Through the looking glass of news coverage
When a great white shark latched on to my father’s left leg off the Cape Cod coast, catapulting him, dead or alive, into the public sphere, I was working in a newsroom.
So were peers who soon learned his name and profession, filled my inbox and left messages and notes. Within hours, he became sound bites, a few sentences and a collection of kind quotes in newspapers, including my own.
The shark ripped into the back of his thigh and came perilously close to arteries and bone. We still don’t know how much muscle was lost to creature and how much to cleaning the gaping wound. If not for quick thinking and a beach — to our luck — stocked with nursing students and a doctor or two, my father would be dead.
He also punched the beast, which deserves mention.
I heard about the attack just after it had happened Aug. 15 from my stepmother, but didn’t believe her. In journalism school they teach you, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
I Googled “shark attack,” and soon saw him carted to-and-from an ambulance in Truro, Mass. I canceled a meeting, jumped in my car and drove to get my fiance, Claire. We hit the road for Massachusetts.
On the drive, Claire, who soon took charge of my young sisters on arrival in Cape Cod, said I was allowed to cry but must refrain from negative thoughts.
I attempted to stick to her stern Lutheran code, but sobbed and was plenty gloomy. I blathered incoherent strings about how I pushed him off the phone last we spoke — I was busy doing laundry — and privately pondered if I’d have to write his obituary and how I would.
He has a career I struggle to explain in lay speak, which is all I know (it involves computers, brains and medicine) and he speaks a handful of languages. He’s plenty credentialed — too much schooling, he’ll tell you — and he is a licensed pilot. There is a bad obituary cliche: everyone is a Renaissance Man. What would I call him if not that? A man of varied habits who happened to die a gruesome death in public?
When I arrived at Tufts Medical Center near 3 a.m., about 11 hours after he made the trip in a helicopter, he was intubated and strung together on a dozen tubes like a moribund marionette. The nurse was kind. His blood pressure was low, she said, and that was a concern. It would take days before he was back in one piece and speaking.
Doctors and surgeons, wise not to give false hope, would not say if he’d survive or walk again. I would have asked him, he is a doctor after all, but he was fast asleep on a concoction of opioids. One killed Prince, the other, Michael Jackson. If not for the massive bite, I’m sure it was the best sleep he has ever had.
Doctors at one point gathered around my stepmother and I and asked if we’d been reached by the press. They said they would decline comment when reached and my stepmother asked them to tell reporters we sought privacy if his name came out.
I held my tongue. Journalists, especially young ones like me, are often quick to spout about their careers and yeoman’s work for little pay. I’ll gladly write that essay next. Please clap.
I finally, awkwardly, confessed to the doctors that I was one of them. I told my stepmother that it would only be a matter of hours before his name was out. It happened in a public place, I told her, and it’s newsworthy.
I was right.
Around noon Aug. 16, as I drove back to Cape Cod from Boston to see Claire and my sisters, I heard his name on the radio — mispronounced as it always is (it’s spoken Lit-ton, not Lie-ton).
I know just enough about this craft to know that families get dragged into these stories whether they like it or not. It often hurts to read about a loved one unless it’s a fluff piece or the subject is used to it — i.e. in public life.
There is a “minimize harm” clause in my profession’s code of ethics. Those still caring for my father — now at a rehabilitation hospital — function under a different oath, the Hippocratic one, “Do no harm.”
We know some harm comes from journalism, but still, the public needs to know. Did the public need to know about my father? I think so, but I’m conflicted now that I have been on the other end. Back at work this week, I struggled to make calls for an obituary. I was relieved when the listed numbers didn’t work.
Soon after his name was out, news vans were blocking the tight dead-end I grew up on, and calls and emails started flooding in. Paranoid, I took my sisters’ cell phones: They just got them back this week.
The girls and I were lucky to be away from the house, still staying where they spend the summer while my father works with fellow researchers in Cape Cod.
What if we were home? Be them: You are not yet a teenager, your dad could be dead, and here are a slew of people with big cameras and cheap suits blocking your street. They want to talk to you. Sounds harmful.
Remember, as the vans gather, the print rolls and websites refresh, my father is in and out of the operating room. He would get six to eight surgeries in all. He still has a few more.
Covering a fatal plane crash in New Milford, Conn., I was once called a “vulture.” I responded that I was just doing my job. I now dwell on my job’s scavenging.
Do rules for rooting out the business done in smoky back rooms apply to hospital rooms? Are we vultures?
I was later told by a close friend of the dead man that my story was a lovely tribute. Does that make my rapacious stint on the field where he died OK?
When my father woke, days after the attack, groggy, and, thanks to intubation, speaking like Vito Corleone if the Don smoked double his daily intake, I asked if there was anything I could do for him.
He reverted to the conversation we had before the shark. The one where I pushed him off the phone.
It was about a book he had just sent me, “The 2-Hour Job Search.” He is worried about the future of journalism. I am, too.
“Get a new job,” he wheezed. He cracked a smile.
I gave it some thought that night and in the weeks since.
Even with my newfound misgivings and conflicted feelings, I don’t think I will.
Sorry, Dad. Get well soon.
Barry Lytton is a staff reporter covering land use and development for the Stamford Advocate.