An old buddy of mine called from the cockpit of his news cruiser today. Scott was speeding away from his beloved Pittsburgh, straight for the hospital where the one surviving coal miner was being treated. It was his second mad dash to West Virginia in so many days and the fatigue tinged his young voice. Having left the station at midnight, he spent the first half of the two and a half trip en route to a celebration. But a phone call from his producer changed the mood as it altered his course. Now he found himself racing toward a community reeling in disbelief . As he closed in on the mushrooming media circus, we discussed the joy and sorrows, and scars of The Job. Scott’s shock and dread paled in comparison to the victims’ families of course, but as an ancillary attendant with an all-access pass, he’d already felt the ache and the heartbreak in a way those of us watching from afar never will. Mostly, I listened while he whiled away the last dozen miles. He spoke of little sleep, endless live shots and too many cigarettes. I asked about his bride and his voice brightened. After that and a little office gossip, I handed the cell phone off to another co-worker eager to chat up an ex-colleague.
Later in the day, as I passed a bank of monitors shouting details of the miners’ plight, I thought of Scott. I remembered his first immersion into televised tragedy, a impressionable morning at Richard Childress Racing headquarters the morning after Dale Earnhardt’s final, fatal race. Scott was agog at the instant army of empty-eyed mourners, the countless, network news crews and the massive, sat truck encampment. ’Welcome to the Shit’, I told him at the time, but I wasn’t as wise as I pretended. Shell-shocked or not, chasing the salacious and the sad is part of the gig. The trick is to not become immune to it, to retain a level of decency underneath that crusty journalist shell, to keep your emotions in check but not incapacitated. I’m reminded of another morning in Norfolk, Virginia, when I ambled out of a TV truck in mid-giggle only to remember why I was there in the first place. Whole families clad in black ambled past, some weeping openly while clutching framed portraits of young dead sailors, unexpected victims of the USS Cole attack. Shame washed over me as the pier-side memorial service began and I spent the rest of the afternoon staring at the aircraft carrier looming overhead and thinking of my own treasured shipmates.
As much as I love mass communication, the modern day 24 hour news cycle can leave one hell of a burn. Whereas distant calamities used to be hammered into print by a few on-scene scribes, today every nuance is played out live as it happens, to a spinning globe of wide-eyed voyeurs eager to teeter on the edge of their sets. That includes me, a person who clamors at the edge of massacre and catastrophe for an hourly wage. But I do wonder where this ramped-up, amped-up, endless telethon of suffering and strife is taking us. I’m not suggesting we forsake technology and return to the primordial ooze, mind you - but what effect does all this team smotherage have on the collective psyche? News doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and satellite trucks don’t park in limbo. Our mere presence, loud, lit and heavily logo’d, influences events as much it does cover them. We are not silent scribes in the back of the pack, but outfitted gear-heads with a thousand bristling gadgets, impinging on the perimeter when not taking center stage. At what price? When distant crisis becomes a global commodity before the pixels are even dry, where does the unexamined tribulations of the lesser exposed rank in the grand scheme of things? Don’t ask me. I just point and shoot for a living.