Why I Do What I Do.
For some — maybe the lucky ones — knowing what it is you want to do during your time on earth comes easy and early. For others, it is realized only when time remaining on the clock and circumstances suggest there is no other path.
When I was growing up I had many ideas about what I wanted to do once I finished school and entered the adult world. What I remember most is wanting to be a firefighter, a police officer, and for a sustained period of time; the best bag boy at the local supermarket. With regard to the first two, firefighter or police officer, it wasn’t about the guns, the flashing lights, or the red trucks. It was about being where the action is. In a small suburban town in Connecticut, where not much happens, it seemed a fair assumption that wherever the police or fire department had been dispatched would be the center of the action.
I wanted to be in the Coast Guard for a time for the same reason, but my brother, who was in the Navy, convinced me you had to be at least six feet tall to be in the Coast Guard so you could wade to shore if your boat sank. This was a joke sailors told about Coast Guardsmen, but at the time I took it literally and changed my career plans.
I drifted through high school, not coming anywhere near my true academic potential and having no idea what to do after graduation. My chemistry teacher, exasperated with my poor performance and seeing nothing but a life without chemistry before me asked what I planned to do, “join the Army?” It was clear by the expression on his face that enlisting was my only hope and in his mind a recognition of my failure not my patriotism.
It was during a circular discussion with my high school guidance counselor that she, similarly exasperated, suggested I become a journalist. Instantly, the idea made sense. Yes, being a news reporter would put me where the action is. Every day would be different. I could see the world, and if I was any good I could one day anchor the CBS Evening News.
I signed up. I got my four year degree. And I began several decades of asking who, what, when, where and why.
Off and on that was the path I followed. There was a major diversion into the fields of public relations and politics, but at the core I was a journalist in my own mind. The first journalist on the scene in fact, because in politics and public relations you usually know the news before everyone else.
The extent to which I am a journalist at heart hit me only recently, in October of this year. It was the weekend I drove to Boston to cover a day of campaigning in the city’s mayoral race.
There I was at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning waiting in an old union hall for one of the candidates to arrive. Standing separate and apart from the participants in the meeting and being eyed with suspicion because of the size of my camera. It suddenly dawned on me that forty years after I started I was still doing the same thing. While others my age were out playing golf, spending time with family, or going to church, I felt compelled that morning to drive two hours to Boston to see the race for mayor myself. As if no one else could do it the way I could. I needed to be at the scene of the story. In that moment of self-reflection I said to myself, “I guess this is who I am.”
This is how I often feel. It is what drives me. If I know something is happening somewhere, and I can get there, I need to go. It’s what drove a recent journey around the world and it’s what drove a trip across the United States last winter to find my version of America in transition.
Years back, when I was working as a press secretary for the governor of Connecticut, I came across a former colleague who was still out there covering the news. I was impressed that he was still doing the work on a daily basis when so many our age had gone on to something else. Journalism tends to be a younger person’s profession. I asked how he could still do it everyday. He said, “At a certain point in time it just becomes who you are and that’s what you do.”
I remember the old adage that a professional works for money and an amateur works for love of the work. Put another way; if you are in a job that you would do even if they weren’t paying you, then you have probably found a job you love.
A friend of mine recently commented on one of my essays and in thanking her I added, I don’t know why I keep writing. I have no plan. I’m not trying to accomplish anything specific. I just keep doing it. She answered, “Creators need to create.”
And so it appears to be with me and journalism. I do it for me. I get interested in a story or an event and I have to see for myself. I write the stories and take the pictures and I make the videos not because someone is paying me, but because I have to. To know something big is happening somewhere and to consider not being there in person, to me, feels like giving up on life. I am not prepared to do that.
I am clearly not alone. The internet has given many the ability to be their own publishers. Some use their platforms to merely shout from the rooftops, others to tell stories, share films, photos, thoughtful opinions, or journalism rooted in the traditions of newspaper reporting. On the trail, I have met many of them. Citizen journalists who are difficult for their subjects to categorize.
One of my high school history teachers, and her husband, were amateur journalists back in the 1970s. During the summer of 1973, they slid a camper into the back of their yellow Chevy pick up and drove to Washington, D.C. to cover the Watergate hearings. They parked their camper in the lot in front of the Capitol — something they could never do today — and covered the hearings all summer long. I don’t remember if any of their reporting was actually published, but I’m not sure it mattered to them. They had a front row seat to one of the biggest stories of their time.
At the time I didn’t know what to think about it. I did find it a little strange, but then again, that same summer I had set up a faux network news desk in my living room and was anchoring daily updates at the conclusion of each day’s hearings and taping them on our family’s Sears reel to reel tape recorder. So who am I to judge.
You can draw a straight line in my life’s story from the summer of 1973 and my daily coverage of the Watergate hearings to that Sunday morning last October when I spent a day driving the streets of Boston, tracking down candidates Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George. I guess whatever passion was sparked inside me in high school has stayed with me all these years. My standards have changed, my goals have changed, my perspective has changed.
I hope I am finding a way to look at current events through the lens of someone who has seen and experienced life. I am no longer that young reporter restrained by the reach for clinical objectivity. I now know that is a wasted effort and that my biggest contribution, if I can make one, is to take in the world as I see it and share my perspective without concern for the reaction. And I am comfortable with that. Whether it is a dusty union hall in Boston, a boxing gym in Hartford, the wide open spaces of west Texas, or exploring the streets of a foreign capital, this is where I am supposed to be.