Tuesday, June 12

A Lesson from Josh

Bear with me. As I write this, my dear friend Simon should be on the way to the airport to reunite with the love of his life after many years apart.

OK, Simon being Simon, many loves--and what seems like many lifetimes.

Still, he says, this woman has been in his mind and in his heart for many years. Recently widowed, she's coming from California to see Simon.

I was with him last week, and his mind was racing: if this happens, then maybe that will happen, and if she does this I could do that, or maybe the other, and I could say this and maybe she would say that, and what if something else happens, could I do another thing???????

Now, who am I to give advice about anyone's love life? But I had to say it—stop projecting—stop over-thinking—just react—be there in the moment—stop eating the menu—stop steering with the rear-view mirror.

Right now you're saying, "Eating the menu?" Sure. We go to a restaurant and we see one of our favorite dishes on the menu and start to remember how it tastes. Pretty soon we've conjured up a dandy image of the perfect meal. When it arrives at the table, we're too busy thinking about how it was in the past to taste it in the present.

"Steering with the rear view mirror?" Uh-huh. We can't possibly know with 100% certainty how any situation is going to turn out. So we try to predict by looking at what's happened in similar cases in the past. We drive full-speed ahead looking at what was and trying to predict what will be.

I told Simon to reject his preconceptions.

And that got me to thinking about Josh Littman.

Josh and I worked together 30+ years ago at WISH-TV in Indianapolis. Seems I learned a lot of useful things at WISH. Josh taught me, "Reject your preconceptions."

I've got to admit it. To my shame, I didn't think much of Josh when I first met him. He didn't look like much and he didn't sound like much. I guess I was in my "Reporters should look like movie stars and sound like studs" days (which I outgrew by the time I got to WABC). That's the first preconception I needed to get past. Josh helped kick it right out of me!

Once I started working with him I saw that he was all energy and enthusiasm and very, very sharp. He could throw himself into any story at break-neck speed and make it better. I've said over the years that I don't care about the reporter covering the plane crash: it's already a "10." I can send the station janitor (I mean, maintenance professional) out to cover a plane crash and it will come back a "10" every time. No, what I'm after are reporters who can turn "3s" into "6s" and "7s" into "10s." Enter, Josh Littman.

I was riding the assignment desk one day and sent Josh out to cover the annual home and garden show. He came back a couple of hours later, marched up to the desk, and said, "I’m here to apologize."

"What for?"

"I got a story, but it's not a very good one."

"Well, Jeez, Josh, I mean it was just the home and garden show."

And then he said something that took my breath away: "No, you don't understand. Over the next six days 100,000 people are going to go to the home and garden show. They're going because there's something there that fascinates them, or excites them, or something they're dying to learn. I couldn't get a handle on it, and I came to tell you I'm sorry."

Wow! Josh was teaching me that for a true reporter every story is a fresh story, and has a fresh angle.

In newspapers, reporters take a lot of their credibility from the masthead. Work for the Louisville Courier, you've got good cred--that's a good paper. Work for the New York Times, you've got all the credibility in the world. But in television news that's your face up there, and the folks at home will learn to respect you, to trust you, to like you. So DON'T EVER CHEAT THE AUDIENCE. Go for it all the time!!! I have this mental image that every night at 6:00 all over Indianapolis “Joe” was leaning forward in his chair and saying, “Mary, that Josh guy is on: better come here and see what he’s up to.” I know I felt that way.

Sadly, Josh Littman is no longer with us. Sometime after I left WISH, he did too—for WJBK in Detroit. There he learned he had leukemia. He spent the last months of his life making a documentary "Castles in the Sand" about his fight, his losing fight. I've never seen it. I'm torn between wanting to see Josh's last work and being afraid to. He taught me an important lesson about how to look at life, and I'm told he faced death rejecting his preconceptions.

Ironically, in my next job as News Director for WEEK-TV in Peoria, I won a reporting award--almost by accident--by thinking like Josh Littman.Channel 25 had a small staff in those days--fewer than 15 full-timers. One afternoon a small handful of us in the newsroom heard the scanners go off: report of a disaster at the local power plant, mass casualties being rushed to a local hospital.

In the newsroom: the 6PM producer, one reporter, two photographers, and me. The reporter and one photographer headed to the power plant, and I took the other photog. and raced to the hospital. Along the way we found out more. This was a coal-fired plant. Know what fly ash is? It's the incredibly fine residue left by burning coal. Something like 20 workers were digging a "fly ash receive pit" to bury thousands of cubic yards of the stuff when the flue carrying it overhead gave way and buried them.

Imagine: instantly blinded—coughing, gagging, drowning in gray ash—trying to "swim" out of the pit. Two men didn't make it. The rest were dragged to "shore," put on respirators and rushed to the hospital. My shooter and I beat the ambulances to the hospital. There we found 25 nurses, 25 oxygen tanks, 25 gurneys, and every doctor in the place waiting in the ER parking bay. When the ambulances pulled in teams of doctors and nurses went to work on the ash-covered survivors—and saved them all. And my photographer and I shot it all.

As the situation stabilized I went to the hospital head-man and told him how impressed I was with the response. He told me the facility had mock disaster drills all the time. When I asked when the last one was, he said "Two weeks ago."

"What was your scenario for the drill?" I asked.

"A disaster at the power plant."

And suddenly my story—a good story—turned into an excellent story. And I, years removed from holding a microphone, won a reporting award.

Thanks, Josh.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. For a young broadcast journalist, a little experience is a dangerous thing. You go to your 30th city council meeting, or your 40th fire, or your 10th murder, or your 5th haz-mat spill and you say to yourself, “I know how to cover this.”

Yeah. Everybody knows how to cover it. And that’s why everyone’s story looks exactly the same. I don’t give a damn for people who trot out the “Think Outside the Box” cliché. Tellwiddum. Treat every story as a new experience, a great chance to learn something new and share it with your audience. Be excited and involved in your stories. Reject your preconceptions.

I can’t guarantee you (or Simon) true love: only that you’ll be a better journalist.


Anonymous said...

I was just telling a producer Monday morning that anyone can produce a good show on a busy news day. It's the slow days that seperate the pros from the amateurs, so the paragraph about the plane crash brought a smile to my face.

By the way, you hired me nine years ago this week.

Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Herrrr Professsssor!

Thanks for the mention and the wish that I find "true love". The only place you can get that commodity is by an inner search and discover mission that takes you to the only place "true love" exists, in the heart of the seeker--not outside in this world of duality.

Having discovered that commodity, through the 1st Commandment(the only one Jesus acknowledged) to "Love God with your whole heart and soul and might", the outcome of my re-uniting with my CA gal was pre-ordained that we would have a fairy tale romance and then go our separate ways.

The only hope for our romance to continue is that our separate ways lead us to the same place. Internally, it already has. Externally, it's one day dream at a time. And all that is already written.

I struggle with the way it is like everyone else--rich man, poor man, beggerman, theif--but the program I practice of pure forgiveness promoted by "A Course in Miracles" assures me of peace and joy no matter what happens, whatever is is at the moment. And it will change.

Love, Simon

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you. I was looking for the name of Josh's documentary. I saw it on WFYI many years ago and was reminded of it yet again because of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the death of Steve Goodman ("City of New Orleans", "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request" and other folk songs) and the death just a few hours ago of Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, one of my favorite groups growing up.

I knew Josh. We went to Butler together. We had a couple classes together, and had some great debates because of some socio-political differences... but Josh was a wonder. I truly enjoyed knowing him, and am glad to see that I am not the only person in his life he touched.

There's a line from a funny, cheesy space weestern "Battle Beyond the Stars" where they quote lines from the "Varda", kind of their Bible... and one of them says "No life has ended until every life it has touched is ended." Josh lives on. Thanks. Holly Stowe

S said...
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Chris Benjamin said...

Twenty four years ago, I was called into a meeting along with a cameraman and was asked if I would participate in what would become one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Josh Littman, who I had a passing acquaintance with when we both worked in Indianapolis (at different stations), had just learned he had leukemia--and it was not a type that could easily be cured. Josh had hand-picked me to write and produce the story of his battle against the disease. At that meeting, he told me and the cameraman (who WAS a close friend of Josh) he knew there would be a time when he would not want us to be around. But, he said, we should ignore that wish and press on for the end of the story--just as he would do with any event he was asked to cover.
I learned so much from my nine months with Josh, it's impossible to put it all into words...and I'm supposed to be a writer. The lesson of confronting a disease head-on without looking back came fully into play when I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000 and had to have one of my lungs removed.
He definitely touched a lot of lives--and the legacy he left, the documentary "Castles In The Sand," shows a man who wanted us all to know we should not fear death - but embrace life until the end.
Thanks Josh.