I cry on airplanes. I've done it ever since I started flying. I throw on headphones, click play on music -- anything from Ryan Adams to Neutral Milk Hotel to Patty Griffin -- and I think and I cry; sometimes, I weep.
I have always been someone who manages her emotions. I don't bottle them up so much as I quarantine them until I can deal with them later. Unfortunately for the people sitting near me when I fly, I often deal with them on planes.
There's something about being trapped on this tin can in the sky surrounded by strangers -- you feel both so isolated and so surrounded. No one knows you. No one will judge you for crying into your ginger ale and Biscoff cookies.
Or, if they do, it doesn't matter because you'll likely never see them again.
I sat between two men when I flew home from Boston yesterday who were very uncomfortable with my tears. But, this time, I wasn't crying for myself or because Jeff Mangum was singing about a two-headed boy -- this time I was crying over the life of a man I'd never met.
The man in question is John B. McLemore and he lived in a small Alabama town he referred to as "Shit Town." An Alabama town I have been to as it's not far from Birmingham where I worked for four years as a host/producer for WBHM FM.
John's story was told in seven parts in a podcast called S*Town that you've likely heard of if you are at all internet savvy.
I was hesitant to listen to the podcast at first. I grew up in Appalachia and I lived in Alabama and I am all too familiar with the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about those places in media. The fact S*Town was produced by Serial and This American Life gave me so hope, but I was still wary after listening to the first chapter.
After the second chapter, however, any wariness was gone and I couldn't stop listening.
I'm not going to give you an overview of the podcast because you really should listen to it. I will say that I haven't come across anything so deeply felt in media in a long time. The reporter begins work on the project thinking it's one thing and then the story changes in a profound way. Each time you think you know what the story is about, who John is, something shifts.
There are questions being raised by some about the ethics of the project and, while I understand where they come from, it's clear the reporter approached the story from a place of deep care and concern.
Empathy & Emotion
In the introduction to journalism class I am teaching this semester, my students and I are currently waist deep in a discussion of empathy and emotion. Last week we read and discussed one of my favorite pieces of recent journalism -- The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck -- and explored the ways emotion is used in the piece to make us feel a connection to the people in the story ... including the individual who would be the villain in a less skillfully reported piece.
In S*Town, Brian Reed and his producers manage emotion in a way that feels genuine and human. We care for the people who are in John's life and, as with the Phoebe story, people who seem like villains seem less so when given the space to speak; when treated with care and with respect.
That was the draw, for me, to public broadcasting. I grew up listening to it and, when I was in college and realized it was something I could actually try to get a job in, I ran toward the industry as fast as I could.
The beauty of public media -- particularly programs like This American Life or Radiolab -- is that they provide space for stories to breathe. There's not a feeling of rushing to get to the next story or to get to the point the reporter is trying to make -- instead, the stories most often are meditations on life and relationships. They make us feel, deeply.
What more can you want as a reporter or writer?
That's part of the reason I have been so angry about the proposed federal cuts to Corporation of Public Broadcasting spending. The CPB provides funding to public radio's member stations. It's never a huge amount, but it's significant.
While working at WBHM I was able to report on stories about mental health, addiction, the AIDS epidemic, and homelessness -- all in a way that, I hope, helped the listener see, understand, and empathize with the subject of my story.
Empathy, being able to understand the feelings of another human being, fuels connection. Connection is what we should strive for in all we do. Connection helps us, personally, feel less alone; connection, too, can help us approach difference in more thoughtful way.
To empathize with someone is not to agree with the choices they make, or to even like them; it simply provides a way to understand another person.
In my class last week, I took my students through an exercise where they stare into a partner's eyes and imagine their whole life cycle -- from birth to death to birth again. When I asked the students how they felt, they often pointed to a feeling of vulnerability and discomfort.
"Good journalists," I told them, "are striving for something like that in their stories. Obviously, it can't be as profound as what you felt, but if we can't find a way to make our audiences sometimes feel vulnerable or, at times, uncomfortable, and then leverage that into understanding for someone else, then we aren't really doing our jobs."
Public media does that.
Public media provide spaces for empathy and understanding; vulnerability and discomfort. Programs like This American Life, Frontline, and now S*Town open up the world to the audience, open up ways of being in the world, and ask you to sit there in your vulnerability and discomfort.
Ask you to sit and be and feel.
As I listened to S*Town, there were moments when I cringed. Moments when no one seemed sympathetic and moments where everyone seemed sympathetic. There were moments when I recognized people I knew, people I loved; moments, even, where I recognized something of myself.
That ability to produce empathy, to make an audience feel deeply for a story and its subjects and to connect to them, that's the power of public media.
That's the power of S*Town.
It's something we should celebrate and support; not something we should be defunding.