What a Hurricane Taught Me about Listening and Leadership

Thirty-five years ago, the news director at WJLA-TV in Washington, DC told me I was headed to Virginia with one of our most-seasoned reporters, Jim Clarke, to cover Hurricane Gloria. He was an amazing reporter and a great teacher. He died in 2009. Here’s a brief blurb from the Washington Post.

Jim Clarke, an Emmy award winning reporter at ABC News in Washington for more than 40 years whose coverage included the Iran-Contra hearings and the trial of John Hinckley Jr., died Dec. 20 at his home in Annandale.

Mr. Clarke started in the news business as a copy boy for John Cameron Swayze and joined WJLA in 1962. He retired from there in 2003 as a national affairs reporter.

During his career Mr. Clarke covered nine presidents, and was in Norway when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in Washington.

On his flight back, Mr. Clarke wrote his script on the back of a air-sickness bag.

I don’t remember why the news director chose me. It was an amazing opportunity to not only learn from Jim, but to grow in the news organization.

News coverage has changed tremendously since 1985. Today, citizen journalists can pull out a phone and beam an event live over the internet. Thirty-five years ago, Jim and I would meet our engineer and camera crew in Virginia Beach, where they would have arrived in a CONUS SNG truck. SNG standing for Satellite News Gathering.

The truck was a behemoth.

Picture of vintage satellite truck.

CONUS still exists; the trucks gone. The truck above was housed in the now defunct Newseum.

In essence, CONUS was a news gathering operation consisting of member stations from around the country.

This technological breakthrough allowed local television stations nationwide to provide live coverage from across the U.S., and easily exchange video with others.  These capabilities were at the core of the CONUS News Service that, in addition to expediting live transmissions, provided footage exchanges and coordinated coverage of major news events such as hurricanes and earthquakes, political conventions, and other breaking news of the day.  CONUS had regional news bureaus across the U.S., including a full production bureau in Washington, D.C., which allowed in depth coverage of the White House, Congress and the Pentagon.  CONUS also operated the 24-hour per day “All News Channel” for more than 12 years.  At the end of 2002, CONUS undertook a restructuring that led to a cessation of newsgathering operations, but licensing of the video gathered over those two decades continues today through the CONUS Archive.

http://www.conus.com/AboutConus/tabid/54/Default.aspx

While the truck was a great advancement for live transmissions, it was challenging and costly. In order to transmit a report, the truck had to hit a satellite. And since the satellites were owned by other companies, that meant booking time to either feed video to the newsroom; or, for a reporter to do a live report during a newscast. And I can’t even imagine how much gas these trucks used.

[For those of you who recondition old cars, here’s a story on the refurbishing of the CONUS truck for the Newseum.]

Lots of the little details of the day have long faded. I don’t remember where we met the plane; we had clearly been given time to pack a bag. I suspect we landed at the Virginia Beach airport because we would rendezvous with the CONUS crew in Virginia Beach. I do remember the very eerie calm of going through the eye of the hurricane. I remember being amazed at seeing people on surf boards enjoying the start of the hurricane winds. Having spend my formative years in Upstate New York, I had never been that close to a hurricane.

The first newscast began at 5pm. We had the truck ready. The fury began shortly there after. At one point, when I came out of the truck, the stairs were wet from rain and slippery. I went down; my arm naturally went out to break the fall. I injured my left elbow. At the time, I had no idea how badly I had injured that elbow. I just knew it hurt; but we had work to do.

We wrapped up the early newscasts and that’s where the bigger trouble began.

The rain and wind became ferocious. The news director (I never thought I would forget her name!) told us she expected us to be Annapolis in time for the 11 o’clock newscast. That’s drive to Annapolis, set-up and be ready for air within four hours.

We told her the request was impossible. We’d go to Williamsburg, Virginia. No, she said, she wanted us on the water. And thinking about that request now, I chuckle. What water did she expect to see at 11 pm at night? We argued over the phone; and the final message to me was, as the producer, I had to make sure we would be in Annapolis for the 11 o’clock newscast. The news director was incensed that we had dared challenge her decision.

As a team, we decided to have Jim in the CONUS truck. At least, where ever we ended up, the reporting could get done. We also decided we would be lucky if we could get to Norfolk, Virginia safely. So that’s where we headed.

Not lost on me that night was the fact that the news director–the leader–was sitting in a warm and dry newsroom while we were out in the cold wetness of a hurricane. She would not listen to what we were experiencing on the ground. She had a senior reporter, an engineer, a camera crew and a producer saying: We can’t get to Annapolis, pick another spot, and she refused to listen.

I drove alone in the rental car to Norfolk.

To this day, I still can’t believe I didn’t die that night. I was in pain; the downpour was torrential. I had driven in snow storms, but not sheets of rain. It took seemingly forever to drive the eighteen or so miles to Norfolk.

We all made it. The CONUS truck was fired-up and ready. We met a reporter from Texas who also needed to use the truck that night.

When the satellite time arrived for the Texas reporter, the truck worked beautifully. When it came time for Jim to report, we literally watched the signal fall from the satellite as we sat inside the truck. No matter how hard the engineer tried to remain aimed at the satellite, we couldn’t stay connected. Jim’s report was lost.

By this point, Jim was on the phone with the frustrated 11 o’clock show producer and the angry news director. The decision was made to have us spend the night in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Jim drove to the hotel. I remember very little except that the CONUS truck should have arrived around the same time, but hadn’t. We had no way to contact the truck. We called the station (on a landline) to see if the crew had called from the truck. Nothing. I kept saying to Jim: How could we lose a CONUS truck?

The agony of not knowing was awful. The wait for any information from them, interminable.

To our great relief, the guys finally showed up. I vaguely remember the truck broke down; something about radiator, water. Honestly, by then it was all a haze.

When we got up the next morning, my arm was stiff and swollen. The guys ripped up a bed sheet and made a sling. The news director called; still angry and ordering. She told Jim to take me to an emergency room in Williamsburg. I wanted to go to Georgetown Hospital. She wouldn’t hear of it.

Jim told me if Georgetown was where I wanted to go, that’s where he would take me. True to his word, he dropped me at the ER.

My elbow was broken. The ER patched me up, putting me in a cast.

The next day, I was back at work. The dressing down was awful. I don’t remember the words; I remember the absolute sting of being told how disappointed the news director was that I did not do as I was told. My chance for growth in the newsroom had been squandered. At my follow-up visit with my doctor, he wrote me a note saying I had to be out for two-weeks. He was appalled and said I needed to rest.

But this was the take-away from that profound teachable moment. Leaders should listen. Yes, leaders can have a vision, but given information from subordinates, the vision sometimes has to be amended. Had we obeyed the demands of the news director that night, we might have all perished trying to get to Annapolis.

The flip-side? I was expendable. There were a lot of hungry people wanting into a newsroom in Washington, D.C. They would clearly have my job. Jim, on the other hand, was valuable. The engineer and camera crew people, valuable.

And that brings me to the real reason for this tale.

Right now, too many people in power are not listening to those toiling on the ground during this pandemic. Like the news director, these leaders have visions; they have plans; they want their biddings done. I see this most clearly in education.

The nation is gripped by a pandemic; and this pandemic has many knowns and unknowns. It is the unknowns which can potentially cause serious problems or death.

Everyone wants schools open and operating for so many reasons. Teachers have been told they are essential personnel. They knew what they were getting into when they became teachers. Sorry, but there was no course in my program titled: How to Teach During a Pandemic 101.

But the sternest message, which is clearly not open for discussion, is: School needs to look like school. Period.

Yet on the ground, those responsible for teaching, keeping buildings clean, keeping children safe are crying out to governors, state departments of education, and federal officials about the demand of teaching-as-usual during a pandemic. But the cries continue to fall on deaf ears.

The government responses? Yes, there will still be standardized tests. Yes, children will be sitting in front of screens for long periods unless you open your buildings. Your choice, not our problem. Yes, you will have to spend millions of dollars you don’t have to make this happen. Just get the job done the way we want it done. And in just a few short weeks, we are already witnessing teacher burnout.

There is an absolute refusal to think about what teaching and learning could (maybe should) look like during a pandemic. And the biggest worry–a straw man in my opinion–children will lose intelligence; we will witness academic regression if we don’t do school.

What we’re going to see is a drop in test scores because there is no way teaching and learning can be business as usual right now. Learning is not about content. Learning is about skill development and application of those skills. How much learning have many of us done since March 2020 on topics we knew nothing about in January 2020?

Instead of letting superintendents, who know their districts, make decisions about how teaching and learning should look right now, government officials have essentially shackled them, and their districts, into an old paradigm of school. And there are elbows being broken from the metaphorical twisting of arms.

And I ask, who is expendable in this scenario? It’s not the leaders.

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