If on my way home tonight someone stops to ask me what I do for a living, I think I will lie. I've been sitting at my desk today -- mortified - watching as the Cleveland abduction story plays out on my television screen. It's not that unusual to see this spectacle of cameras and anchors jostling for position. To see every angle of the story covered and dissected in great detail -- that has become the norm in American media and that is precisely my point. Is this news or well-lit voyeurism and what does it do to our collective conscience?
The story itself is gut-wrenching. You can't help but feel terror, shock, anger and an array of other emotions. You can't help but feel empathy for those poor women abducted and held in captivity for a decade or more. You can imagine the joy and anguish their long-suffering family and friends must have felt upon hearing the news. I know the journalists on the scene feel the exact same way -- I've been there. But I'm pretty sure many are also secretly feeling something else -- the self-loathing and disgust for the business and their part in what they once considered a calling.
I've been there myself, standing in the pack desperately trying to get a new piece of information, an exclusive, dreading the phone call from the boss that says, "You got beat." It's not just fear of the boss, but also a part of our competitive nature. If we didn't like a fight, we probably wouldn't have gone into this ego driven business.
I write this partially to explain the industry I am usually so proud to be a part of. I believe there comes a time in the career of every journalist when they realize what they do matters, that it can be very powerful -- and incredibly harmful -- if used the wrong way. There comes a time when most journalists realize they have a soul, and that matters more than any scoop. I can't speak for every journalist, but I believe I'm not alone.
That moment for me came in Iowa, where as a young reporter I worked a source and got the name of a murder victim before it was publicly released. I told my boss, looking for his approval and foolishly believed that he had the ethical sense not to make it public information until police told us that her family members had been found and notified. I was wrong. After promising it wouldn't make it to air, it did, and I later found out that is how the victim's sister realized she was dead. That stays with me to this day.
I have to wonder if the people making the calls in Cleveland and in network newsrooms have had similar experiences. Let's take a step back and think about these three women. Imagine how many times they dreamed of the day they would step back through the front door of their family home. I'm sure they pictured every detail, imagined every tearful hug and thought about the future family dinners, waking up in their own beds, being around the people who have loved them unconditionally from birth. I don't think any of them imagined that their homecoming would be videotaped from every angle, and that a police escort would be needed just to get them down their street. I highly doubt they dreamed of news helicopters circling overhead or that they would have to run through the door with their heads down and covered. There is a six-year-old girl who has to be so scared. I can't imagine the sounds of rotor blades beating the air will help her feel more at ease.
I've now watched the taped phone call between Amanda Berry and her grandmother and I wish I had never seen that. She deserves for that to be a private and a protected moment.
I've seen my fair share of shocked and saddened residents of Cleveland, some crying in horror and for the loss. I'm sure they really feel that, I'm just not so sure the rest of us need to see it.
I've seen the polls, I know most Americans think the media is kind of disgusting and not be trusted. I can't help but wonder if the viewing public would reward a network or station that refused to take part in this display of desperation for details. Imagine if a news executive in this atmosphere was courageous enough to go against the competitive instinct and demand to just be better. Perhaps journalists should have to take an oath before they pick up a microphone or a pen -- a pledge to first, do no harm that is unless the person deserves it, like a corrupt politician or lying businessman.
I wish I could tell these three courageous women to take their time, that what has to be an unending stream of phone calls from bookers and journalists will end soon. I wish I could warn them if they just keep their heads down, stay inside the attention will fade. It won't, not until they tell their stories. The media is relentless and regardless of when these victims might be ready, they will be outside their door hungrily waiting.
I just saw a news anchor say "the world wants to hear from her, but the world is going to have to wait." That idea of being entitled to hear her story, to have her describe in vivid detail a life we can only imagine with terror. That is not our right and it shouldn't be our expectation.