It’s a moment I remember the way some people remember the death of President Kennedy. A crazed man had just shot and killed four people in the hospital at Fairchild Air Force Base and left more than 20 others wounded. They were bringing out the first victims on stretchers and loading them into helicopters and I was expected to do a live report on what had just happened. The first victim I saw had a massive wad of bloody gauze taped to his naked chest. He was on his back, silently looking skyward.
I was doing OK until I saw the children. One boy, who looked about 8, had apparently been shot in the back. He lay face down on a stretcher resting his chin on his hands. He had a baseball cap on his head and thick blond hair above his ears. Just as my throat started to tighten and the tears formed in the corners of my eyes, I distinctly remember mumbling to myself: “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I knew at that moment my days as a TV newsman were numbered.
That event summarized every plane crash, house fire, shooting and fatal traffic accident I have ever covered. It reminded me that I went into journalism hoping to help make the world a better place. Not to witness it falling apart.
It wasn’t being around hurt and dying people that bothered me so much. It’s that I had to try not to have any feelings about the people who had been hurt. My every instinct said drop the damn microphone and help these people. I could have held somebody’s hand or let them know they weren’t alone.
Just then, my two-way radio came to life. “News base to Becker…Where are you guys?! We’ve got to get live right now!” We had been beaten by one of our competitors and the assignment desk was unhappy. The burden was on me to make up for lost time. The tears evaporated, my throat cleared, and the repetition of 12 years in the news business took over. We eventually got a live signal out and spent the next two days working double shifts at the base. On the first day, our live broadcasts were carried by our affiliate stations in Seattle and Portland. It should have been a moment of supreme professional glory. But I have never gotten over the fact that I stood on the sidelines in a time of need.
The next morning, we were blasted by our boss because we got beat getting the story on the air. I was very angry at the criticism. Angry that someone would challenge my commitment and professionalism. But my boss was right. Instead of reacting to the shooting objectively, I reacted personally. There isn’t much room for feelings in TV news.
I started out in the news business in 1983 as an intern at KING radio in Seattle. Walking into the newsroom on the first day of winter quarter, I was dazzled by the calm, steady presentation by the anchors in the booth, and a driving race off the air to gather and understand the events of the day. It seemed to me that these people were having an impact on the world around them. They made the world better because they helped people stay informed. But I worried: Could I do the job? Was I good enough to be like them? I caught on quickly and when my internship ended, they offered me a job working crazy early morning hours six days a week. The content part seemed to come naturally - an interview, prepare the story, it goes on the air.
Developing the presentation skills took more time. Because TV reporters spend so much time working on presentation skills, it is easy to remain detached about the gruesome events we’re asked to cover.
The first fatal accident I covered was a collision between two float planes over the north end of Lake Washington. Three or four people were killed when a plane that was attempting to land on the lake smashed into another plane taking off. The King County Sheriff’s boat shielded our view as divers pulled one body up from the wreckage, but I could hear the man’s wet body slap the deck of the aluminum boat like a giant fish. I was worried about getting all the facts straight and not stumbling on the air so I didn’t spend much time thinking about what had happened. But I can still hear the sound of that man’s body hitting the deck of the boat.
When I first arrived in Spokane in 1987, the only thing that differentiated the three local TV news organizations was the people who presented the news. It wasn’t unusual to see all three stations lead with the same stories. Nor was it unusual to cover one news conference after another.
News directors no longer want to see people standing behind podiums. They want the people being interviewed to “show” their audience the story. It’s also less common for the three stations to have the same lead stories, because each station has staked out a distinct segment of the audience and they gear their news coverage to that target audience.
Some people might object to this approach, but TV stations are a business and they must remain competitive to survive. The most daunting challenge to TV news executives is how to manage the explosive growth in technology.
The same innovations that give viewers dozens of options are shortening most people’s attention span. Because we can use a remote to surf the tube, there is tremendous pressure to cover the kinds of stories and events that are most apt to attract the attention of viewers. Events and issues are compressed to fit the limitations of the technology. If they can’t be compressed, they are simply left out. In a democratic society, we depend on the media to give us a balanced view of the issues. But in television, a premium is placed on brevity. It is virtually impossible to make decisions about gun control, welfare reform, Valley incorporation, or the antics of the Spokane City Council, when we must depend on 10-second “sound bites.”
These issues will continue to shape television news, and as a consumer of news now, the issues concern me. But as I look back on my eight years in television news, I will always remember the amazing, wonderful people who shared part of their life stories with me. People like Sandy Sanderson, a man who during World War II was a co-pilot on board a B-24 Liberator. He allowed me to ride with him in a restored bomber two years ago. And there’s Fran Crabtree, one of the first flight nurses in the Army Air Corps. Wes Tate survived the Bataan Death March of World War II and now keeps bees in the Spokane Valley. I have also been moved by the Rev. Happy Watkins and his commitment to justice.
One woman I interviewed last year was a death camp survivor. Her experience helped crystallize some of my own thinking. I was surprised when I met Eva Lassman because she seemed too young and optimistic for a woman who had survived one of Hitler’s death camps. She told me about the random executions, starvation and beatings. She recounted the loss of her entire family to the gas chambers. It was another one of those moments I could feel my tear ducts start to open.
At the end of her story, the only thing I could think to ask her was how she could still get up in the morning. She said she felt a responsibility to remind the rest of the world about what had happened to millions of Jews during the war. Then in a calm voice, with a slight Polish accent, she recited something I’d heard before, but something that had never meant so much.
She said: “I did nothing when they came for the Jews, because I’m not a Jew.”
“I did nothing when they came for the communists, because I’m not a communist.”
“I did nothing when they came for the homosexuals, because I’m not a homosexual.”
“But when they came to take me, there was no one left to help.”
Eva then said: “That is what it’s all about. We don’t have to love each other, we just have to get along.” , The context of all news coverage should be that we are all in this crazy world together and must depend on each other to survive. We cannot reduce issues to partisanship or ignore the human side of tragedy. Television must become as strong at explaining issues as it is at covering events. TV is a servant, not a master, and it should call each of us to action, not lull or scare us into seclusion and doubt.
I will continue to watch TV news, and I wish my friends in the business every success. They have a tough job. But I’m coming off the sidelines. I’m going to work where there is no emphasis on objectivity. But I’ll take with me the treasure of a career that demanded nothing less.
MEMO: Do you have any thoughts about television coverage of life and events? Or any comments for Steve Becker? Let us know by contacting Interactive editor Rebecca Nappi. Write her at The SpokesmanReview, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA. 99210-1615. Or send e-mail to email@example.com.