For various reasons, I didn’t want to write this. But given recent events, I feel as if I must.
If you cover entertainment and/or pop culture with any regularity, you know the last few weeks have not been easy. Sports and entertainment legends have passed from this life to the next over that time: Nichelle Nichols, Bill Russell, Olivia Newton-John, Pat Carroll; the list, unfortunately, goes on and on.
While their passings have been reported accurately, two others’ stories in particular, originally, were not — the passings of Tony Dow and Anne Heche.
Dow, who played the title character’s older brother on the classic sitcom “Leave it to Beaver”, was admitted into hospice care at a time others erroneously reported his death. Dow actually died a day after entering hospice.
Heche, whose career began on the daytime drama “Another World”, was involved in two car collisions in southern California earlier this month. As her condition worsened, erroneous reports of her passing were moved forward. The actual story: Heche passed away days after being taking off of life support.
Dow’s and Heche’s stories, particularly the latter’s, made me think of a similar story that also was reported inaccurately. I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, a setup is in order. As clearly indicated in the archives of this blog, I was a TV newscast producer. I still recall the day Prince’s health took a sudden turn for the worse. Initially, there were reports he died — but then co-workers and I weren’t so sure.
The executive producer took some initiative — going ahead and editing aerial video of Prince’s home in Minnesota while keeping an eye for official word from NBC, one of the station’s networks of record, for legitimate word the legendary singer had died. The EP also sought any file footage of Prince in concert, in a movie, etc. Finally having the correct information to go on, it was a breaking story just as the second block of the noon news I produced was starting.
That’s a great example of teamwork. Unfortunately, I have to turn the clock back more than a decade earlier to an incident that was anything but teamwork.
One morning, at approximately 8:30, my old TV station was alerted a student was injured in a horrific crash. The student, who I will only identify as Drew in the interest of anonymity, suffered a lot of injuries and was not expected to survive. Drew was on life support for the rest of the day.
The next morning, I, as the morning producer, call the nursing supervisor at the hospital where Drew was admitted. To my surprise, Drew was still among the living — and in critical condition. So, we reworded the story for the morning newscast in an effort to keep the story, with no new development, fresh.
On this morning, we had a substitute anchor, who I will only identify as Chris (it’s tempting to use the backup anchor’s real name and call this person out; I’m resisting such temptation). I told Chris what I had just written in the previous paragraph. “I checked with the hospital. (Drew) is still living.” “That’s amazing — but we sure need to keep an eye on that story,” Chris said. Hard not to agree.
For nearly all of that morning newscast, the station reported the story accurately. Things took a turn for the wrong when Chris was checking e-mail messages in the newsroom during a break. Keep in mind this was at a time before one could check e-mail on a smartphone.
A friend of Chris’s wrote Drew died in the hospital. Chris, unwisely, didn’t bother to check with anyone else for corroboration. Chris didn’t call the hospital or anyone else for that matter. Chris didn’t even give the rest of us a head’s up — only saying with seconds to go in a commercial break there’s a breaking story. Back from the commercial break, in the closing segment, Chris broke the errant news Drew died — alarmingly without any attribution. Then, we signed off to make way for the network morning show.
That’s when the rest of us asked where Chris got this info. “A friend e-mailed me (Drew) didn’t make it,” Chris said. “Did you check with the hospital?” I asked. “Well — no”, Chris responded with an awkward pause.
Next thing you know, we called the hospital. The nursing supervisor still said Drew was in critical condition. Chris started to cry — realizing the backup anchor made a terrible mistake. So, when the network morning show allowed for an extended station break, Drew’s status changed in the top story of our 7:25 a.m. cut-in.
Later that day, Drew did succumb to the injuries sustained in the previous day’s crash. The station spent the rest of the day reporting on Drew’s passing — while apologizing on the air to the family, and the rest of the viewers, for Chris’s dreadful mistake. During the next morning’s local news, I made damn sure Chris read apologies.
Weeks later, Chris was suspended for a week for an unrelated misdeed. Playing fast and loose with the facts on two different stories resulted in Chris’s firing. Months later, Chris, somehow, found work elsewhere here in the American southeast at one particular television station — and then another in the same market. Apparently, Chris has left TV news altogether. For similar infractions? I honestly don’t know. I lost touch with Chris since the ultimate dismissal here. It’s probably just as well.
Back in the here and now, news broke of Nichelle Nichols’ passing during Rock 104 RockTrax, my Sunday radio show. Friends wrote about her on social media — and a few sci-fi blogs were reporting her passing. Even as a recovering journalist, I still wasn’t sure. I knew Nichols was in declining health at the time. So I waited until news broke on the Associated Press wires.
About a minute or two later, the AP indeed broke the news the original “Star Trek” cast member had died. National news outlets (FOX, NBC, ABC, etc.) echoed on their official social media presence. Suddenly, I had the correct story. Next thing you know, I’m breaking the news on the radio Nichols died.
The bottom line here is this. Sometimes it pays to be last on the story and have everything correct in the story — instead of being first on the story and going on the record with a lot of misinformation. Chris learned that lesson the hard way. So did certain people in the media when they reported the deaths of Tony Dow and Anne Heche too soon.