Words matter

March 20, 2009 1:21:20 PM PDT
How differently we all handle death. And how amazing the difference is.

There is no right or wrong in this discussion, but I suspect that how we deal with death may speak volumes about how we deal with life.

Or maybe I'm overreaching for a tidy philosophical conclusion.

In any case, three little words sparked a fascinating discussion in our newsroom last night.

"Despite overwhelming grief."

We were going to use it to describe the family of Natasha Richardson, showing up at Times Square when Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in tribute to the actress, who died Wednesday night.

The phrase made sense to some of us; but it struck others as the opposite of what was happening. I was in this latter camp.

Did Liam Neeson, Vanessa Redgrave, Richardson's two sons, her sister, and a host of friends gather despite their grief, or because of it?

Again, the argument could be made either way, and there's no wrong answer. But how we each viewed this question, I suspect, reflects how we view death.

Did they screw up their courage and stand in a public square so they could see the tribute to this woman they loved-- going there despite their grief?

Or did their grief drive them to the theater district? Were they mourning by publicly paying tribute to their wife/mother/daughter/sister/friend?

I embraced this latter interpretation.

So what to do with the line that was written -- "despite overwhelming grief"?

After our discussion about how we all view death differently, we took out the line, thinking that to say the line might startle half the viewers -- as it did me. And to take it out would startle no one.

The point of all this: Words matter. And while we don't always get it right, we try. And oftentimes we have fascinating discussions in the process.

The Natasha Richardson story was a case in point.

Speaking of Richardson --her death from a hematoma (and, yes, I mistakenly said "hematoba" on the air; words matter) after a skiing accident seems to have sparked a wave of skiing safety awareness. Helmet sales and rentals on the slopes are, at least anecdotally, up. And I suspect that people who hit their heads will not just slough it off like Ms. Richardson, tragically, appears to have done.

It is a heartbreaking story, her death. And we are taken with how it has resonated with our viewers.

Back to the "words matter" subject for a minute: Pres. Obama found himself in the middle of a debate about words last night.

He made history by becoming the first sitting President to appear on "the Tonight Show." He also made a political gaffe, when he likened his bowling skills to the Special Olympics. If Jay Leno had said it, there probably would be no fallout. But it was the President who said it, and it was politically incorrect and insensitive. I'm sure the minute the words crossed his lips he wished he could snatch them back.

How do we know that? After he taped the show, and before it aired, he reportedly called the head of the Special Olympics (founded by the Kennedy family) to apologize.

With all the huge issues facing this country, and the Obama Administration, I can't imagine his gaffe will have political legs. But there's a learning curve with any job, and the President is quickly learning that every syllable he utters is magnified.

And he's learning, alas, that everything he thought he could do, he might not be able to do.

Which leads us to our 11 p.m. Newscast tonight. We'll have the latest on the economy, and the bailouts. Part of our coverage: the bonuses paid to executives of companies that are receiving taxpayer-funded assistance.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who has been at the forefront of investigating the bonuses, now has the names of not only the AIG executives who were paid $165 million in bonuses this past winter, but also the names of the Merrill Lynch execs who got millions in bonuses.

It's a sticky issue, to be sure, and there are very smart people making arguments on both sides of it.

But it seems just wrong for companies that get money from taxpayers - who themselves are struggling to pay their bills and send their kids to school and keep their homes from foreclosure - to then pay huge bonuses to executives who have driven their corporations onto the public welfare rolls.

Also at 11, we're following developments in the bizarre and horrible story of a 16-year-old girl from the Bronx, missing for more than a month, then found and declared dead from an asthma attack.

Now it turns out that she was raped and murdered, and she suffered the asthma attack during the rape. Cops are now looking for a killer. Jen Maxfield is on the story for us.

And we also have the story of a local homeowner, refinancing her house and depending on thousands of dollars she had in checks to pay part for part of the deal. The problem was that the checks had expired; she held on to them for too long.

Anyone who's been in this position knows -- it's difficult to get new checks, and this woman was getting nowhere, and was going to lose the refinancing deal. That is until she called Tappy Phillips and got 7 On Your Side.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast, and Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Sade Baderinwa (in for Liz Cho) and me, tonight at 11.

BILL RITTER


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