Journalism and the meaning of life (no kidding!)

[Not long after I arrived at Georgia Perimeter College as a non-faculty student media adviser, I was asked to speak at the Humanities Lecture Series in February 2010. I was to share time with two other media professionals, but I still felt under pressure to demonstrate why a mere journalist should be talking to humanities students. My text is below. One note: I used photographs projected in the lecture hall which are only described here. I did not want to reproduce them because the two families involved might not want them preserved forever in the blogosphere.]

It’s more than a little intimidating to a journalist to be asked to speak at a “humanities lecture series.” Journalists aren’t used to thinking that their work has anything to do with the humanities. Many journalists find even the term “journalist” too pretentious. They are reporters or editors or photographers, they’ll tell you, and most are proud to claim the old mantle of “ink-stained wretches.” If we don’t get ink all over us anymore, well, we dress pretty scruffy.

It’s almost a secret that some journalists think they make a meaningful, lasting contribution to our society. And it’s rare indeed to hear a journalist describe her job as a means of nurturing her own humanity. I’m going to use my time today to argue that these rare beliefs are in fact well-founded. Journalism, practiced well, serves society and ennobles its practitioner. And it even has something to say about a perhaps controversial part of the study of the humanities: the search for the meaning of life.

I’m going to make my argument from the perspective of one of the most wretched of the ink-stained wretches: the police reporter. I’m going to tell a couple of crime stories. These are stories I wrote. I don’t share them because they are necessarily models of journalism. I share them because they happened to me, a journalist, and they gave me unique glimpses of the human condition — and, perhaps, glimpses of the meaning of life.

But first, I’ll tell you the story of how I prepared for this panel discussion: I did what you all do. I Googled. I started looking for a definition of the humanities and found some not-very-helpful references. Then I came across a book published in 2007 by a Yale Law School professor titled, “Education’s End.” The subtitle hooked me: “Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life.” Like a lot of people my age, I love to hear about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. So I checked out the book from the GPC library.

The author, Anthony T. Kronman, argues that the study of humanities should have everything to do with the meaning of life. I’m not qualified to evaluate his critique, but I did find his favored definition of the humanities inspiring. Kronman agrees with those who say the humanities put the question of the meaning of life in the context of a long conversation stretching across the centuries.

I submit that journalism places that same question in the context of a very wide conversation stretching around the world every day. Journalism describes the human condition — now. Or at least it should.

It often is correctly observed that journalism usually describes the human condition at the extremes. If “dog bites man” is the norm, then only “man bites dog” is news. It’s true that if you judged American society by the content of most 6 p.m. local news shows, you would conclude that most of us are murderers or murder victims — and that most of our apartments are on fire. I’m not here to argue that those portrayals tell us much about the human condition.

However, there is something to be said for the extremes, even by the standards of the great conversation of the humanities. Great literature has placed great characters in uniquely stressful conditions. And you would be hard pressed to find a more human figure in history than Abraham Lincoln in a time of national slaughter — except perhaps in the numberless stories of soldiers and others who suffered in that and other wars. Studying how they endured and how they made fateful decisions under extreme pressure tells us something about the human condition — something about ourselves. And in a more modest way, so does the first crime story I want to share with you.

The lovely family on the screen is the Melendi family: Yvonne and Luis and their daughters, Monique and Shannon. Luis and Shannon Melendi are mentioned in the story I’m going to read from. So is Colvin Hinton, whose role will become apparent. This is the top of the article, which appeared in 2006:

To spend time with Colvin Hinton and Luis Melendi is to see humanity stretched to opposite extremes.
     On consecutive days last week, the two men talked about Shannon Melendi, who was 19 when she disappeared from a softball field in DeKalb County in 1994. To one man, she was a beloved daughter and then a reason to campaign for justice. To the other, she was a target and then a witness to be eliminated.
    Hinton sat in a prison conference room in Reidsville in South Georgia and described how he kidnapped, raped and killed the Emory University student — his confession of acts of unspeakable cruelty delivered calmly, almost matter-of-factly. He never said why he did it or gave any hint that he tried to resist the urge to rape and kill.
    The next day, Luis Melendi went about his usual waterside lifestyle in Key Largo, Fla., even as he talked about the grief, anger and resolve that for 12 years have fueled his battle to call Hinton to account for the murder of his daughter. It was not an ending for Luis Melendi. Shannon’s remains probably never can be found, even if Hinton told the truth about how he disposed of them.
    And Melendi’s campaign against Hinton will not end as long as he has any chance of parole from the life sentence he received last year for Shannon’s murder. But it was the last major turning point in a long story of cruelty and courage, and it offered glimpses into one man who could inflict agony and one who could bear it.

I had seen some of that agony. A year before Hinton’s confession — and 11 years after Shannon’s disapperance — Hinton had been found guilty. My colleague Renee Hannans Henry was in the courtroom and took this very different family portrait. [The projected photo showed the family weeping.]

Flashing forward again to 2006, Hinton’s lawyer invited me to the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville to hear Hinton offer his confession to prosecutors. He had lost his appeal and apparently had given up all hope of beating the charge.

My story went on at some length about Hinton’s stomach-turning confession and Luis Melendi’s bitterness. He believed DeKalb County police botched the investigation in 1994 and forced him into his long and financially draining campaign to keep the case alive. This is how the story — the newspaper story, I mean — ended.

Melendi and his wife moved toward financial recovery three years ago, selling their house in Miami and using the profit to pay off debts and buy a smaller home in Key Largo. The home also clearly is part of Melendi’s personal journey toward finding a way to cope with his loss.
    Melendi loves the water. Just off the back porch of his house is his dock and 25-foot sport fishing boat. He invited a visitor for a quick outing into the Florida Bay. Melendi was a rock ‘n’ roll drummer as a young man, and he blasted “My Boyfriend’s Back” over the boat’s speakers from his 1,000-song iPod.
    Then he spotted a fin to starboard. “Oooh, dolphins,” he said.
    He steered toward the fin, cut the engine and slapped the side of the boat to see if the dolphin would come for a closer look. Two fins seemed to circle at a distance but came no closer.
    Melendi soon gave up the effort, turning the boat back toward his life onshore.

Luis Melendi — and his wife and surviving daughter — were far from the only grieving people I met during six years as a crime reporter. I will confess that was the part of the job I dreaded most at first. I’d been a reporter and editor for 25 years, but most of that time had been spent on politics, government and other “bigger” stories. On the crime beat, I worried I would find myself among the media vultures feasting on the grief of others to build ratings, circulation and clicks.

Instead, I found my time with people like Luis Melendi incredibly rewarding. They shared a nobility of the human spirit. And I found that, far from seeing me as a vulture, they appreciated the chance to tell their stories. They could use a reporter, one who remained a human being, as one of many small steps toward finding meaning in their loss — and that’s not too far from finding meaning in their devastated lives.

A reporter who does this with any human honesty cannot help but learn a lot about empathy and the human condition. In recent years, I’ve taught workshops with experienced professionals on interviewing. Probably the best-received advice I’ve given reporters for these emotion-laded interviews is, “It’s okay to be a human being.” It’s interesting how many thought that was against the rules.

But be warned there’s a price to be paid for acknowledging your humanity. Some sad stories get even worse.

[A projected photo showed a woman and a small child.]

Debbie Plunkett was a voice on the phone.
     I never shook her hand or got to know her face.
     Hers was a voice I heard while scribbling notes on my desk calendar — the way I do when I’m in a hurry or I’m not sure the person on the other end of the phone has “a story.”
     Debbie had a story.

You won’t read very many first-person stories in mainstream American newspapers. I fought ferociously — and so did one of my editors — to tell this story in that way because I thought it was important to show how a grief-stricken mother could fight her battle on the margins of society’s awareness — and almost literally on the margins of the desk calendar of a reporter who was a little too busy.

To tell her story quickly, Debbie’s adult daughter, Ashley, had been murdered in June 2005. Debbie was raising Ashley’s infant son. Debbie called me the month after the murder. She felt the authorities weren’t trying very hard because Ashley associated with drug dealers and users. Ashley was mentally ill and possibly an addict. A few weeks later, I wrote a story about the unsolved murder. Six months later, Debbie called, excited, to say an arrest had been made.

Six months after that, the district attorney’s office dropped the charges, saying the evidence was too weak.

Throughout the newspaper story, we reproduced my actual handwritten notes that I’d scribbled here and there while talking to Debbie. For me, the scribbling starkly underscored how words cannot do justice to the meaning of a grieving mother.

Debbie asked me to try to find a magistrate court’s tape recording of a hearing I’d missed where the evidence had been outlined. Months later, I finally got around to trying, but apparently the court recording system didn’t work. The newspaper story picks up there …

I had a week off at Thanksgiving. Before I left work, I called Debbie’s number and left a voice mail to let her know I had looked at the district attorney’s file on Ashley’s case and would keep trying to find a record of the hearing.
     At some point during my vacation, I checked my office voice mail from home. On Tuesday, Nov. 21, a woman I didn’t know named Teddi Rowell left a message. … Rowell was returning my phone call to Debbie:

At this point, we reproduced the piece of note paper where I took down the woman’s words:

“I hate to leave this on your voice mail. Debbie died Sunday.”

An autopsy report said she suffered an accidental overdose of painkillers.

I was unable to arrange an interview with Debbie’s husband. Debbie’s friend made sure he knew I was planning another story, but I had no way of knowing how he felt about Debbie’s crusade. So I ended the story this way:

Debbie was 43 years old. She left behind her husband and two sons, now 19 and 16, and her grandson.
     They knew the real Debbie and will come to terms with her death in their own ways. But the Debbie I knew, the woman in my calendars and notebooks, never surrendered.
     As she told me once: “I’ve had friends tell me, ‘Debbie, give it up. She’s gone. You’re killing yourself.’ But I will not give up.’ “

I’ve talked with some passion about the need for a job I don’t do anymore — in fact my former job doesn’t exist anymore. My newspaper, like almost every large American newspaper, dramatically reduced its staff over the last few years. So this is the part where I am sorely tempted to say we’re back in that handbasket on our way to hell. With fewer journalists and more pressure to pursue a mass audience that no longer exists, too many newspapers — and Web sites — increasingly look like the awful, superficial exploitation that characterizes so much television news.

But … I wouldn’t bother being here if I thought all was lost. I’m optimistic about the next generation of “e-readers” or “tablets” or whatever will make the written, narrative news story again economically viable. Since I began preparing this talk, the iPad has been unveiled, and I’m very excited about it. I think new technology will give the next generation of journalists at least a fighting chance.

Our new friend Mr. Kronman, the author from Yale, says near the end of his book that we’ve gotten too enamored of scientific truth in recent decades. He writes, “Our scientific knowledge of the world is today greater than ever before. But earlier ages knew more about humanity than we do. By comparison with their steady attention to the human condition, and the great works this produced, our attention is fitful and anemic at best.”

I’ll add that journalism is often fitful and anemic, but it COULD give steady attention to the human condition. It COULD enrich both journalists and their audience.

It’s hard to think of a more meaningful calling than that.

David Simpson, Georgia Perimeter College, February 2010

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