When I started working at my first TV station, I didn't realize nearly 30 years could go by so quickly. Like fast forwarding a VHS cassette, my career in journalism eclipsed parenting, my education, multiple pets, about 15 cars and a couple of marriages.
I started working at a small CBS affiliate in Wausau at the age of 19. Ronald Reagan was president, I barely had a driver's license but I was running TV cameras and helping direct newscasts. I'd become a solid videographer and editor by 21 when I won my first Associate Press award for a video-essay on a group of guys who parasailed behind an old Pontiac Bonneville acro
ss the ice of the frozen Wisconsin River.
From there, as a break from the cold, I headed for Florida. West Palm Beach was a city with plenty of crime and political drama. It also offered me an opportunity to sneak into Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago one night during a wild party that ended up on the cover of the National Enquirer. As one reveler arrived, he promised to jump in the pool naked at midnight, and a reporter and I finagled our way in just in time to see the promise fulfilled. Journalists were not allowed in, but we were sneakier than your average bears.
Tampa was my next stop, where I really honed my skills and began producing more of my own work. But this was also the market where things began to get depressing. As a new father, I found myself looking at families faced with tragedy differently. I once hugged my own son, Stephen, and asked if I just just call him Joey for a moment while I hugged him. Joey was the same age as Stephen and looked a lot like my son. But Joey had been beaten to near death by his mom's boyfriend. Mom put him to bed crying from his injuries instead of having her boyfriend arrested and taking her son to the hospital. Joey died that night in bed, while mom and Joey's killer stayed up drinking.
There was a helicopter crash. A pilot and a Tampa police officer were searching Tampa Bay for a missing fisherman when the copter slammed into the water right in front of me. It was so dark we could barely shine enough light on the pilot to rescue him. The police officer screamed for help for what seemed like 15 minutes before sinking into the cold February depths of the bay. When I played back raw video from the scene, we could hear his final cries for help. I cried the next day to my wife after the emotion finally caught up with me.
You're not taught to do it, but you quickly learn in broadcast news to turn off the emotional switch until it's safe to let it all out. That usually happens in private, you never let it happen on the air.
I've been at more crime scenes that I can possibly imagine now. I've seen death in what seems like every possible way. I've felt pure evil at some of those crime scenes, and seen it in the eyes of suspects who walked callously to police cars in handcuffs, as microphones were aimed at their heads. I've knocked on doors, hating the fact that I'm there to ask if "you have anything you want to say about the victim." I've seen more pictures in courtrooms that "we can't show on TV" than I can count. I've heard too many gruesome details from detectives that I can't relay to viewers because they're watching at dinner time.
I've been to massacres, shootings, burnings, stabbings, animal attacks, deadly tornados, drownings, car accidents, train accidents, plane crashes and on and on and on. It's the job. Did Casey Anthony really keep her dead daughter in the trunk? Did George Zimmerman really fear for his life? The 9-11 attackers didn't want to learn to take off or land in their flight schools and no one thought that was strange? Am I really lost in a flooded New Orleans after giving all my food and water away and right as the sun goes down? Was that a brick that just hit my news car along aI a riotous St. Petersburg street? All good questions, not always a lot of good answers.
I've been "out" of the news bubble for only 3 months. That's about one-tenth of the time I spent in that often depressing bubble. Another friend told me it takes years to decompress from broadcast news. I'm so accustomed to the grind, sometimes I have no idea how I really feel now. It all got a little robotic somewhere along the line. I realize now that I am jaded. I think I've become numb to a lot of things in life, like a nerve ending that's been burned so badly it doesn't even register the pain anymore. I know I'm not alone in this feeling.
When I left Orlando in the Spring of 2016, I lived about a half mile north on Orange Avenue from the Pulse Nightclub. I'd been there many times throughout the years, I often got my coffee across the street as the club emptied out around 2:30 in the morning. So, to wake up in Minnesota to news of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history brought a flood of emotion, but it was repressed for several days. I could feel it in there, but it just didn't really come out right way.
If I'd been in Orlando that morning, I would have been right there at the crime scene tape. Live shot after live shot, I would not even know the emotion was there, much less being robotically repressed. Now I know it's there. I might not feel it right way, but at least I know it's there.
Several friends and family members have asked if I feel like I missed what would have been one of the biggest stories of my life. In a way, yes. But after 28 years of describing tragedy to viewers and having a front row seat to the worst this world has to offer, I'm happy to be done with breaking news journalism for a while. For now. It feels like an addiction, you build up a tolerance, you feed off the high, then crash when it's over. I told my college student son the other day that he should switch his major to business.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!