will continue.

During the 40-plus years since I joined the television news fraternity, I have read many interviews with news directors who are newly-hired. At least six of them included the quote, “We’re going to tighten up on the writing.” Did that mean the writing was loose?  Was a rope to be used to make the writing improve?

Sooooooo, such is life in the TV newsroom.  Time for me to retire to my rocking chair in front of the Ralston Hotel in Columbus, Ga.  I will take one “Johnny Cash?” graphic for 100 “only time will tell” endings—-any time.

When Sadness Strikes a Television Station

At WREG in Memphis, the newsroom on the Fourth of July is like many across the nation—-skeleton crews, stories that depict Independence Day celebrations, and a challenge to fill one, two or three hours of news time.

However, this Fourth is unlike most in the past at the CBS station.  Friday, the people who work there lost a colleague in a horrendous tragedy.

I never met Nancy Allen, though I have other friends who work at WREG.  I dare say, other than co-workers and personal friends, virtually no one knew that Nancy was employed there.

In a scenario in which all of us have probably had nightmares about experiencing, Nancy’s home erupted in fire.  Authorities say she was probably trying to escape but was not successful.  She was found dead in the aftermath.

Nancy Allen was a graphics operator at WREG.  You never see people such as her on camera.  With the virtual elimination of credits at the ends of newscasts, we rarely see the names of those unseen workers who sustain the production end of local news and commercials.

Graphics operators are the most vulnerable to carpal-tunnel syndrome of anyone in television.  If they were paid by the numbers of words they type or logos they squeeze into a screen, they would all be half-billionaires.  They are the people who type every name of people who appear in a newscast, every logo identification in a commercial, and emergency messages and school and business closings during severe or winter weather.  You want to keep the good ones.

Nancy worked at WREG for 30 years.  People with that kind of longevity in television stations are few and will become fewer with every passing year.  If Nancy was like others I have known of that ilk—Carlos Williams at WRBL in Columbus GA, the late Cy Willis at WTVM in Columbus or Maxie Ruth (who worked under 17 different news directors at WSPA in Spartanburg before he retired), she was as familiar in her station as the location of the coffee pot in the employees’ lounge or the entrance to the newsroom.  Again, I didn’t know her—-but with that many years of service, the word institution is probably not an exaggeration.

I cannot write an obituary tribute to Nancy Allen.  However, I can offer some insight into the emotions of people in local television when they lose one of their own.

Plain and simple, the mood is no different than in any family, a church congregation, or any other business.  If one has worked with a veteran employee for an extended period, the instant emotion is like a blow to the chest.  You realize this friend and colleague whom you saw often as much as you did members of your own family will never again walk through the door, sit at her desk, or be busy at her keyboard.  Someone else will ultimately be hired for the job but the newcomer will need time and the patience of the staff to develop the personal identity that his or her predecessor possessed.

I well remember 37 years ago when a young radio news director John Patterson was seated next to me at a Columbus City Council meeting on a Tuesday morning.  The next day, a police call sent officers to an apartment building.  A couple of hours later, the body of John Patterson was rolled out of the unit.  John had taken his own life.  My colleague Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer wrote eloquently of how we in media are no different from anyone else.  When we lose a member of our fraternity, especially in the way John died, we have regret that we did not see the signs or know him well enough to reach out to him more.  I talked with his colleague from WRCG a week later.  “We’re still in shock,” he told me.  “None of us knew.  We still don’t know how to deal with it.”

I had been gone from Wilmington, N.C., for 13 years when I received the news that my weathercaster during the years I was news director at WWAY, Shirley Gilbert, had succumbed to cancer.  Shirley had one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I ever encountered in the congested, often tense environment of a newsroom.  She was always prepared and professional.  Her battle with cancer was an extremely difficult one.  She had not been able to work in her final nine months.  Regardless, I spoke to a couple of the half-dozen employees who remained at WWAY after learning of her death.  “You kept saying to yourself that Shirley was going to beat this,” her successor as weathercaster told me.  “Even though we had all been prepared for the inevitable, there’s a big hole in the station right now.”

The toughest moment of any I ever had in broadcasting was in 1999.  In addition to our regular telecasts of Union University basketball, we were doing the first season of a weekly coaches show.  We taped on Sunday afternoon for airing on Tuesday night.  On a cold, dreary Saturday at around 4 o’clock, I received the devastating news that the co-head coach of our women’s team, Lisa Hutchens, had been found dead in her apartment.  Lisa was 38.  She was to have taken over the team in full the following season.  I cannot tell you the emotions that swarmed over me.  Further, I realized I was facing having to do a half-hour show that dealt with Lisa’s death.  We could have opted to suspend the show for a week and our two stations would likely have understood.  However, we all agreed that the longer we postponed acknowledging Lisa’s passing, the more difficult it would be for all of us to deal with the grief of her loss.  Only the providence of God helped me through that broadcast.  We had a little more than a month remaining in the season.  We had to get on with life but not a single game telecast came and went that we on the broadcast team would not look over at the bench and glaringly realize that Lisa was not there and never again would be.

When you’re with a television station for 30 years, you survive a lot.  Nancy Allen endured more than one station sale that is always unsettling to a staff, saw anchor retirements, learned new graphics programs and experienced the nuances of this rapidly changing profession.

Nancy AllenMy good friend Tim Simpson, WREG’s chief meteorologist, and veteran anchor Alex Coleman tweeted some of the first tributes to Nancy.  That was followed by several other veteran members of the News Channel 3 staff.  I could tell instantly that the 140-character limit could not come close to reflecting the sadness and emptiness Nancy’s colleagues felt.

The easy thing for co-workers to say is “she will be missed” or “her passing will leave an empty void in our company.”  The truth is:  any condolence or tribute you offer seems so inadequate, especially when a tragedy takes the life of one you have known for years.

If you are reading this and work for another station in any city in America, tweet a note of condolence and encouragement to @3onyourside.  The staff has had to go on with business.  Television news does not stop even in a time of internal or personal tragedy.  Nancy Allen’s memorial service will be Saturday at Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, TN.   Many memories will be shared of what she meant to her family and to her professional family.  Those memories will never be far from those with whom she worked at WREG.

 

 

 

It’s National Hug a News Person Day….So Why Not Do It?

The catchy trend on Twitter is to declare national days in honor of a favorite event, person, fictional character, or food.  Some of them click.  Some of them roll over like a dog who just wants to go to sleep.

I know from experience.  I have declared the last two October 4ths as #NationalWardCleaverDay after my favorite TV dad of all time.  I think that one received six likes and two retweets.  I don’t care if it’s none and none.  I will observe #NationalWardCleaverDay this coming October 4th on the 60th anniversary of Leave It to Beaver.

A small group online have suggested we take the premiere date of Captain Kangaroo and declare the first #NationalMrGreenJeansDay this fall.  If you grew up with The Captain, how could you not love Mr. Green Jeans, who was a master of all farm animals and inventions?

That brings me to a slowly expanding online phenomenon of April 4.  I wish #Nationalhuganewspersonday had been around in the mid-1970s when I started in TV news.  Some days, a kind word was so elusive that I thought the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before I heard encouragement in my newsroom.  That was in the place where the news director/anchor once said in a staff meeting:  “You people are an extension of my arms to get to the places I can’t.  I would do it myself if I could but you’re here to carry out my mission.”  That was surely motivational.

Action 9 News Ad

In the location above, didn’t we all look young, vibrant, energetic, alive, and full of TV hair?  I almost cried when I uncovered this TV Guide ad last weekend for the first time in years.  I wondered, “Where did all my hair go?”  Then, I remembered I now have 15 fewer minutes needed to make those locks lay down.  

WTVM was actually a fun newsroom in which to work.  While we didn’t hug each other every day, we had far more virtual hugs and verbal cheers for each other.  We even laughed on a frequent basis, unlike some newsrooms where the temperature is often at the level of an Amana side-by-side.

Here’s the scoop:  especially in the smaller 125 markets, young people work hard every day to inform you and make the kinds of salaries that often cause them to struggle to make ends meet.  They are on call 24/7 for breaking stories, such as the one this morning in Orlando (and a few other cities) when tornado warnings were issued.  They work in a field which can strain relationships or social lives because of unorthodox schedules in which they work.  Try going in at 11:30 p.m. or 12 midnight to produce a morning show that can last as long as six hours in some cities.  When you accept a job in any television newsroom, you are rolling the dice.  You may be working for an encourager who truly cares about people as people, or you may be under the domain of a total autocrat who gives the impression of caring about nothing in life but what goes on the early evening news.

Here’s another scoop:  a significant number of people who contribute to your favorite local newscast every night are ones you never see.  When I tweeted today about #Nationalhuganewspersonday, I reminded people of the many producers, assignment editors, videographers, editors, directors, audio engineers and studio camera operators whose job it is to make a newscast and the people who deliver the information look good every night.  All too often, the news to viewers is only the people they see on camera.  When Lou Grant, Mary Richards and every one of the regular members of the WJM News staff were fired on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that group hug in which the gang all trotted together to grab tissues was one of the most hilarious physical comedy scenes ever.  Yet, where were the support personnel who made possible for them to do their jobs.

They deal some days with folks who are not very nice people.  Whoa be it answering a phone when a viewer calls enraged about a story which aired, even though that news watcher did not listen carefully and may have the facts out of context.  The news person’s skin has to be tougher than an overtanned sun worshiper’s face.

I hear some of you, including some veteran executives in the news business.  Some of you are saying, “What a silly thing to observe a day to hug a news person.”  Is it?

I read the accounts of former WDBJ (Roanoke, Va.) general manager Jeffrey Marks in the hours after reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward were shot to death during a live segment.  Marks gathered his staff together.  Spontaneously they sang “Amazing Grace” together and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

Marks told reporters:  “I thought it was important that all of us get together and be a family.  What can you do except bring people together?”

His news director said she began doing something she had never done before.  She began telling members of her staff she loved them.  Granted, if your staff has not experienced a cruel and inhumane loss of co-workers, you are not likely to tell your people you love them.  However, the sentiment, caring and sincerity are what count.

I recall 15 years ago when I was an RTNDA (before the acronym changed) Fellow.  One of my colleagues was assigned to serve his fellowship in a New England station.  He was told early on by the news director, “If I haven’t made a female cry at least once a week, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job.”  Yes, that was the culture in that newsroom.  I hope that management philosophy has changed, but I suspect we have a few news operations where that culture, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, prevails.

Sure, #Nationalhuganewspersonday is a fun creation of social media.  Yet, I find that unofficial observation playing into an important need in a highly stressful profession.  People in any line of work need reinforcement, encouragement and yes, at times, a small bit of love.  As deadline-driven and demanding as broadcast journalism is, if its practitioners are constantly in a den of negativity, that will create negative reinforcement, self-doubt and a reluctance to expand creative skills for fear of creating an eruption from temperamental bosses.

Dr. Brhett McCabe, a sports psychologist, recently said on The Paul Finebaum Show:   “Everything we experience is a big deal to us.  Performance anxiety is normal.  There’s a little voice inside that makes us worry about outcomes, rather than deliver outcomes.  That’s a little bit of a trap that keeps saying I have got to prevent mistakes from happening.”

 

So, if you work in a TV newsroom, put #Nationalhuganewspersonday into practice, at least for today.  Even if you’re not a hugger, at least offer a kind word or an ounce of encouragement to a co-worker—even if it’s one with whom you don’t particularly get along.  If you are married to a news person or are in a personal relationship with a journalist, make sure you give them a solid hug today as a reminder that what he or she does matters.  If you are a viewer, drop a positive email or a tweet to a favorite newscaster before midnight.  You may not see the smile on that journalist’s face, but—believe me—that will happen.

To all of you who toil on deadline every day to bring us information that is live….local….late-breaking, here is a virtual hug from The Old TV News Coach.  The same goes to all of you who once gave of yourselves in the industry and are now classified as retired.  I may not know many of you, but I definitely appreciate you.

Depression: Yes, It Happens in the Newsroom Part I

In the summer of 2014, Robin Williams took his own life.  In the days that followed, we learned that a contributing factor was depression.

That set off the usual mad dash of journalists across the nation scrambling to find every local psychologist or psychiatrist to bring perspective on emotional illness.

That helped.  For three, possibly four weeks, we had a whirlwind of national and local conversation on the subject many still want to keep in the closet.  When that ended, television news put the topic back in the storage cabinet for a while.

Full disclosure:  I have had a serious bout with clinical depression not once but three times.  The first time happened in 1991 when I was a television news director—-not in a megamarket but in Jackson, Tn.  The second time was in 2010 while supervising a daily student cable newscast as professor of broadcast journalism at Union University.  In each instance, I needed at least six months before I resumed feeling like me.  Bout three was in 2014, a few months after the death of my father.  I spent 100 days in my hometown of Waycross, Ga., in 2013 looking after both of my parents during his ordeal.

I don’t make my experience the icebreaker of conversations with people I have never previously met.  Likewise, I do not run from an open dialogue about an illness suffered by nearly a tenth of Americans.  Those of us who have encountered depression not only can but must talk about it in an effort to help others who have it and don’t understand it.

When one is in a higher-profile profession such as television news, your on-air face and personality are what viewers see.  Their stereotyped vision of a communicator who visits in their home virtually every night filters out the reality that television newscasters are real people, too.  Journalists have bills to pay, experience challenges at home, lose loved ones and are exposed firsthand to the same types of negative news viewers often detest.

Psychological studies tell us younger people are increasingly vulnerable to depression, particularly in high-demand, high-stress professions.  Here are a few other key facts:

—-Women are more likely to have depression than men.

—-Vulnerability to depression increases with age, according to WebMD.com.

—-Mayo Clinic tells us one in five will experience some form of the disorder by the time they are 25.

Small-to-medium market news departments are populated heavily by men and women in the 22-28 age bracket.  Most of them are full of idealistic career goals, competitive fuel and boundless energy.

Still, look at the numbers: one in five young adults are likely to have experienced some form of depression by the age of 25.  Television news is a profession that can play right into the vulnerabilities.

In the mid-1980s, I flew back from the Radio-Television News Directors Association with a colleague from a much larger neighboring market.  He attended one of the same seminars as did I on stresses the newsroom brings to one’s personal life.  That session included a whirlwind, throw-on-the-dartboard exchange about depression.  Thirty years ago, the subject of emotional illness was largely compartmentalized.

“That was an interesting session,” my colleague said, “but in my newsroom or in television news in general, there’s just no room for someone with depression or any kind of emotional illness.”

I said, “Would it interest you that my father has battled depression off and on for 14 years—and he’s a minister?  I submit to you that the demands of administering a church, satisfying the sometimes fickle nature of a congregation and being on call around-the-clock in times of illness, death, or church members’ crises is every bit as stressful as running a TV newsroom.”

My friend admitted he had never pondered that contrast but I am fairly certain he didn’t buy into it.  I wonder what he thinks today.

My colleague at Union University, Dr. Joanne Stephenson, offers a weekly “Dr. Joanne” segment on our daily cable newscast “Jackson 24/7” produced by journalism students.  Dr. Joanne was a huge catalyst for my recovery from depression five years ago.  She says the newsroom can be a breeding ground for depression even in well-adjusted people.

“You have all the ingredients:  multiple deadlines, uneven schedules, frequently on call, competitive pressures, lack of sleep, difficult bosses, and repeated exposure to tragedy,” Dr. Joanne says.  “Even the best of us would struggle to maintain a balance in our lives to avoid tipping the scales toward depression.”

I am typically not a fan of The Huffington Post, but that online service offered a solid five-part series in May, “A Mental Health Epidemic in the Newsroom.”

Dr. Elana Newman of the University of Tulsa discussed journalistic stresses in the opening segment of that series.  “Almost all journalists are exposed to traumatic-stress experiences,” Dr. Newman said.  She included reporters who are among the first on the scene for automobile accidents, shootings, train derailments or other occurrences that potentially lead to critical injuries or death.

Here is another revealing irony by Gabriel Arana, who authored The HuffPost story:  “Journalists are notoriously reluctant to divulge information about themselves.”  Arana quoted from three different research studies that indicated:

—-85 percent of journalists encounter some form of work-related trauma

—-Up to 20 percent of journalists experience depression

—-Instances of nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety occur frequently enough in journalists to take a toll.

Both of my bouts with clinical depression were largely triggered by exhaustion.  Read the textbooks about a typical Type A personality and fill in the blank with my name.  I inherited an intense work drive gene from my father.  I have a tendency to go at a pace that, candidly, is unrealistic for one individual.

In each instance, I saw the warning signs of a breakdown but was mired in that mistaken belief that I could “work myself” out of it.  I could not—-and paid the price.

I will detail more about the first bout in a later vignette.  In 2010, depression came on from a monster amount of overwork in supervising a five-a-week student newscast that can only replicate, not duplicate, the actual TV newsroom.  I failed to remind myself that I have students only for four hours a week, not 40.  Typically, they are carrying academic loads that include four other courses, all of which have a variety of demands.  Exhaustion set in and so did depression.

At the end of a noon broadcast in March 2010, Dr. Joanne waited until the students all left, looked me in the eye and said, “This……..is an intervention.”  I knew that had to happen.  I just did not know when.  Thankfully, Dr. Joanne was in the studio for an interview segment that day and pulled the trigger.  I asked how she knew I was in depression.  “I could see it in your eyes,” she said.  “You’ve been headed down this path for more than a month.”

I am an example of what happens when a journalism supervisor or administrator does what an old colleague at WRBL in Columbus, Ga., H.K. Johnston, once observed:  “Burnin’ the candle at both ends and runnin’ outta wick.”

Yet, the rank-and-file, those young, fresh out of college or three-to-six-year veteran reporters, producers and videographers are the ones on the firing line every day.  They are the ones who receive the 3 a.m. calls to cover an overnight fire or shooting.  They are the ones regularly exposed to crime or other tragedy.  They are the ones who have to find their niche in a competitive environment of egos and career-climbers.  They are the ones who encounter bosses who are sometimes under such stress to deliver ratings and performance that they neglect to get to know or understand their employees as people.

Managements of every television station in America ought to be paying attention.  The scenario I outlined in the previous paragraph and those earlier research statistics suggest the odds are at least one to three people in their newsrooms could be dealing with at least short-term depression or trauma disorders.

Before I left daily television news in the 1990s, not one station I worked for offered a specifically designated reference for counseling from a psychologist or a psychiatrist.  Some stations provided insurance that covered emotional illness; some didn’t.

Arana detailed the story of John McCusker, a New Orleans photojournalist who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina but continued to cover the destruction day after day.  The grind and exposure to the disaster took its toll.  McCusker was diagnosed with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.  As in many cases with journalists and the vast non-news public, he was reluctant to admit he was ill.

“I didn’t feel I could show weakness because there were so many brave people showing strength around me,” McCusker told Arana in the HuffPost. “There is an element of not wanting to be vulnerable, wanting to project strength.”

One of my own observations about the television news industry is its parallel to my perceptions of those in college and pro football.  So much emphasis is perpetuated on being mentally tough that admitting to depression or any form of emotional illness is unfortunately regarded as a sign of weakness.

“There’s this notion you’ve got to be tough,” McCusker told Arana. “You’re a human being — don’t forget that. No one’s expecting you to be anything more or less than that.”

Dr. Joanne frequently debunks the weakness theory or the fear factor of admitting a need for help because of a still-existing stigma attached to depression.

“You wouldn’t try to do your own surgery on a broken leg.  You wouldn’t try to deal with an abscessed tooth yourself,” she says.  “We’ve got to get over this ridiculous notion that depression or any other emotional illness is any different than a physical illness.  Depression is often caused by things related to physical illness.”

One of the issues is a failure of broadcast managements, as well as some in other fields, to recognize the emotional toll television news takes on even the strongest staff members.

Only two of the stations for which I worked over the years offered a membership at a YMCA (in the era before fitness centers began to emerge on every corner).  At least in those instances, opportunities were available for physical exercise that is a strong antidote to stress.

Never was a local psychologist contracted for an in-house seminar to aid staffs on other countermeasures to reduce tension and stress that lead to depression.  Such a move may actually save companies money in employee illnesses and absences.

In my succeeding vignettes, I will share more of my own journey with depression during my years as a broadcast journalist and a journalism professor.  I will also approach depression from the perspective of young broadcasters, from mistakes managements make in recognizing warning signs of and possible interventions for emotional illness, and proposals to the entire industry on how to deal with a real illness that affects more people in television than anyone cares to admit.

Robin Williams died from the extreme ravages of emotional depression.  We talked about mental illness for a short while because he was Robin Williams.

We should not need the death of an international celebrity to have an intelligent, sensitive and open dialogue about emotional illness—-including its potential impact on television newsrooms.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Coping with Tragedy: Yes, Viewers, Newscasters Do Have a Heart

I have never set foot in Missoula, Montana, though people have told me the country is beautiful there.

I had a loose connection with Missoula 35 years ago.  The company that purchased WTVM in Columbus, Ga., where I was an anchor and reporter, was headquartered in Missoula.  The new owners did not enter the building wearing cowboy hats.  One had a distinct accent when he talked about “how we do things in Muntenna.”

Other than its geography, life in Missoula may be comparable to that in Jackson, Tn., where I have lived for the past 25 years.  Both cities have populations of slightly fewer than 70,000.  Both are located along fairly large rivers.   Health care and education provide the largest sources of employment in each town.

One significant difference between the two is in violent crime:  two years ago, Missoula had one murder.  Jackson had 11.  Rare is the night when Missoula television news leads with a homicide.

The evening of May 6, one of those rare evenings developed.  Only not of the ilk imagined in the worst nightmares of anyone working in the newsroom at KTMF.

For those who have never worked in a television newsroom, the police monitor is the equivalent of a living person.  Reporters, producers and videographers commit numerical crime investigation codes to memory.  Assignment editors, arguably the most stressed individuals in any news operation, often have one ear peeled to the monitor while dispatching crews to a scene.

Two weeks ago on a Wednesday evening, if events unfolded as they typically do, a call ensued on the police radio at KTMF.  The street address was 314 Brooks Street.

Missoula is currently the 165th largest television market in America.  Only 45 markets are smaller.  Cities the size of Missoula have a touch of Mayberry.  People tend to know more people.  A trip to a Walmart takes less than 15 minutes.  Television newscasters are not just local celebrities.  They become members of the family.   The average Joe and Mabel feels comfortable approaching an anchor or reporter by first name in Albertsons or Safeway.

In a television market the size of Missoula, the newsroom is frequently populated by young journalists in their first jobs, all hoping to climb a ladder they hope will take them to the big-time or at least the medium-time.  Some members of the anchor team are people who have chosen to make their homes in a smaller city because their spouses and children have a comfort with the landscape.

When journalists are in their twenties, few have dealt with death.  The percentages of them who have lost a parent or immediate family member are small.  In Missoula, since murders are so infrequent, deaths reported on KTMF usually involve prominent citizens or past political leaders who pass from natural causes or bouts with cancer.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF on May 6.  However, I have little doubt more than one voice was hushed if the words “314 Brooks Street” rang a bell.

That was the address of KTMF news director Kalee Scolatti.  Kalee was the exception to the rule of most people her age in television news.  In reading news accounts in the last two weeks, I learned that Kalee was a graduate with honors of the University of Montana in 2005.  She went to work for one of the local television stations after graduation.  Stories tell of her work in production that eventually segued into the newsroom and culminated in the role as KTMF’s chief news officer.

Kalee pursued a career track that I often tell my students at Union University is an admirable one.  She stayed home.  I told a group recently, “You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to be a success in broadcast news.  Wherever your journey takes you, you may find the town that becomes home for you and it may be a smaller town.  You won’t make as much money as you will in a larger market, but as long as you work hard and you’re happy, you can be an equal servant to your community in Panama City as one is in Philadelphia.”

No news directors, no anchors, no producers, no journalists worth their credentials ever harbor a desire to become the story.  Some viewers don’t like us because we often have to report unpleasant occurrences.  Some hold grudges because an investigative light is often cast on political or other community leaders involved in wrongdoing.  Those alleged perpetrators have friends.  Friends are often loyal even when their pals are guilty of malfeasance.

Even still, in the Missoulas, the Jacksons, the Dothans or the Macons of the world, viewers tend to look on television newscasters as people they would love to ask over for supper.  Carol Goldsmith of WYFF in Greenville, S.C., is one such news anchor.  Former WYFF producer Michelle Baker once told me, “Women love Carol because they know she is a mother and she connects with other moms.”

Kalee Scolatti was a mother of three.   In reading some painful narratives during recent days, we learned that Kalee was having a troubled personal life.  Her husband was no longer in the home.  Yet, no one could have foreseen the events of May 6.

In the last decade, news reports on domestic violence have become a standard.  They were even before the sordid stories unfolding from the National Football League last year.  Some cities were slow to answer the bell because small towns are supposed to be immune from such things.  Yet, in 2015, one might suspect even Mayberry might house a couple of domestic abusers.

Last fall, my students—-whose daily newscast Jackson 24/7 is a staple of local cable—-engaged in a week-long emphasis on domestic violence in West Tennessee.  They learned as much as they reported and interviewed.  They learned domestic abuse cuts across every racial and cultural boundary, every age bracket, and every occupation.  Sometimes, the results end in tragedy.

In February 2014, those same students were forced to deal with an incident that will forever remain with them.  Some of them were barely 20 or 21.

Union University does not have the enrollment of The University of Montana.  Union is a private Southern Baptist institution, not a state school.  For more than a century, students have referred to “the Union bubble,” an imaginary shield that they sometimes mistakenly believe shields them from the real world beyond campus.

Violent crime does not happen at Union University.  At least it did not until the morning of February 12, 2014.  A music major with a healthy set of friends was found dead of a bullet wound in her car on the parking lot of a building across from the main Union campus.  Olivia Greenlee was to have graduated the following May.  She was engaged to marry fellow Union student Charlie Pittman last August 9.

Three days after Olivia’s body was found, Pittman was charged with her first degree murder.  He has pleaded innocent.  A judge has given him a final deadline of June 8 to change that plea.  If Pittman maintains innocence, his trial is scheduled to begin September 27.

Paigh Lytle and Kelsey Graeter were the anchor team for the noon edition of Jackson 24-7 the morning after Greenlee was found dead.  As was the case with many Union students, Paigh and Kelsey knew one or both of the two young people involved in the tragedy.

At the time, investigators still had not ruled Greenlee’s death a homicide.  Outgoing Union president David Dockery agreed to appear with Paigh and Kelsey on that noon newscast.  When he met me in the hall before entering the studio, I knew from the expression on his face that Union was about encounter a first and not one that would be included in the school’s future public relations materials.

Paigh and Kelsey appeared shaken but asked the difficult questions of Dockery.  To his credit, he answered every one of them, most of them without the typical p.r. spin one might expect of someone in his position.

When the broadcast was over, Paigh and Kelsey were both emotionally over-wrought.  Both had to leave to compose themselves.  When they returned, we had a discussion about a painful lesson they had just learned.  If you pursue journalism for a career, at some point you will likely have to report a story that challenges everything that is within you because you are acquainted with or are friends with the central figure or figures involved.  One simply does not expect that to happen as a junior in college.  Regardless of where Paigh or Kelsey or their Jackson 24-7 colleagues ultimately land, their world was forever changed.  The Union bubble had burst.

The culture in any young television newsroom is often comparable to that of people in any profession who have to work as a team.  Because most of the reporters are under 30, they have an emotional sense of invincibility.  Regardless of the menu of any given day’s news, some espirit de corps is required to deliver the nightly output.  Some days, people like the news director; other days, people would like to wish the news director into a cornfield, a la the classic Billy Mumy episode of Twilight Zone.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF or one of those in the news car that drove to 314 Brooks Street May 6.  I do know that the sense of detachment that occurs from covering many tragedies all too quickly evaporated.  Once word spread via phone or texts to others in the newsroom and those who were already home for the evening, the culture of KTMF was forever changed.

Kalee Scolatti and a family friend, Anthony Dupras, were dead.  As we learned from police reports in the days that followed, Kalee’s estranged husband entered the home.  At some point, she called Dupras, whom she had frequently referred to as a brother.  Investigators say the evidence indicated when Dupras arrived, Nicholas Scolatti took out a handgun and shot Kalee, Dupras and himself.  Nick Scolatti died two days later.  The Scolattis left behind three daughters.  Dupras had two sons.

How the anchors of KTMF managed to deliver the news to Missoula that night I will never know.  Active news directors aren’t supposed to die, much less become the victims of an alleged murder.

We live in a vastly different world than the one in which I became a rookie reporter in the mid-1970s.  Seven years ago, Anne Pressly—a reporter-anchor for KATV in Little Rock—was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in her apartment.  Last December, Patrick Crawford—a morning weathercaster at KCEN in Waco, Tx., was shot three times on the station parking lot.  He survived.  In February, San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot ten times through the back window of his car.  A month later, Kraska miraculously returned to his job at KFMB CBS 8.

Within a day and a half, the story of Kalee Scolatti’s untimely death was in The New York Daily News, The Los Angeles Times, and the U.K.’s The Daily Mail and The Guardian.  Missoula rarely is the locale of news outside of Montana.

Often, viewers mistakenly are of the opinion that broadcast journalists have no heart and no soul.  They are moreso of that mind of network newscasters, but the adversarial relationships occasionally filter down to the local level.  As one of my former students and long-time WBBJ anchor Keli McAlister told a gathering at Union last year, “There’s no textbook that prepares you for the first time you take a phone call from an angry viewer.”

Having been on the working journalist side and in an administrative role for 19 years, I am acutely aware of the emotions of a newsroom.  People on a news staff have bills to pay, have to deal with frozen pipes and stopped-up toilets, have worries about children, struggle to determine how to finance college for those same kids, battle illnesses, experience depression (a subject for an upcoming blog entry) and deal with deaths in the family.

When a fellow staff member, whether the boss or a peer, not only dies but is apparently murdered, one does not simply put on the game face and report the facts.  Once I read the story of Kalee’s death, I knew hearts were breaking in the KTMF newsroom.  Those hearts would not mend in a matter of days.

Union is a Christian university.  We believe in God.  We believe in prayer.  I told my students of the tragedy in Missoula.  I asked them all to pray for everyone in the KTMF newsroom, as well as the families affected by the tragedy.  They did.  As I told them, “You want to be where they are soon.  Just as we experienced with the sad story of Olivia and Charlie last year, those people are hurting.  They don’t know you but they need to know others are thinking of them.”

I knew no one on the KTMF staff, but I reached out via e-mail to the first anchor on the station website, Angela Marshall.  I shared the story of what we experienced 15 months earlier and the emotional stress for Paigh and Kelsey.  Here is an excerpt of my communication:

 “Unfortunately, times come when you have to tell unpleasant stories to a waiting audience even if your heart is breaking inside. I know many questions will continue to be asked that end up with that one-word question “why?” in the next days and weeks concerning Kalee’s death. 

         The answers may not come to the emotions of your team as quickly as the answers will for police investigators.  You can’t just turn off the pain and the grief inside, all the while having to maintain a sense of professionalism to your audience.

        Just know that one who has sat in your seats for many years and has been teaching a sense of journalistic and personal values to college students for 23 years is thinking of all of you and has you in my prayers.  My students likewise offered a prayer for your entire news team after our broadcast today.”

A few hours later, I heard from David Winter, Angela’s co-anchor:

“I left the business for about 20 years and recently rejoined the Fourth Estate,” he wrote.  “Having reported last in San Francisco before leaving the business, I was exposed to a lot of crime reporting.  Now that I have “retired” to Montana… and for the most part to the anchor desk… it was unusual circumstances that led me to be the one on the scene when I learned my friend and news director had been killed.”

David offered me something to pass along to my students.  “As painful as this story was to report… EVERY tragedy that we cover is just as painful for the people on whom we are reporting,” he wrote.  “Disassociation with the stories and the people we cover is often used as a defense-mechanism to protect our own feelings.  But too much disassociation can lead to callousness, and a disservice to our stories, their subjects, our viewers, and perhaps most importantly to ourselves and our personal relationships.”

How right he is.  An occasional rogue reporter views tragedy as a stepping stone to the next big job.  Most I know, thankfully, have a breaking point because they do have a heart for the people who are victims of murders, fires, or domestic violence.  That’s not a loss of objectivity.  That’s being a human being.

As I write this, KTMF’s online page now offers stories on an upcoming school bond vote in Missoula, students in Bozeman who are building wheelchairs for children in Mexico, and a clinic which serves people who cannot afford proper dental care.  The world and Missoula have had to move forward.

Yet, still on the “Most Popular” bar is a link to Remembering Kalee Scolatti.  A video remains with a montage of the good memories of Kalee and what she meant to her station, her colleagues and her friends.

Eventually, Remembering Kalee Scolatti will disappear from that website.  Yet, the memories of Kalee will never go away from the hearts and minds of the people who work for KTMF.  After the night of May 6, the lives of those who make television and report news every night to Missoula and its neighboring cities and counties will indeed never be the same.