On The News Tonight: A Reflection

On the news tonight, 
on the news tonight.
The unobtrusive tones
on the news tonight.
It's just make-believe
You can't believe everything you see
So baby, close your eyes to the lullabies
On the news tonight. 

 "The News" by Jack Johnson

 

On Journalism

On Thursday I was in Jackson, Tennessee playing music. I was a minimum of four hours away from home and those who inhabit it, though it always takes longer. My wife was getting off of work and cooking dinner with a friend who had come to stay the night, playing with a newly weaned kitten calling our house home as well; I was posing for a picture next to a terrifying sculpture on the campus of Union University that was a fifteen-foot metal rendition of a child's drawing with un-skillfully drawn hands and feet, grotesque in their rudimentary shapes. It read "mommy" in absurdly large child's writing on the base. Philip, our drummer, and I were laughing about how terrifying in that Uncanny-Valley type of scary it was. 

My phone rang, and I heard my wife's voice tell me that her cousin, Brian, had just died in an accident on the interstate after a semi had failed to stop in construction zone traffic, leaving nine families in the kind of grief that doesn't get fixed, and sending at least eight more to the hospital. You might say I was stunned. I am new at being married, new to being away from home while married, and will forever be bad at phone talking. I excused myself from selfies and selling merch and walked back to my room, calling everyone I could think of.  

On the way home, we stopped at our favorite gas station atop Monteagle (it's funny how you still remember favorite gas stations, even after months-long hiatuses from the road). In a newspaper rack by the door, I spotted a Times Free Press talking about witnesses to the crash. I will here post the opening paragraphs of that article, though I will do it with a warning that it is not for those without the consitution to stomach it at the moment, either for its graphic nature or for their emotional proximity to what it's describing:
 
 

Standing amid the carnage of the nine-vehicle crash that killed six people on I-75 Thursday night, ________ smelled the gas and thick black smoke, heard the airbags popping as they burned and the poof that the seats made when the flames licked through the fabric.

Then he saw the dead woman, lying on her right side, eyes wide open.

"It was horrific," _____ said. "That lady's blue eyes looking at me like that. She was so white."

 

In the name of honesty, I did not flip to the page where the article was continued (though I did read it later in its entirety on the Times Free Press website--which I will not link you to, simply because I do not want to hand them the traffic they crave), because it so shocked me. I am not a stranger to our local Times Free Press' questionable journalism, but this particular piece stirred me towards more frustration and, perhaps, anger than any I'd read before.  

Those heat-popping airbags were underneath somebody's family member. That wide-eyed dead woman was somebody's mother. Those flames licked through the fabric underneath human bodies, which would be in closed caskets in the following days, surrounded by people tears wouldn't console. 

This fragment passed through an editor. Another editor. A senior editor. It was chosen particularly to be on the front page of the paper because it was going to sell copies, for I suppose carnage always does. And for me, before this week, I'll be honest--carnage was always just carnage. People in the body text were numbers. Deaths were statistics.  

"386 killed this year on Tennessee Roadways" signs on the interstate were just warnings to slow down, which people would breeze by on their way to the mall, likely with cell phones in their hands. 386 numbers, not 386 funerals. Not 386-times-twenty mourners. Not thousands of families with a horrible black mark on calendars for the rest of their lives. 

Before, I really believed that it was necessary to be brief when reporting accident deaths. I called glossing "tact" and batch numbers "the way it had to be."  

But now I'm not so sure. I think now it may be there is an inherent cancer in our American (worldwide?) reporting standards. Now that numbers have ceased breaking us; now that "386" looks like "386" instead of 

1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111

1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111

1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111

1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111

111111111,

with each "1" representing a funeral, an entire grieving process, an entire set of individual mourners, at least a pair of broken hearts; perhaps something has to change.  

 

On Story 

In the hours before today started, my wife got a message from one of her friends who happened to be in the wreck on I-75 on Thursday. He had been on his way home from work and had gotten stuck in the traffic jam, but would spend the next several days in a hospital getting surgery to preserve his life: mending a broken arm, salving third degree burns on his skin, and stapling gashes on his head. He was a friend of hers from a while back, and was a friend of Brian's as well. 

His message was brief, but in a different way than news statistics: it was brief because it said many more things than many words could say. "Would it be okay if I came to the funeral tomorrow?" it said. His few words were wracked with guilt that was equal parts misplaced and inevitable--he'd made it; Brian hadn't. He didn't want to offend anybody. He didn't want to hurt anybody. He didn't want to be resented in the unconscious way he was likely sure he might be for being able to stand while Brian was being wheeled by pall bearers wearing running shoes to honor their running buddy. 

He couldn't even get in to the sanctuary for the ceremony; he was, instead, confined to the lobby--to a set of overflow chairs allowing those who couldn't fit in the packed church to still watch the happenings on a television screen.  

And honestly, I don't even know that he got to sit in one of those chairs. As we followed the pall bearers out, he was standing with his arm in a sling, his free hand on a cane, leaned up against the wall by the door, looking every person who passed him in the eyes. He didn't know me, and it wasn't the time for introductions. I didn't even get to tell him that I knew he was conflicted about attending. But he stood in respectful silence, leaning on his new cane and likely feeling the pain of the staples, the burns, the broken bones as he watched us pass him. I tried to tell him thank you, but he wouldn't have even heard it if I could have said it. He was there for purely selfless, innocent reasons. A fellow mourner for a man whose life was lived and whose race was finished. His name is Ryan, and he wore bravery and courage and sympathy like a shroud he didn't know he was wearing. 

I can't know how many more stories like his were in the numbers in attendance, but it is definitely as numerous as those who were there. Many more "1"s than whatever the total could represent.  

 

I then sat cramped in the back of an SUV, holding my wife's hand. She was in front of me, holding her sister's hand and wiping away her own tears with her shoulder. We were near the front of the funeral procession bearing her cousin to where they could visit him later, and we were staring out the windows in wonder as residents of Cleveland lined the streets to pay their respect to Brian as he passed in a hearse. 

They held signs. Some wept. Many held their hands over their hearts--each showing their gratitude to a life well-lived, to a soul that touched thousands of others in a profound way that would live longer than a person could. "Surreal" doesn't really start to cover it. Neither does "touching." Neither does "profound."  

We rounded the corner to where Brian taught band--Ocoee Middle School-- and a huge clump of people, of people each feeling and dealing with their own grief, and everybody in my car felt their breath catch. The crowd was silent, except for the sniffs, the stifled wimpers. The procession stopped for a mere ten seconds so they could pay their final respects (for no grave site is large enough to accomodate this number of people), and we began again slowly, taking us past them. Their heads turned like a crowd turning to watch a bride walk down the aisle to her groom.  

Except for one boy. He stood beside a tree, out of the shade even though the temporarily cloudless sun was beating down on his head, and he stared straight ahead, eyes slightly up. He was holding a trumpet in front of him at attention: three fingers on their respective levers, valve facing up, ready to be placed to his lips when his conductor took the podium. But he did not move, even as the hearse passed. Even as we, with windows down to take it all in, drove by him with tears coming down our cheeks. He did not move because his conductor did not, could not, and would not take the podium. He wouldn't wave his baton to ready the players to play, so this boy stood and waited until we passed. 

I do not know what he did when the procession finally snaked its way past him. I do not know his name. I do not know what he was thinking, but I know that he was not thinking of someone whose tragedy was mere carnage to sell newspapers. 

 

These are stories of two people. Brief stories, simply because my heart can't take telling them longer at this point.

There is one of these for each of the hundreds lining the streets: the stranger who got out of his white truck as it was pulled over to watch us pass. The boy in the tank top that read "Rock On" standing in front of Walgreen's. The police officers who blocked intersections with hands over their hearts. Each of the firefighters lined up outside their station, in front of their immaculately clean Fire Engines. Each driver of a car.

Each passenger.

Each family member.

And they are so much more detailed than a statistic. More nuanced than a "1" in a column.  

 

On Change 

Perhaps we've simply built a system that requires us to gloss over the end of human lives as though they're footnotes in the back of a soap opera recap journal. That is fine; I do not believe that it is on the readers to have to reduce tragedy to a headline, to a sale. But think of what we've experienced just in the past weeks: we've had a terrorist attack in a Bible Study and on a French beach, and we've experienced their respective horrors in news-ticker-long snippets. We've felt it pass as we change the channel.

Remember: tragedy sells. There is no place in the news for trumpet boys standing by themselves and then returning home to mourn in fame-less silence.

We can know killers by their full names, read their extensive psychological profiles, complete background checks, publicly released phone records; but to my shame, I cannot, even now, tell you the names of the nine people who were praying in a Charleston church just blocks away from where I was eating fish at Fleet Landing who found themselves face-to-face with the One they were praying to before we got asked if we wanted dessert. Before we paid the check and returned to our vacation rental to watch Jurassic Park in the comfort of air conditioning and sweatpants. 

I couldn't tell you their father's names. Their son's names. Their friends' names. Their cousin-in-laws. 

And that IS on me. I could tell you who gunned them down, but I couldn't tell you who they were. 

I can't name ten people who were in the Twin Towers. I can't name eight people on the French beach this week. I can't name five people currently sacrificing their lives to secure my right to write words on a stupid blog from Chattanooga, Tennessee, saying whatever I please while wearing sweatpants and enjoying a full stomach. 

And that is on me, as well.  

The curse of over-information is an entirely different topic, but it is most directly felt in the glossing over of what is important. It takes away the story from the statistics, it removes our hearts from the tragedy, it leaves respectful roadside trumpeters who almost singlehandedly restored hope to a grieving family anonymous. 

The stories worth telling are not the stories that get told. Brian's story is not about the trucker who hit him; his story is now his legacy. His story is in his son's drumsticks, in his daughter's giggles and drawings, in his wife's infectious smile and unnamable, untraceable strength. His story is in the people who lined Cleveland streets. His story is in the lonely kids he inspired to find music and, subsequently, purpose.  

And each of them has a story. And each person they reach has a story. And the person beside you has a story. And the woman in the checkout counter ahead of you with rambunctious children has a story. And the tired man scanning their items has a story. And the teenager handing you a lunchtime milkshake from Checkers. And the inflammatory internet blogger. And the corrupt politician. And the radical Muslim taking heads for his god. 

I think this is what hit me hardest today as my family comforted each other: the one we were missing deeply already understood this. Brian dug the story out of every person he came across. He taught his middle schoolers how to express it with tone and timbre. He already understood it, and then was taken from us before he had a chance to explain. In fact, we had to have somebody else explain it for us: every single person is more than a number, more than a "1". And I think what Brian would want us to understand is that the Jesus he now gets to touch sees them all that way, too.

 

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Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.