Leaving the news

A news editor is moving on, but his nerves may not be

A couple of weeks ago my phone rang—12:25 a.m. The assignment editor, Molly Hunter, was on the line. “This Benghazi thing may be a lot worse than we’d thought,” she said. “We’re wondering about moving a team there.”

We spoke long enough to get the mind whirring: What were the options? How grave the danger—to the Americans there, and to reporters who might head that way? What about Libyan visas?

A few hours later, just before five in the morning, Molly called again. “So sorry, Tom. But thought you needed to know. The ambassador’s been killed. We’re preparing a special report.”

I took a shower, whispered goodbye to my wife, and headed for West 66th Street, my desk in the ABC News newsroom. It was a big story, to be sure, another globe-turning event. And these things have an effect on reporters and editors, on all of us who carry the news gene. Others might hear the news and wonder, ask questions, perhaps worry about the consequences. For us it is different: We carry the synaptic wiring that produces the adrenalin, that zero-to-sixty firing of questions and plans when a bulletin hits.

And for me, there was a wrinkle: This story—and all these middle-of-the-night calls—would in all likelihood be my last.

I was leaving journalism after 28 years. It seems strange even to write that sentence, but there it is. Leaving the news. I am headed for the Asia Society, just across town but a world away. Whatever challenges await, one thing is clear: I shouldn’t worry much more about news—at least not in the manic, adrenalin-filled way I have worried about the news for all these years. Put differently, those synapses ought to stop firing.

Somehow though, I don’t think it will be easy. Just a week before the current Arab fury began, I had spasms of angst on other fronts: Why aren’t we at the refugee camp in Jordan? I wondered, reading a print reporter’s account from there. Just because the Democrats and the GOP didn’t touch foreign policy at the conventions shouldn’t mean we don’t either. Then there was the bulletin from Southeast Asia: 7.9 quake off the Philippines—tsunami alert issued. Do we need to go to Manila? Somewhere else? Who would go? Even now, though I’m technically a “former journalist,” news that bombs have gone off at a Damascus military compound set off that spark. What am I doing about it?

So it has gone. Coups, crises, global figures in frail health. Nelson Mandela in the hospital; Fidel Castro not seen in months; the Pope looked poorly, coming down those steps… Are we ready?

My wonderful, tolerant wife has observed this sort of reaction since we were in Russia together two decades ago. Back then I was sent racing from Moscow—not just to other parts of Russia, but to western Europe, the Middle East, and even, on one occasion, to Somalia. When I was overseas it was always like this. My colleague Terry Wrong (now the producer of the ABC News series, N.Y. Med) advised me, on my arrival in Europe in early 1990, to look at the Herald Tribune each day and imagine that I might be sent to any of the paper’s front-page datelines at a moment’s notice. “You’ve got to be prepared for everything,” he said. Terry wasn’t far off. In those days a page one story—or more likely a wire-service bulletin—meant you had to be on the next flight.

Later, working on World News Tonight, with Peter Jennings, we boarded flights only for the really major stories, but the adrenalin pumped anyway; an earthquake or revolution, assassination or suicide attack—whatever it was, you couldn’t just read or listen to the story; you had to do something.

I remember a quiet Saturday in New York, friends over for dinner, and the phone ringing. Yitzhak Rabin had been shot at a rally in Tel Aviv. “So sorry, Anne…” A few hours later we were on the El Al flight to Tel Aviv, jammed with mourning Jews and anxious journalists. Some 15 years later, a 1:00 am call: A normally placid night desk editor frantic on the line: It’s a huge quake, Tom… The news nerves went haywire. In an hour we were in the office, many of us, and we would just about live there, for some time, as the waves struck and the nuclear plants burned on the Japanese coastline.

Times have changed, of course, and the news and the ways we cover it are dramatically different, but the adrenalin remains.

I can remember so well the pang of angst I used to feel each morning with the thud of the newspaper hitting the front door, worried always that I might have missed something that had turned up on The New York Times front page. “Where are we with this?” Peter Jennings would ask, and woe unto me if I didn’t have either an account of what we were doing, or a convincing case that the story wasn’t worth our pursuit.

Today very little in the Times or other morning delivery surprises, not because it isn’t compelling or important, but because we have likely read or heard about most of the stories by the time the physical paper hits the stoop. Now it’s that middle-of-the-night call or the beep of the Blackberry.

Now, my news job is ending. The news, of course, is not. Will a new life, a non-journalistic life, slow the adrenalin flow? As I said, I am not so sure. The effect of all this, over the years, is to make it virtually impossible to listen to the news without that reflex kicking in. A huge newspaper takeout about elephant poaching in the Congo—didn’t we talk about doing that? What about the miners in South Africa? And why haven’t we gotten visas for Syria?

I really don’t consider myself a neurotic person, but all this time spent chasing news rewires the nervous system. It will be interesting, I think, to see how that system responds, if for example, the Assad regime falls. Or Israel strikes Iran. Obviously such globe-altering events will always move any of us who care about the world; but will they still carry that extra jolt, that need to do something that I so often felt, over the last 28 years?

I cannot say. I know my wife and children hope they won’t.

Related stories:

What a Year! A foreign editor looks back in wonder at 2011

An Appreciation of Peter Jennings, One Year Later

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Thomas Nagorski is executive vice president of the Asia Society. Tags: , ,