Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I Wish I Could Turn It Off

Shortly after 11am two years ago today, the following email went out to the entire staff of KOLD as a frantic few newsroom employees made phone calls:

Hi there-

This is an urgent message--- we need all hands on deck immediately!!!! Everyone needs to come in to work immediately. This is especially important for main line talent. Come dressed for work.

If you cannot make it, call Michelle.

Several people have been shot, including probably Gabby Giffords at a Congress on Your Corner event.

We need you now!!!!!

Thus began a 12-hour, non-stop, wall-to-wall day of coverage detailing the horrors of the mass shooting outside a Safeway which killed six people and injured 13 others.

I didn't learn about it from the e-mail. I had just come out of a creepy movie -- Black Swan -- and started the car, expecting to hear the Saturday morning computer talk-show on the radio. Instead, I heard what sounded like two of the local TV anchors talking about a shooting and the victims, including Giffords. I booked it for the station.

That day and the next week and a half played havoc with my pent-up emotions. Things like this don't happen in Tucson. During the height of the coverage, a friend called me on my cell phone to make sure I was all right. "This is just unreal," I told him.

People watching at home can turn off the set when the drama becomes too difficult. But news people -- just like the relatives of the victims and the first responders who cared for them -- have to keep dealing with a mass tragedy for days on end as we produce story after story in newscast after newscast, day after day. As much as I long to get away from the tragedy, I couldn't. None of us in the newsroom could.

After a week of the aftermath's toll on the newsroom staff, our general manager figured we could use some therapy. She brought in a forensic psychologist for group session with him on dealing with traumatic events.

"A lot of people come home to their wives or their husbands or their children or their dogs," I told him. "But me, I come home to four walls and darkness."

As I revealed it to him, my eyes began to leak the agony of six repressed days of grieving. I pulled a tissue from a box next to me and patted my eyes constantly. My voice hardly cracked, but mourning bled across my face and down my cheeks.

"Chris, we all love you and we're here for you," said one of my anchors.

The general manager sat across from me. She could see the quiet agony. I had hinted it to her earlier this week when I told her I might need to see somebody.

The doctor encouraged me to think forward beyond the deadlines to time away from the newsroom. I told him I'd been thinking about this trip to California I was going to do next week, "to pursue my dearest diversion."

That diversion was the Jane Austen Evening, which I attended with a yellow ribbon in my tricorn hat in honor of the shooting victims. Even in the midst of joy, I still had a pit in my stomach, thinking about the still-unfolding aftermath back home and Gabrielle Giffords transfer to a medical facility in Houston.

I was glad when the gunman took a plea deal and a life sentence a few months ago. I wanted this case closed, closed so we and everybody connected to the tragedy wouldn't have to circle back to the day -- thinking forward, just like that psychologist told us. I also talked to one of the Biblical counselors at church, who reminded me GOD gives us abilities for use in crises to help others through it. Even news people have a role to play. As Queen Esther found out, we are called "for such a time as this."

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