Adventures in newsland: Not ready for prime time

John Thompson's picture

“We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at 5, she can tell you ‘bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye. It’s interesting when people die — give us dirty laundry.”

— Don Henley, founding member of The Eagles

Last week was one of the strangest weeks in my nearly 14 years at The Citizen. Late Monday night, we got the initial word about the bizarre incident at Chris Benoit’s house in unincorporated Fayette County.

On Tuesday morning, our website was being slammed and the news staff was in crisis mode as we scrambled to get the latest information about three horrible deaths to our readers.

Residents are still in shock over the heinous events, and the national news media quickly picked up on the story. As the week progressed, things started getting even stranger around the newsroom. We were suddenly besieged by national reporters who wanted to get some more local perspective on the issue.

Late Thursday, we got a call from MSNBC. They wanted a representative from the paper to appear on the show Friday and Saturday mornings to offer the nation a bit of the reaction from the county. Staff writer John Munford was slammed all week with what seemed like breaking news on the issue every few hours, so I agreed to go on the show.

I had gone to the Benoit house late Wednesday afternoon and talked to some of the fans who were looking at the home with a stunned look in their eyes. I’ve been to murder scenes before, but to see the make-shift shrine that had been created on the gate of the home just added another surreal element to the story.

MSNBC officials said they would send a car for me Friday morning, so Thursday was a crash course in getting ready for a national audience. By the time Friday morning arrived, I had printed out some blogs to offer reader’s perspectives and jumped into a Lincoln Town Car and headed to Atlanta. As an aside to my conservative fans, I guess I now qualify as a member of the “limousine liberal” set.

I had a very nice driver, who sounded just like Morgan Freeman, and he entertained me with stories of different celebrities that he had driven in his 19 years.

Before I knew it, we had arrived at NBC’s studio at Colony Square, and I was sitting in a chair and getting makeup applied for my segment. The green room was very small and I amused myself watching the live feed of NBC’s programming.

Suddenly, a call came from New York informing me that my 10:15 “hit” had been canceled because of the terrorist situation in London. But, I was assured, that I would still be on at 9:15. At 9:02, a staff member walked into the room and said they also had to cancel the first interview because of the breaking news.

I told them I understood how breaking news can throw a monkey wrench into the plans. My driver was waiting outside, and I headed back to Fayetteville.

On Friday afternoon, a representative from Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren show called, and asked if I would be on that night to discuss the case. I agreed, and they gave me the same spiel about sending a car ... yada, yada, yada.

Two hours later, Fox called back, and said they instead were going to interview wrestler Chris Jerico and wouldn’t be needing my services. Earlier, I had received a call from MSNBC saying they still needed me on their show at 11:15 Saturday morning.

This time, I eschewed the limo ride, since I had some errands to run in the city. Just before I left home, I was on the Internet and noticed a report of a car running into the Glasgow airport. “Here we go again,” I thought.

Upon arriving at Colony Square, I attempted to get to NBC’s studio, but the elevators were not working. I asked a security guard and she said I was not on the list to be admitted to the upper floors. After calling NBC, she said someone would be down to escort me into the office.

A congenial man escorted me into the office, and I made it into the hot lights of the studio. I had a producer talking to me in my ear from New York telling me I would be on in two minutes. But suddenly, there was more breaking news from Glasgow and apologies ensued over the latest cancellation.

As I walked out of the building, I decided to walk across the street and have brunch at Tap, a new gastropub in Midtown. The food was excellent and I fielded several calls from folks who were waiting for my appearance on TV.

Like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” I was ready for my close-up, but knew that far more important events were unfolding on the world stage. When I first agreed to appear, our publisher had a succinct statement outlining his view of TV news.

“They’ll break your heart every time.”

While I wasn’t broken-hearted, I understood his statement. In the fast-paced world of instant news, the circus had left town and moved onto the next issue.

I also had time to take a breath, and ponder the whole Chris Benoit situation. We’ll never know exactly what led to the deaths of three people, but I remembered standing outside the fence and talking to one of his young fans.

The teenage boy just kept looking at the house with a vacant stare and said his dad had worked for Benoit one day. The boy’s father was an electrician and had done some minor electrical work. The student just kept shaking his head and reflected on the tragic events that put Fayette in the national spotlight for one searing week in June.

“You know,” he said, “I guess there’s all that pressure when you’re a superstar to keep in shape and keep going. ...” as his voice trailed off into a sticky summer afternoon.

There’s no excuse for what transpired the weekend of June 23 at the Benoit home. Three people are dead, families’ lives are shattered and a whole community is in mourning.

Some have speculated that steroids are the cause and an investigation should be launched. But what if the cause was the pressure that comes with being in the celebrity spotlight 24 hours a day?

In the last few years, our country has turned the cult of celebrity into big business. When a national news organization like Fox News spends more time covering the death of Anna Nicole Smith than the ongoing deaths in Iraq, you start questioning where our priorities as a society lay.

I admit I got caught up in the whole aspect of being on TV, and just wonder what it’s like for someone who is constantly in the public eye.

Did we as a society, somehow aid in the tragedy on Green Meadow Lane by elevating a athlete to near mythic status? Many celebrities, such as O.J. and Michael Jackson, seem to get a free pass in our over-heated cult of celebrity.

Perhaps it’s time for a reevaluation of our priorities and a focus on real news instead of the latest flavor of the day, like Paris Hilton.

“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being somebody, to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over-animation. One can either see or be seen.”

— John Updike

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