A Tragedy Runs Through It, and Through Us All

My editor, when I was a young reporter, tells me to interview a mother whose son has just died in a fire in their apartment. I ask my editor why. My editor tells me to interview the family of a marine held hostage in Iran when the Desert One rescue mission crashes and burns, leaving the hostages still hostage. I ask why. What am I going to ask? How do you feel?

The crowd at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed in Arizona cheered when a speaker asked the media to stay away from the lone survivor, the young man who’d been the lookout and barely escaped.

Why do those damn reporters want to interview the survivors of tragedy? Heartless bastards. Ghouls.

Reporters capture and transmit life. And tragedy is part of life. And feeling all of life keeps us human. That’s why. But still we bitch about the reporters. While we read their work, their heartbreaking work.

The New York Times today runs a story recounting the last text messages between a Granite Mountain firefighter and his wife. He tells her he’s going in to the fire: “I think I will be down there for awhile on this one.” He tells his wife he misses her and their kids already. After awhile he texts a photo of several firefighters heading for the smoke. She asks if he’ll be there all night. There is never a reply.

National Public Radio interviews young people at an informal grief-spattered remembrance for another Granite Mountain firefighter, from California. His sister, fighting back tears, remembers him in cowboy boots lassoing her when they were both kids. Never more, she says. The dead young man’s brother says his only regret is that he wasn’t with his brother when he died. With him.

Makes you think about life’s fragility, transience, beauty, holiness. Makes you feel love for your own folks. Maybe makes you think you’d better tell them you love them, go see them, because tomorrow might be too late.

On a plane a week or so ago I thought, looking at my iPhone, what would I text Lisa if the plane were going down? I decided I’d tell her that being with her is the best part of my life. The plane didn’t go down. I texted her that anyway. We should say that stuff.

Reading about, hearing about, how people deal with tragedy, with strain, with troubles you’ve not yet had, or with troubles you have, brings our humanity up wriggling and dripping from the bland tranquilized surface of every day. We need to see and hear that stuff. Much as we sometimes want to turn away, it’s hard to, and most often we look. At the accident. We listen to the survivor. Maybe it’s “there but for the grace of god…” But mostly we are attracted to tragedy because, I think, tragedy, like joy, makes us feel the depth and power of life. And we need to feel. Deeply.

Norman Maclean, who wrote, late in his life, A River Runs Through It, also wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about firefighters killed in 1949 in a hauntingly similar way to this week’s Arizona tragedy. If you want to get inside what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, read this 1992 book.

Tell someone you love that you do. Tomorrow never knows.

— Bruce Benidt

24 thoughts on “A Tragedy Runs Through It, and Through Us All

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Terrific piece! I can’t help thinking my life and that of others is at too great a pace, too glib, too self-absorbed, skimming only over the surface of things, no time or interest to peel it away to a deeper understanding, toward an evocation of human feeling. With great sadness fleetingly felt by all except their intimates, those lost fire-fighters are already yesterdays news.

    Thanks for the tip on the Maclean book.

  2. PM says:

    I have been thinking about this as i have read the most recent reports on Nelson Mandela (who is apparently now in a “permanent vegetative state”)

    life is messy and frequently ugly, and we do all sorts of things. the good and the bad are what makes us human–not just dignity and greatness, but death and drool as well.

    We need our myths to make us feel good about ourselves and the great things that we might do–but we also need to know that the great ones are human as well, with all the attendant weaknesses.

    and, of course, journalists ARE ghouls and bastards…but necessary ones.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      We are? Huh, then why do I, and most of the peers with whom I work, find it so emotionally wrenching to cover this sort of story?

        1. Jim Leinfelder says:

          Glib. Well, “PM,” the dictionary: Ghoul, “one suggestive of a ghoul; especially : one who shows morbid interest in things considered shocking or repulsive.”

          1. PM says:

            Yes, well….one is defined as a ghoul based on what one DOES (showing morbid interest), not based on what one FEELS (emotional wrenching).

            Hope that clarifies things for you.

            1. Jim Leinfelder says:

              PM, spare me the prevaricating sidestepping. Ghoul is pejorative. Benidt used it for effect, not as an actual accusation. You did the opposite.

              Let’s imagine for a moment what the reaction would be if those hotshots died fighting that fire and it received no coverage. Rightful outrage. To quote “Death Of a Salesman”: “Attention must be paid.” Benidt’s initial point: “Reporters capture and transmit life. And tragedy is part of life. And feeling all of life keeps us human.”

              Our interest isn’t generally morbid, and usually reverent and respectful. There are exceptions, of course.

              We’re fine with having one of our unofficial duties in the field being to sometimes serve as the dogs that get kicked when covering tragedies like this one. I’m perfectly sanguine about accepting that from the stressed-out, overwrought victims’ families, friends and colleagues. I don’t take it personally. And there are as many occasions when the people swept up in man-made and natural tragedies are gratified to be asked to talk about their loss.

              But the supercilious judgments of distant commenters like you don’t qualify. You’re in no position to know and cast judgments. You don’t like some particular coverage, fine, weigh in with the bloggers. But spare me the sweeping generalizations about people you don’t know and will never meet as “bastards and ghouls.” Clearly, you missed Mr. Benidt’s point regarding the coverage of such stories. But if you don’t want to know about stories like this, use the remote, or go camping.

            2. PM says:

              Most people look at the coverage of tragedies as ghoulish, because it displays a morbid fascination with the tragedy–and generally seems to be disrespectful. Bruce pointed that out. i happen to agree with it. as a result, i stated that reporters are ghouls and bastard–because that is their behavior, and most of the public tends to feel that way(again, another point that bruce makes, and not one that anyone has yet disagreed with). i also pointed out that i think that this is a necessary thing.

              It is a part of the job of journalism. there are plenty of jobs that are necessary and require people to do things that can be ghoulish, unpleasant, and make them behave like bastards. I have several relatives who work/have worked as prison guards. The behavior required by their job is far too often for their comfort that of a bastard. That does not mean that they enjoy it, or agree with it, but it is necessary and required. they behave like a bastard. they are bastards. They do not enjoy it. they do not feel good doing it.

              The fact that you and your peers and my relatives find their jobs emotionally wrenching at times suggests that you and they don’t really enjoy being ghouls and bastards, even though it is required of them, and it is necessary. Obviously, there are people who find that emotional wrenching to be too much for them, and they tend not to go into the types of jobs that have that aspect.

              That is the point that i have consistently been making. Frankly, i think it has been pretty clear. you are what you behave as, despite what you are feeling at the time. If a mass murderer finds killing people emotionally wrenching, they are still a mass murderer (and please, don’t take offense at that example–i am not implying that you or journalists as a group much less prison guards are a mass murderer, or even like a mass murderer, except to the extent that you are all humans, biologically speaking).

              For someone who says that he doesn’t take it personally, you sure seem to.

            3. Erik Petersen says:

              Great. How about adding some other writers to SRC who might write regularly? Like Leinfelder, like PM, like me (say a mild mannered version of me).

            4. Jim Leinfelder says:

              What can one say in the face of such private logic? You operate on your own private definition of “ghoul,” as well, and, within it, of the word “morbid,” the critical component of understanding ghoulishness. As for “bastard,” who knows what you mean by that?

              But I suppose you also include medical examiners, cops, surgeons, pathologists, firefighters, rescue workers, oh, and hotshots, anyone who has to professionally deal with the darker occurrences in life as “ghouls” and “bastards.”

              This is something that does not enjoy wide agreement. It is exclusive to you. I have never before been called a “ghoul” or a “bastard” for doing my job, and that includes by the people overwhelmed by tragedy. So, yes, coming from a disinterested, removed, anonymous voyeur such as you, yep, I take it personally.

            5. PM says:

              Nothing private about the logic, nor the definitions–in fact, been using the one you provided.

              The logic is actually pretty common in fields like philosophy, law, psychology. you judge people based on what they do, not on what they say or say they feel. For example, you say that when you are displaying morbid interest (or acting ghoulish), that you find it emotionally wrenching. Of course, we can observe you (or other journalists) doing this–pushing cameras in peoples faces and asking them questions as they are overwhelmed by grief. We can observe this on television newscasts. this is what Bruce was talking about, above. ( “The crowd at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed in Arizona cheered when a speaker asked the media to stay away from the lone survivor, the young man who’d been the lookout and barely escaped.
              Why do those damn reporters want to interview the survivors of tragedy? Heartless bastards. Ghouls.”)

              We can’t observe the “emotional wrenching” that you say happens to you. All we have to go on is your word–there is no way to observe your feelings. And there are people in this world who lie about their feelings.

              And, I am sorry that you feel I have no standing to comment on these things, but, frankly, i dispute that. As a citizen and consumer of news, i feel that it is perfectly appropriate for me to comment on journalism and what I see in journalism. I am, after all part of the audience for journalism. Like it or not, you are producing journalism for me. And, frankly, what I have said is I think perfectly consistent with what Bruce said above, and the opinion of most other consumers of journalism. I think that there are plenty of people out there who feel that journalists step out of line far too often. not just by being intrusive to the victims of tragedy, but by illegally bugging people’s phones (as just one more example).

              I don’t know if you have ever behaved in such fashion, and i certainly was not accusing you of that specific behavior but certainly many journalists have behaved like ghouls and bastards. just as many politicians have behaved like crooks and liars. just as many lobbyists are slimy whores.

              And i won’t be taking offense if you want to say that all lobbyists are slimy whores. If you are going to take offense every time someone generalizes and says that journalists are ghouls or heartless bastards, maybe you are too thin skinned to be in this business.

              and when are you going to get over your fixation on anonymity?

            6. Erik Petersen says:

              If there’s one thing we ought to avoid at SRC, I’d say it’s projecting. The place will really go downhill quick if that happens.

            7. PM says:

              Thanks, Erik, for putting things in perspective for the rest of us…

              Say, Jim, rather than having this descend further into some kind of a flame war, what say you and i get together for lunch or a couple of beers…maybe see if there are more places where we agree than disagree?

  3. Dennis Lang says:

    Then again, I haven’t researched this by any means but it seems with great frequency our local newscasts open with something borderline horrific: animal abuse, infant being shot, dead body found, some human tragedy…. Does it smack of tabloid journalism to you? Sensationalistic, emotionally troubling, exploitative–and ratings driven?

  4. bertram jr. says:

    Yes, Dennis.

    Jourmalism died and now we have the putrid corpse dragged out front and center each day….same old, same old.

    The society is crumbling.

  5. This is a difficult one. I never did like intruding on someone’s grief when so odered to do so by an editor. However, in some cases, it did prove to be therapeutic for the grieving family. I remember having to call the dad of a helicopter pilot killed in a training exercise. I was so hoping he’d tell me to go to hell and hang up, but he spent more than half on hour talking about his son and seemed to want someone to listen. That being said, had he told me to fuck off, I would have completely understood.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      That doesn’t sound ghoulish, Mike. Most journalists I know I feel just the same way, as do I.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      I’d suggest the party room at the Lex restaurant for an even more prominent gathering of faithful Crowdies but sadly the venerable, iconic St. Paul establishment is closed for the summer under yet another owner. The loss of sacred tradition painful.

    2. PM says:

      Boys! what kind of a demeaning, condescending….oh, wait…I suppose your hair IS quite a bit whiter than mine…..and offering to buy lunch, too…

      Say, Bruce, when are you going to be in town? just thinking about the scheduling…


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