On Deadline
By Eileen Douglas

Looking back on the year that is about to end, and thinking ahead to the new year and the resolutions we often make at its doorstep, I see a matter for discussion that grows out of the biggest news to hit our world in 2008. Tim Russert’s sudden newsroom death in June, which struck all who heard it as a “not-to-be believed,” incomprehensible, “has to be wrong” stunner.

As we listened to the coverage, the initial “this can’t be true” reaction slowly turned into “how exactly did this happen?” Little by little came the explanation. Coronary heart disease. Thickened heart muscle. Carrying too much weight. Trip to Italy and home again on short turnaround. Back at work on two hours sleep.

Never having worked with Tim Russert, only with others who had, I‘ve waited until the dust settled, long after the tributes from those who knew him were in, to return to something Andrea Mitchell said on-air that Friday afternoon when his colleagues were first pulling the story together, before it was clear exactly what it was that took Russert’s life so unexpectedly.

She knew, as he did, that he weighed too much. Worked hard. Her words were something to the effect that news people in general don’t eat right, sleep right, exercise. Don’t always take the best care of themselves the way they should.

How true.

Obviously, we love the job. The adrenaline rush. The unpredictability. We are happy to do it, at all hours. Whenever something neat is happening. Plane crashes. Prison riots, Like babies being born for an obstetrician, stories happen when they darn well happen. And if you’re an outside person, you’re out the door in the middle of the night or hopping a plane to Timbuktu. If you’re an inside person, you may be canceling your theater tickets and munching down a slice or two of pizza with a coke at your desk while on overtime until the crisis is over.

For many, in fact, it’s the unpredictability of it all that’s the treat. No 9 to 5 life for us.

Ah, but all of us know the drill for a healthy life. We could write the copy. As any two year old can tell you, a healthy life follows some pretty simple rules. Eat right. Sleep 8 hours. Exercise at least 30 minutes three times a week. Avoid stress.

What news person do you know who can easily follow that drill? Life for a journalist is always changing. How do you eat three square a day? How do you get to the gym on a schedule?

Avoid stress? News is the very definition of stress. The pressure to file. Deadlines to meet. The competition to beat. Office politics. Not to mention the kinds of personalities attracted to the excitement and irregularity of the work to begin with.

A life in news, it seems, is the very antithesis of a healthy life. It doesn’t easily allow for it.

Tim Russert, it was clear, loved the job. So did a colleague of mine who sat down in his chair one day after years of racing through airports, lugging around his video stock, making air from one continent to another, to find his stomach had exploded. He loved his job, too, though it nearly killed him.

Loving the job doesn’t give you special protection, though many of us often think it does

We’re not bulletproof. We’re not.

It’s clear. What Andrea Mitchell had to say is true for many of us. We don’t always take the best care of ourselves.

I also imagine pointing all this out to someone in pursuit of a hot story or a budding career is not going to change a thing.

Even so, I offer the point.

A man I worked with once used to have a sign on his office door. This was not his saying, and it was meant about war, but it applies here as well. It read, “You can’t file if you’re dead.”

As we head into a new year, all I can think of as I offer these words of caution is --- while you’re running around having a great life in journalism, where… and when… and if it’s possible, “Make sure the deadline you are on isn’t your own.”

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Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist turned independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for “ABC-TV’s Lifetime Magazine,” she is the author of “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” and co-producer of the films “My Grandfather’s House” and “Luboml: My Heart Remembers.” She can be reached at www.douglas-steinman.com.




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