Being from this area and have lived and worked in places like Mason, Holt, Lansing, DeWitt and St. Johns during my life, it's amazing my personal life doesn't intersect with news stories more often. But recently it did in a big way and it led to some differences of opinion in the newsroom.
To understand this better you have to know a little about my life before I landed at WILX. When I was growing up, I moved to Florida with my mom in the 4th grade. Every summer my brother and I would come back and spend it with my dad. For years, he was the general manager at Sammy's in Lansing and the owners were like our extended family. My brother and I worked as dishwashers, busboys, cooks, and I was a waiter and bartender eventually too at the Sammy's in Lansing and in Holt. We got to know so many people who both worked and were customers there.
The guy who ran karaoke was a guy named Chuck King of King Productions, one of the best DJ outfits in the area. Somewhere in the mid-90's he took me under his wing and trained me to DJ events-- mainly weddings. So for a few years, I was working almost every Saturday at a wedding. Imagine me as a wedding DJ... yeah... it was a fun time. I got to be very good at it and other than setting up and breaking down the equipment, liked it. I also liked how Chuck operated. A magician by trade, he was a funny guy who was professional in how he ran his business but always had a joke at the ready.
He's not dead, by the way, I'm just talking about the past. He's still funny and is actually now a comedy-hypnotist who works all over the country-- including Las Vegas.
Anywho, I naturally got to know his family well. I knew his wife Elsa from Sammy's and through working for him I met his son Chaz and his daughter Jenna. They couldn't have been more than six and three when we first met. Great kids who grew up to be just like their parents-- loving, fun, respectful. I hoped my kids would one day have the same qualities.
Chuck was also very instrumental in how I got to where I am today. In 1998, he called me to say the Lansing Lugnuts were having tryouts for an emcee job. I jumped at the chance. After my first tryout, I called him to say it went okay. He asked if I did my Harry Caray impression. He seemed very distraught when I told him I didn't. I didn't really have a chance, but when I got a call back for another audition, Chuck ordered me to work it in, because the owner of the team was from Chicago. Well, you can imagine the rest. Before the owner even sat down I was in mid-stammer on the microphone, echoing my best Chicago Cubs broadcast effort throughout the stadium. I got the job and found out later that the Harry Caray impression sealed it.
In 2000, Chuck called again to tell me he just heard that there was about to be an opening in the WILX sports department. He knew I'd been trying to break in at all the sports departments in town, but to no avail. This was the career I wanted to have, so he told me to get my stuff together and give it to Tim Staudt outside after his radio show. You know the rest of this story too-- I got the job.
My DJ days ended shortly after I got the sports job at WILX and Chuck and I saw each other less and less but always talked from time to time. I saw the family less and less too, but it was always big hugs when I would run into Elsa and Peanut (Jenna) and some high-five with Chaz. Recently, Chaz emailed to ask if he could shadow me at the station sometime because he was studying broadcasting at MSU. Chaz, who by now, had accomplished a lot as a Holt wrestler on a state championship team and as a great DJ and magician like his dad, was asking me for help. I thought it was great and told him I would be anxious to help.
In January, three teens were killed on their way home from a party when the driver, alleged to be drunk, crashed into some trees. Since they were from Holt, I paid close attention to the names, but didn't recognize any at first glance. A couple days later, I found out the driver was the son of a customer I used to wait on often at Sammy's in Holt. He's a nice guy so I felt bad when his son was charged.
A few days ago the prosecutor filed more charges in the case. He charged three young men for hosting the party that the teens had attended. One of those young men was Chaz.
Chuck called me the day before his son was arraigned on three felonies and two misdemeanors. I can't talk about what we discussed but I'll say it was unlike any other conversation we'd had. No jokes, no catching up, just my gut-wrenching sympathy for what his family was now going through.
Now I had to read the story on the news. It ran at 6 with just sound from the prosecutor and mugshots of Chaz and his roommates. I made it a point to track down Chaz's lawyer for reaction for the 11. I got it and I felt better being able to convey some of "the other side of the story." During the show I tweeted about all the bad news in the show that night.
"I hate nights w bad news like this. Tax hikes, education cuts, dead babies, good kids arrested. Not fun."
I hesitated before the "good kids arrested" part, but hit "TWEET" anyway. After the show, I got called on it by our executive producer. Jeff Proctor is the EP and also produces the 11, and is probably my best friend. But Jeff is the type of guy that has never let friendship stop him from saying what he thinks is right or wrong. He thought me saying these were good kids was wrong. I disagreed and said I'd known Chaz since he was six so I know he is a good kid. As we raised our voices, I asked if the story I wrote was impartial? He agreed it was not, but he read over it to make sure. Whatever. I wasn't going to let anybody tell me I couldn't stand up for somebody I cared about. But what Jeff said next was hard to argue with.
"What about the other two? Do you know them? It's your job to be impartial. You can't take sides. What if one of the victims family members reads that tweet? What's that tell them? 'I guess the anchor is taking the side of the guy that served my kid alcohol before she went out and got killed.' You can't do that. I don't think I should let you write that story any more."
The last part hit home. As much as I wanted to protect the King family I knew I couldn't. I had to do my job and if the best I can do is present both sides of the story, then that's the best I can do.
Needless to say, I deleted the tweet. Jeff and I made up before he even left the parking lot. It was even his idea for me to blog about the whole dilemma. It's hard, you know, being so intertwined in a community that you have to seem impartial even when you have a vested interest in the story. Many times we may know more about the story than we can report, because it's unconfirmed or people can't go on the record. It's tough for us and even tougher for the people involved watching at home.
I'd say I hope it's a long time before I have to go through it again, but Chaz is back in court next month.