Anton Chekhov once wrote, "Any idiot can face a crisis. It's the day-to-day living that wears you out." But then, Chekhov never appeared on CNN, electronically labeled "Victim's Wife."
Having been in publishing for nearly twenty years, I understood from the start that Bill's excellent adventure made excellent copy. A pleasant outing turns life-threatening in an instant, leading an ordinary man to call on extraordinary resources to perform the miraculous, all for the sake of his family. What's not to like?
But not until I sat on the other side of the cameras, wishing I could be anywhere else in the known universe, thank you very much, did I appreciate how this news business works. Or at least how much it's changed since I took my Intro to Reporting class at Ohio University. Back then we learned to cover the annual spring riot, city council meetings and budgetary finagling in a certain formal, almost ritualized way. We called the sources, they lied to us, we wrote it down, then we called someone else who said it was a lie and we wrote that down, too. But we never got personal, because the kids and the dog at the liar's home had nothing to do with news.
But that was back when cable TV was given only passing mention in Communications Law class as a perplexing future technology. Two decades later, there seems to be an unlimited number of producers, booking assistants and assorted other minions whose sole task is to call anyone caught doing anything out of the ordinary and cajole them into "sharing" with a vast and voracious audience.
Today's definition of "news" has been stretched to include "reality-based programming." Even while Bill was still in the hospital, everyone we talked to assumed a made-for-TV movie was in the works, or that an offer from the National Enquirer would be sending the kids through college. Hey, why not cash in? It almost worked for that other famous Conifer resident, Ken Torp, of the ill-fated Aspen ski trip.
But we never seriously considered making Bill's story a cottage industry, because this is real life, a real life that has been really derailed, and it's taken a lot of effort to get it back on track. As long as you're telling the same story of what it was like being trapped under that rock, some part of you is still trapped under that rock. And by my calculations, we have another forty years or so of day-to-day living ahead of us, so we'd better get on with it. Besides, I'm sure Martin Mull and Rhea Perlman, the only actors who could possibly do us justice, have more pressing commitments.
So should you ever find yourself in a newsworthy situation, I can't offer any advice on cutting a deal with agents. I can, however, provide a few simple rules to follow if you want to maintain a modicum of control--at least in public:
Just Say No: The First Amendment is a wonderful thing, but nowhere does it say you have to let photographers into your hospital room if you don't want them there. The sun will continue to rise in the east if a statement from the Victim's Wife is not obtained before the story moves on the AP wire. If you hear one of your closest acquaintances typing during a sympathy call, hang up. Just keep asking yourself, "Whose crisis is this, anyway?"
Keep Family Photos Organized and Up to Date: Bill's mother couldn't understand why the TV didn't have a better picture of her son than his driver's license shot--until I showed her the best one I could find on short notice, taken as he was carving the leg off the Thanksgiving turkey. In context, it made the DMV photo look like a Richard Avedon portrait.
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Don't Be the Next Amelia Earhart: If you ever want to be a private person, you'll have to go public. Otherwise, speculation rushes in to fill the information vacuum. With this in mind, the hospital arranged a press conference the day after Bill's surgery, at which I had the starring role. A week later I was reduced to a supporting player when Bill finally issued his own--and only--statements. He'd agreed to appear at this second press conference only after a Rocky Mountain News story suggested that he hadn't actually been trapped under a rock but had simply caught his leg in a crevice. It's important to keep the record straight from the start, because once inaccuracies enter the popular retelling, there's no reclaiming them. Besides, once everyone has heard your side of it, they'll be ready to move on to the next story.
Don't Open Any Doors You Can't Close: The middle of a personal crisis is not the time to debate health-care reform or the sorry state of the American media (you can do that later). Stick to the facts: They're safer. My one moment of panic during the first press conference came when someone asked if Bill was a deeply religious person. That one's more dangerous than a Bosnian minefield. If you say yes, then the discussion goes down the divine-intervention path, with the obligatory public-service announcement for the congregation of your choice. If you say no, you move into the how-can-you-deny-divine-intervention realm. If you simply admit that you are unchurched yet in awe of all that has transpired, you can move on to the really important questions, such as: Was Bill influenced by the guy in Pennsylvania who did the same thing?
There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Speaking of Donald Wayman, the fellow who last summer cut off his leg after a tree fell on it, he's obviously taken the opposite approach, appearing on talk shows and giving interviews to all comers. That's one way to bring national attention to the various obstacles faced by amputees, as well as to deliver a message of courage and hope in the face of adversity. It's a good thing. But when you try to contact him, as Bill did after Wayman contacted him at the hospital, you reach the PR director for a prosthetics manufacturer/rehab clinic. When you finally do get through to the family, you can hear the exhaustion in Mrs. Wayman's voice. And when a TV tabloid needs an uplifting holiday filler, you get a call asking once again (KOA had the same idea) if the rest of the nation can listen in on a phone call between the two men who sacrificed limb for life.
Learn to Say Thank You Graciously: To their everlasting credit, the Denver media has been very understanding of our privacy. But once the initial splash was made, the ripples seemed to go out forever. We've received letters and cards from people everywhere: from the lady in Illinois who was hurt in the same area last summer; from the guy in Manitou Springs who sent Bill a fishing fly; from the elementary school class in Louisiana that happened to be studying heroes; from my high school drama coach. You won't be able to thank them all at once, or, in my severely depressed case, even in a timely manner. And when your hairdresser assures you she would have been available before the press conference if you'd only called, just smile and say, "Thanks.