Ben's Bells: Getting the last word, and why it matters

Ben's Bells volunteers arrive and begin unpacking their bells in Newtown.

Ben's Bells: Getting the last word, and why it matters

CREATED Jan. 11, 2013

Notes and commentary by:  Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director

This week 9 On Your Side had a chance to cover one of the most remarkable stories we've come across in a long time.  We'd like to take a moment to tell you about it, to give you a "behind the scenes" look at how the coverage came about, how it's affected us personally, and what we think the event means for our community.

Last week we learned that volunteers from Tucson's Ben's Bells organization were planning a trip to Newtown, to coincide with the second anniversary of January 8, 2011 shootings in Tucson.  The purpose of the trip was simple:  to reach out to that community, which is now going through what Tucson went through two years ago, with acts of kindness.

When I learned of the trip, for about two seconds I considered the possibly of going along to cover it -- and then rejected the idea out of hand.  Why?  The Newtown community had let it be known that it was sick of the media, which had not always behaved well during coverage of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary.  I did not want KGUN9 to contribute to that intrusiveness or add to the community's burden, or to be perceived as doing so.

Later in the day, our senior producer, John Glenn, approached me and suggested that we should go.  Again, I thought about it for about two seconds, then said "No." 

John is one of those behind-the-scenes people whom the public does not know, but whose work you see every night.  He is in charge of our 10pm newscast, deciding what stories to include, helping to direct coverage, and writing much of the newscast.   He's passionate about his job -- and was passionately unhappy with my decision.  So, I invited him to present a formal written proposal, explaining why we should go, how we would conduct ourselves while there, and what was in it for that community and for our viewing audience in southern Arizona.

On January 3, John gave me a document titled, "Standing Together."  It included a one-sentence summary of the coverage mission:  to show "how Tucson has healed and how this community is helping another overcome the same trauma."

To reinforce the planning document, John shared with me a "parable" that he had heard on Aaron Sorkin's "West Wing" TV series.  It goes something like this.  A guy falls into a hole.  A priest walks by.  The guy says, "Hey, can you help me out?"  The priest scribbles a prayer and throws it down to him.  Next, a doctor ambles by.  The guy in the hole cries out, "Doc, can you help me?"  The doctor writes down a prescription, throws it into the hole and walks on.  Next, the victim spots a friend walking by.  Again, he sings out, "Dude, can you help me out?"  The friend then jumps down into the hole.  Our hero says, "Why did you do that?  Now we're both stuck!"  The friend says, "Because I've been in this hole before, and I know the way out."

I was sold.

Next stop:  I presented the idea to my boss, General Manager Jim Arnold.  Trips costs money, and in this economy, we have to be judicious about our expenses.  Jim loved the idea.  He and Vickie Duprey, our financial manager, found room in the budget.

To understand why this trip was unique and different, you have to understand a little about Ben's Bells.  Their mission in life is to spread kindness and to encourage others to do the same. The primary way they do this is by hanging bells with messages of kindness attached.  They ask absolutely nothing in return. 

This trip would be their most ambitious project to date.

John, anchor Jennifer Waddell and the rest of the management team were all in agreement that we could not go unless we were sure the Ben's Bells volunteers would be welcome in Newtown, and that we would be welcome, too.  We learned that the volunteers had received an invitation from Newtown to go and were comfortable with us coming along, provided that we conducted ourselves respectfully.

We went.

In the aftermath, we all agreed that as journalists, we have never seen a story quite like this one.

Afterwards, I asked Glenn to reflect on why he had wanted us to go.  John's answer: this was a worthwhile story of a type we don't get to tell very often.  "It shows hope in the face of despair, something that we know very well after living through it ourselves," John said.  "And what really got me about it was that these guys were doing it without any kind of fanfare, without any kind of credit.  Almost like little elves of hope."

John also took note of the fact that others in the Tucson community were stepping up to assist Ben's Bells in making the trip.  Gina Murphy-Darling, host of the radio talk show "Mrs. Green's  World," began chatting up the event, and put the volunteers in touch with some people who could help.  As a result, Southwest Airlines donated about a dozen tickets.  UPS helped with the shipping of the bells.  Alpha Graphics and CP Graphics helped with printing.  Trader Joe's provided bags for the bells.

John wanted to be a part of that.

As news director, I had to be concerned about the potential for backlash -- both from Newtown, and from members of our own Tucson public.  In the aftermath, I asked John whether he had shared those same concerns.  Yes, he had.  What overcame them?  "You see so much dark and negative stuff in the news, and even in our entertainment.  And here is an actual positive thing that people are doing, that our neighbors are doing, people we know."  John said what convinced him is that he simply had faith that telling this story was the right thing to do.

The proof, of course, would be in the reception that the volunteers -- and us along with them -- got on scene.  Jennifer admits that she was nervous about that, "Knowing that the people of Newtown really had just had enough with the media.... They'd been invaded, and had to deal with members of the media who were not always respectful of their privacy.   We had heard stories of the media being kicked out of places, and neighbors yelling at members of the media. And rightfully so."

The first test came when she and KGUN9 chief photographer Jon Perra walked into a local family-owned diner carrying their TV camera. They were just there to eat breakfast, mind you, but they couldn't leave the camera unattended, and had to take it in with them.  The reaction?  "Everyone was kind to us," Jennifer said. "We ordered our breakfast, which was delicious. After breakfast I went up and said 'Hello' to the owner and thanked him for the meal."  She explained what she and Jon were doing in town.  "I said, kind of jokingly, 'Thanks for not kicking us out after seeing the camera.'  He said, 'No, I'm glad you guys liked the breakfast, and we're glad you're here.'"

Jennifer spotted a wall in the diner filled with cut-out paper hearts that people all over the world had sent.  They were from places such as Africa, Australia, Mexico -- and yes, from Arizona.  "I said, 'That is a beautiful display of kindness there.'  I asked if I could take a picture.  He said,  'Knowing why you are here, go for it. I think it's a beautiful thing.'"

The Ben's Bells folks set up shop in a local bed and breakfast.  Word spread quickly via social media and the local press about why they were there.  The Murzin family, which lives in the area, wanted to be a part of it, and showed up on the morning of the 8th to help.

I asked Jennifer how she got to know the Murzins.  "One of the things I tried to do while we were there was, instead of approaching people to ask them to do an interview, I just talked to people. And just had conversations."  She noted that in our deadline-driven business, "It's so rare that we ever take the time to just stop and talk to someone, just to get to know them."

She went on to say, "I noticed that they had some kids, and their youngest was about the age of my little boy."  The conversation picked up from there.  "There was no point at which I said, hey, I want to interview you," Jennifer said.  But when the Murzin family learned why she and Jon were there, they invited them to come along as they distributed about 40 of Ben's Bells. 

One of those bells went to a woman named Renee Gilbert, who was helping to staff what you might call a "caring tent," showing up every day to dispense hugs, a warm touch and a smile to anyone and everyone who needed it.  While Gilbert wasn't looking, a Murzin family member hung a bell on her vehicle.  It was one of about a thousand of Ben's Bells that volunteers spread around town - at police stations, volunteer fire stations, and for people like Renee.  Many of the bells were intended simply as random messages of kindness.  But some, such as the bell for Renee, were for specific people or organizations, each proclaiming in its way, "You cared, and we noticed."

Ben's Bells executive director Jeannette Maré tells KGUN9 that the Murzin family members were among about 100 people from the Newtown area who showed up to help distribute the bells.  She said the feedback from the community has been astonishing.  "Tons, pages and pages and pages of positive feedback," she said.  "It's been an overwhelmingly beautiful response -- way, way more than we could have ever imagined."

In practical terms, perhaps, the gesture from the Ben's Bells volunteers was no big deal, consisting of no more than the simple act of hanging a few small, inexpensive bells strung with some trinkets and a message.

But looked at another way, it's a really big deal, perhaps the biggest deal in all the whole, wide world.

Reflecting on the trip and the coverage, Glenn said, "I think Tucsonans just need to know that despite all the bad  people out there, who are acting on whatever greed, their need for whatever this or whatever that, whatever drives them -- there are very, very good people living right next door to you, who are so selfless that they will dedicate their time, their efforts and their energies into just making someone else feel better when they really need it."

Jennifer summed it up this way.  "This was a chance for our viewers, and for those volunteers, and for those people in Newtown, and even for us in the media to see the best in people.  And that's what we need. That's what all of us need.  To feel like there's still good in the world.  And honestly, there's a lot more of that in the world than there is bad, but it just gets overlooked.  We tend to forget that."

For Jennifer, the assignment had one unexpected effect on her.  "That trip for me was probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done as a journalist."

To understand why, you must understand this:  The quiet tinkling of every Ben's Bell loudly proclaims that the cruel, evil, and violent who walk among us do not speak for humanity, and they do not get to have the last word.

The front side of the Ben's Bell tag reads:  "You have found a  Ben's Bell.  Take it home, hang it and remember to spread kindness throughout our world.  'Remember there's no such thing as a small act of kindness.  Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.' - Scott Adams"

The reverse side of the tag distributed in Newtown read:  "Ben's Bells Project:  This Bell symbolizes our connection as a community and the power we each have to change the world by committing to kindness, one interaction at a time.  We surround all of those who were affected by the events of Dec. 14, 2012 with love and kindness."

9 On Your Side extends a heartfelt "thank you" to Jeannette Maré, Barb Anderson and the entire Ben's Bells organization for allowing us to tag along on their Newtown trip.  For more on Ben's Bells, its mission, and how you can participate, click here.

Update:  in the past few days, messages from Newtown have been pouring into Ben's Bells' Facebook page.  Click here for a sampling of that feedback.