The Digital Journalist

by Ron Steinman

This is a column about pain. About how I woke one morning with severe throbbing in my right leg that would not quit. Let me say at the outset, the problem is not life-threatening, though the tale I will tell is, in its way, a cautionary one. I am talking about the news business, and how I lived it for more than four decades. How, after hurting for years with aches I accepted as part of life, all the things I did and all the efforts I made, the body says "no more."

Being an activist in news, as with many of us, I have had my share of physical breakdowns, which I attribute to the life I led. I accepted these because of the news life's excitement. There is no better way to be close to the action, in time have a good payday, travel the world, meet the powerful and famous, and have a memorable meal or two.

As with many of us, I have had my share of drinks in many parts of the world, often in dark bars, curfew in effect, candles on the table and the electricity dicey because someone blew up a power station. I have eaten bad and strange food. I smoked so much at one time that I often had two cigarettes, one a Camel, the other a Salem, burning in the same ashtray. I have dabbled in substances I never should have touched. Fortunately, none have had a lasting effect on me. I have had rashes, stomach aches, headaches and sore muscles. I have had my share of running through airports with heavy sacks of film or videotape, of sleeping in cramped airline seats and on mattresses that felt like bricks.

Driving in strange cars down strange roads with strange drivers, hearing incomprehensible languages, being searched and frisked by police, army, border guards and insurgents are part of this exciting, nomadic, sometimes dangerous life.

Please understand: not everything was exciting, breathtaking, life changing, enhancing or dangerous. There were many hours of waiting for something to happen, ending with nothing. There were many hours of tedium, too, with the attendant boredom that often led to overindulgence when the day ended, and night closed down the story until the next morning. Sitting sometimes was harder than moving. Sitting took extra patience to get comfortable and remain so until we started moving again. If you believe that slow and steady wins the race, think again. There was nothing slower in the days of film than waiting for the footage to arrive after being developed, especially when the feed time was approaching and you knew you had to make air. Tedium was always the handmaiden of trouble down the road. There were those times and they, of course, are the easiest to forget, but they have their place in the pantheon of the news life and we should try to recall them with a belated and forced smile.

Someone once asked if I was ever afraid. I said never at the moment. We had a job to do. There was no time for fear. Later, sipping a single malt by a warm fire on a cold night in Belfast or drinking rotgut wine in a small café in Phnom Penh during the heat of the night after the event, when we talked personal talk, small talk, fear, though never mentioned, dominated our hearts and souls. Only for a moment, though, because tomorrow there would, thankfully, be more of the same, the reason we were put here on earth. Thankfully, yes, tomorrow there would be more of the heart-thumping same things we never tired of in the endless pursuit of self-satisfaction.

I, as many of us, have run through halls - many dark, many smelling like cleaning fluid, others smelling like lilac - everywhere in the world to get to the feed point for an important story. For as many years I think I averaged four hours' sleep a night working 18 hours a day because personal satisfaction trying to be the best was more important than my own health. To that end, I have lost more sleep than one could ever hope to regain. To that end, to this day I wonder what all this has done to my family life, to my children, to my stability.

The pain I mention is in my back. The pain shoots down my right leg. I have a whole slew of discs which are bent, bulging, crushed, swollen and damaged. The pain I mention is not unique. The pain I mention is palpable. The pain, is, well, a pain. Problem is that despite everything else in and about my life, which does not make me unique, suddenly I feel mortal. The pain reminds me of my age, something I do not enjoy discussing. Most importantly, the pain will go away. Doctors and therapists will repair the damage. I will be better. That, however, is not the issue.

The issue is sacrifice. To those of you now doing what I did then, though the business has changed it remains, thankfully, the same. It is more fragmented. Though there are more of you doing what we did, you are still vulnerable. Your time might come, the time when your body rears up and says, "that's it, baby." Your body will say, "get a new life" or "find another life." Gone will be the hall runners and dashes through airports. Gone will be wounding your body to excess. I still carry equipment when I can. I still spend long hours at the word processor. I no longer smoke. I do not drink as I once did. The only strange substances I allow into my body honorable physicians carefully control and dole out. Despite the pain, life is good, because most of the memories are good and valuable. Soon with the help of my skilled surgeon and with a modicum of luck, I know the pain will mostly disappear and I will return in full bore as my usual dyspeptic self.

I loved every minute of the news life. I have no regrets. I would change nothing. I wish there could have been more and that those heady days had never ended. That they did is part of life. Today the business is a young person's game. It is their day to savor. When older, be warned: a diseased back may be waiting. A healthy back is not forever. Memories, though, are everlastingly forever.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.