Walking the Newsbeat
A journalist finds more to life than news.
I sat in my office overlooking the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink and was overcome with a mixture of anxiety and relief. Anxiety, because I had made the decision to leave my job at NBC News without any other prospects in sight; relief, in that the daily grind chronicling the latest devastation had reached its end.
It was the culmination of 11 years chasing leads showcasing the worst of humanity: the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide; Washington, D.C., sniper shootings; JonBenét Ramsey murder; September 11; and stories labeled “nature’s wrath,” such as Hurricane Katrina.
I was at the pinnacle of my career, doing what I’d worked hard to achieve. Just a year before I had received companywide recognition along with a monetary reward for my efforts. Now I looked back on my life and work, and the events that had brought me to the point of leaving my job.
For years I was a news junkie and fed my addiction every waking moment. When I wasn’t on the road pursuing stories, my schedule looked like this: The minute I opened my eyes each morning I turned on the radio and listened to NPR. I got out of bed and walked to the door to get the New York Times. While eating breakfast I read the paper. As I got ready for work I listened to the radio. I got on the train and was lost in Time magazine. At my desk the Associated Press newswires provided almost constant news updates. Back at home I was glued to the TV watching more news.
As I look back I can see that I fell into this cycle while still a young girl growing up on the island of Jamaica during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember listening to my aunt, the host of a local radio program, discussing the upheavals of the day. I was mesmerized as she deftly handled caller after caller, dispensing suggested solutions to such nagging problems as high unemployment, chronic poverty, and political unrest. At home my parents, armed with a copy of the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner, debated the country’s economic plight. I came to realize the value of news, of being informed, and how current events had a direct bearing on my life. “Knowledge is power,” my parents would often say.
By the time I migrated to Brooklyn, New York, to attend college, the proverbial news bug had bitten me. I majored in journalism at Brooklyn College and pursued further studies at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Then a month before graduating from Columbia, NBC News hired me for their prestigious News Associates program. I was elated! Life can’t get any better than this, I thought. Here I would work alongside the very people I watched and idolized: Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, Jane Pauley, Stone Phillips, Ann Curry.
As I walked down the hallowed halls of NBC News—smiling photos of my idols lining the walls—I was ready to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted,” as journalists like to say. In college I had learned that in 1973 Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward exposed corruption in the Nixon administration, and I too wanted to “do good” and “right the wrongs” of the world. I believed that journalists play a critical role in society—a belief I still cling to today. We need to know what’s going on around us; it helps us to be better citizens, better consumers. Journalism taught me that the most important thing people want to know is whether their world is safe, and journalists help provide that answer, along with checks and balances. It’s a noble profession, and I felt proud to be part of it.
After September 11
Shortly after September 11, however, I began wondering whether this was all there was to life.
During this time at NBC News I would often do freelance writing for various publications, including the New York Daily News and Heart and Soul magazine. I collaborated with a photographer for my stories and was intrigued by his demeanor. He was humble. He never boasted about his skills. He never cursed. He was very different from others I had met, and I soon came to realize why. He was a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, a denomination of which until then I was ignorant.
When he invited me to his church that worshipped on Saturdays, I was immediately suspicious. Raised as an Anglican, I thought everyone went to church on Sundays. There’s something wrong with these Adventists, I surmised. Yet, when I declined his invitation, he didn’t try to force me to change my mind. He was respectful and kind. He also did what I then considered to be even stranger—he would often pray with me.
As time went on, after I had worked about eight years as a full-time journalist, I began to feel a deep void in my life. I was filled with questions regarding my true purpose in the world, and for the first time I began wondering about God’s intent for me. Yes, I was doing what I had always wanted to do, but I didn’t feel that I was influencing people’s lives as much as I had hoped.
These feelings of dissatisfaction occurred about the same time that I was assigned the Washington, D.C., sniper story. I traveled to Jamaica and spent months researching the background of the young man Lee Boyd Malvo, who was later convicted along with John Muhammad for killing 10 people in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area in 2002. This story would affect me more than any other and change my outlook forever.
In conversations with me, Lee’s mother, Una James, recounted her early dreams and aspirations for her one-and-only child. She said that when her son was very young she suspected his father of infidelity, so she took the child and left the city to live in a rural area close to her family. She wanted to prevent the father’s involvement in their lives. Lee would later tell a psychiatrist that he missed his father greatly. He also said that it seemed as if his mother took out her rage on him by physical abuse.
Una had grown up among Adventists. Many of her relatives are members of the church, but she herself suffered disappointment. She recounted a story to me about how the church had allegedly wronged her mother, and so she felt she couldn’t trust “church people.”
Una decided to take matters into her own hands and raise her son the best she could. She cared deeply for him and wanted nothing short of the best. Opportunities were limited in Jamaica, especially for someone who hadn’t finished high school and had few skills. So when Lee was 8, she started visiting other Caribbean islands in search of work. Whenever she was gone, Lee would stay with relatives or sometimes with relative strangers. At one point, while living with one of his teachers, Lee began to bond with his teacher’s father. He even began calling him “Dad.”
Then, in Antigua, Una crossed paths with a father on the run, John Muhammad. Muhammad was afraid he was going to lose custody of his three young children, so he had fled the United States with his children in tow and was hiding out in Antigua.
Una learned that for a price, Muhammad could obtain false documents that would allow her to live in the U.S. This had been her lifelong goal. Una told me that when she first met John Muhammad, she felt she was in the presence of evil. This didn’t deter her, however, from buying false documents and a ticket to the United States from Muhammad, or from making the deadly mistake of leaving her son with him.
The plan was for Lee to eventually join his mom in Florida, but he began to bond with Muhammad. He would later tell his psychiatrist that he admired the way Muhammad dealt with his own children and that he longed for that kind of father-figure relationship. Soon Lee was calling him “Dad.”
By time time Muhammad brought Lee to the United States to be reunited with his mother, Lee had attended 14 elementary and high schools and had lived with numerous people. He now chose to stay with Muhammad rather than live with his mother.
Lee, now 16, was under the firm control of someone his mom deemed evil. For the next year Lee was in intense physical training, tied up in the woods for hours wearing only shorts and learning to go without food and water. Lee also converted to Muhammad’s brand of religion, in which the federal government was considered the enemy of Black people. Lee would later say, “I was desperate to fill a void in my life, and I was ready to give my life for [Muhammad].”
Lee’s story touched a nerve in me. I was angry that this young man, who had great potential, had been duped and would pay a heavy penalty for his crime. Why, I wondered, couldn’t he have been helped before the terrible tragedy occurred?
I began asking God to show me how to help the people with whom I came in contact. I didn’t want to cover another story like this one, where I show up in time to report what the devil has been up to, and then leave the victims in the same condition I had found them—hurting and without hope.
Besides praying, I found myself reading a Bible that my photographer friend had given me. I discovered the writings of King Solomon, which resonated with me: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 1:14). I then read more of the Bible and discovered a God who loved me to the point of death. He knew the desires of my heart and gave them to me, even when I didn’t ask.
As I looked back on my life I could see His immense love. He had blessed me with loving parents and two younger sisters I truly adore. As I came to know Jesus, my Savior, my Friend, I fell in love with Him and wanted to repay Him for all He had done for me.
For the first time in my life I felt peace, hope, and joy. What a huge relief to know that I didn’t have to be in control of my destiny! I could leave my troubles with Someone who would carry those burdens for me. As I fell in love with Christ, I also discovered that He had given us a gift, a day of rest, called the Sabbath.
The Sabbath following Thanksgiving 2003 I was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and was joined by the photographer as he rededicated his life to Christ. Five days later, with tears of joy streaming down my face, I married the photographer: Jean-Ires Michel, my husband now for almost 10 years.
That was undoubtedly the happiest time of my life—married to Christ and also the person who had become my best friend.
A Career Change
At work, however, I was tormented. I found myself going into my office, closing the door, and instead of listening to the news, clicking on the 3ABN or Amazing Facts Web sites and listening to “good news.” I wanted to hear nothing but the everlasting gospel.
After earnest prayer it became clear that I needed to move on, but to what? I didn’t know the answer, but I felt Christ calling me to serve Him even more faithfully elsewhere.
I quit my job in March 2006, and for two years I waited, not knowing what the next chapter in my life would be. I was unemployed, and we relied on my husband’s income to make ends meet. By then we also had a daughter.
I was anxious to know God’s plan for my life, but I knew I had to be patient and wait for what He had already prepared for me.
The answer came early in 2008 when He directed me to accept a job offer as an associate professor in the Communication Department at Andrews University (AU). Since then the Lord has made it abundantly clear that He wants me to serve in a teaching ministry. I was impressed to continue to tell stories, but to focus on Christ-centered stories, ones that could reach people before they gave in to the devil’s seduction.
A publishing ministry was started on campus for which AU students produce a Christian collegiate magazine we named Envision. Why Envision? Because we’re called to envision the past—Christ’s dying for us. To envision our role as Christians in today’s world. To envision the future of Christ’s return. And it’s essential that our youth are involved in clarioning this message.
I’d like to think that if Lee Malvo had read such a magazine or had been involved in a similar youth ministry, his life would have turned out different. As he languishes in a Virginia prison today, serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole, I’m reminded of the Bible verse that says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18, KJV). Lee “perished” without that vision.
Like Lee, I had a void in my life; but I am truly grateful to have discovered Jesus Christ, the only One who could fill it.
Debbie Michel is an associate professor of the Andrews University Department of Communication and editor in chief of Envision magazine.