What TV Reporter Wendy Rieger Learned From Washington

From a Washington Post story by media reporter Paul Farhi headlined “What Wendy Rieger learned from Washington”:

Early in her career as a TV reporter in Washington, Wendy Rieger covered a vigil by the family and friends of two men whose plane had gone missing. The group camped at a municipal airport for several days, and Rieger got to know them during her daily live updates from the scene.

One day, just before airtime, a search team reported that it had found the small plane’s wreckage in a remote location. There were no survivors. As she went on the air, Rieger was close enough to hear the gasps and anguished cries from the families.

Rieger reported the grim news. Then, just before signing off, she lost it, breaking into sobs on live television.

Mortified by her outburst, Rieger feared it would hurt her career. Instead, her producer commended her: It was honest, he said, and powerful. Viewers responded, too….

The episode taught Rieger — who just retired after 33 years on Washington station NBC4 — something important about the news, and about herself: Reporters aren’t fact-spewing robots, and viewers don’t expect them to be one. Within limits, there’s a place for personality, even emotion.

And so Wendy Rieger let herself be Wendy Rieger. She laughed often, teared up a few times and generally let viewers see a human reaction to the news she reported…..When a hurricane failed to develop into the telegenic maelstrom that TV news demands, Rieger cast a glance at the too-calm surf behind her and deemed it “nothing much.” She added, “Kind of like my dating life.”…

Rieger’s last broadcast on Dec. 17 had an end-of-an-era feel on the News4 set. Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) issued a “Wendy Rieger Day” proclamation. Her colleagues saluted her with champagne. Rieger’s co-anchor, Doreen Gentzler, hailed her as “smart, funny and authentic.”

Rieger, 65, can be as cynical as anyone about the vanities and flaws of TV news. She also knows it’s not the same business as the one she started in more than four decades ago, before streaming or social media, back when the audience was many times larger. But she also speaks about its utility and necessity.

“We’re a big small town,” she said….Local TV news carries something of the spirit of the old-time “party line,” a single telephone line shared by dozens of people within a community who would use it to spread news of emergencies or just gossip and mirth. “It’s a communal fire we gather around.”

Before becoming a full-time anchor in 2001, Rieger spent years as a street reporter, covering crime, car wrecks, murders, the bread and butter of local newscasts, including the carnage of D.C.’s early-1990s crack epidemic. She never saw these stories as sensationalistic or pandering, she said, but rather urgent and vital, “a mirror held up to the community.”…

The hardest part of reporting these stories was knocking on the door to get a reaction from the grieving parents or relatives. She never regarded it as exploitative but something of a duty. Aware that she was intruding on a family’s “sacred space” during the worst moment of their lives, she always took the same approach. She never went to the door with a cameraman. Too busy, too intimidating. Just her. The camera would come later.

The first words she’d say were, “Forgive me. . . ”

It was never easy. Sometimes, knocking on that door, she would say to herself, “Please don’t let me in, please don’t let me in. . .”

Nearly every time, they let her in.

“They need to talk,” Rieger reflects. “You might be the first person that asked them about their child, their brother. I’m not a neighbor bringing over a casserole, but I do tell the world what’s been lost. . . . [Reporting these stories] is our way of saying, ‘We remember your child.’ We tell the village.”

Once, she knocked on the door of a family whose son was missing. The teenager had been involved with a gang. The father talked at length about his boy, his dreams for his future, his hope for his safe return.

Afterward, Rieger and her cameraman drove around the corner. Both cried. They knew the boy probably wouldn’t be coming home. He didn’t.

Telling this story, Rieger thinks again about this father and son. She starts to choke up.

Rieger and her former co-anchor, Susan Kidd, used to have a rule: No eye contact with each other while reporting the more heartbreaking stories. They knew one or the other, or both, might crack.

“I think you have to be open and transparent,” Rieger says. “It’s vital to let them see what you feel. Let them see you. You have to be honest.”

At the same time, she and Jim Handly, her co-anchor for the past 14 years, were prone to giggling on air over one inside joke or another. They would make a point of throwing to the station’s veteran political reporter, Tom Sherwood, with an intro line about how a campaign was “heating up,” knowing full well that Sherwood detested the ­cliche.

“Too many TV anchors work too hard at trying to act authoritative, or real, or empathetic no matter the story,” said Sherwood, also now retired. “With Wendy, you got the feeling that she just sat down and talked to you.”

Rieger grew up in Norfolk, the daughter of an airline-pilot ­father and a mother she describes as “the funniest person on the planet.” Her first love was theater, especially musical comedy, and she dropped out of Old Dominion University in her freshman year for roles in local productions on the dinner-theater circuit, once playing opposite Bob Denver, of “Gilligan’s Island” fame, in “Play It Again, Sam.”

She fell into news by happenstance, trying to make a few extra dollars, after a theater friend who worked in local radio told her the station needed a news reader. Rieger got the job and started doing newscasts on weekends. She was hooked.

She re-enrolled in college, eventually graduating from American University’s broadcast journalism program. Then she began more than 40 years as an anchor and reporter in Washington. Her stops included a number of local stations, including WAMU, as well as NPR. For a short time, she reported for WTOP during the week and CNN’s Washington bureau on weekends. Channel 4 hired her in 1988, the start of an unusually long association in a business where most people don’t stay in one place for long.

Rieger began planning her retirement two years ago, hoping to learn how to play the cello and other things her busy working life never left her time for. Soon she had another new priority in her life as well: Dan Buckley, an NBC4 news photographer for 37 years who has also now retired.

Buckley and Rieger worked together at the station for 10 years, back when they both were married to other people. After he switched from news to sports, alongside the late sportscaster George Michael, they occasionally bumped into each other and chatted in the hallways.

“I always thought if he ever becomes free, I’m going to pounce on him like a sumo wrestler,” Rieger said. “I was not raised to be reserved.”

They began a relationship after he filed for divorce last year. Last month, they were married.

Rieger’s carefully laid plans to wind down, however, were interrupted by health crises. In October 2020, she experienced irregular heart rhythms, requiring surgery to correct a mitral-valve problem. The open-heart procedure kept her off the air for five weeks.

Then, in early May, she started seeing strange things: a map materializing in her bedroom, starbursts emanating from friends’ heads, a sentence floating across the side of a mountain in the Blue Ridge.

Rieger was startled and amazed by these hallucinations, but an MRI revealed something deadly serious: a golf-ball-size mass on a lobe of her brain. A renowned surgeon, Pascal Zinn, operated five days later.

In retrospect, she says the operation to repair her heart was like “a trip through a McDonald’s drive-through” compared with brain surgery.

Nevertheless, she was back on the air six weeks after the cancerous mass was removed. Zinn told her he got “99.9 percent” of it.

Upon her return, Rieger wore special rose-tinted glasses to dampen the glare of studio lights that could trigger a migraine. Some viewers thought it was inappropriate for an anchor to be wearing “sunglasses.” Others thought it was a kick — just Rieger being Rieger.

The station’s send-off occupied much of her 5 p.m. broadcast. Her colleagues ran through her bio and played all of her greatest hits: Rieger in the hurricane, Rieger covering the Rio Olympics, Rieger hosting her long-running “Going Green” environmental reports.

Then they cued up anchor Jim Vance’s taped tribute to her. “Okay, you guys just destroyed me,” Rieger said. “To see our beautiful Vance, who we miss so much. . .”

And then she did what came naturally. Wendy Rieger cried tears of memory, gratitude and joy.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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