By Danica Roem
It started with him looking to the right toward the door, away from the restaurant booth where we sat.
As Nicholas F. Benton, publisher of the Falls Church News-Press, stared past the table next to us until he could see the parking lot through the glass windows of Loving Hut, a pink-to-red hue overtook his eyes.
His bottom lip trembled like a freshly plucked guitar string, an open chord on the low E string, before he finally paused the interview.
It wasn’t out of sorrow for the implications of the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, as one might expect from a gay man interviewing a transgender woman. Nor was it out of joy for Virginia expanding Medicaid to cover up to 400,000 more uninsured Virginians.
It was for the five human beings shot dead and two more injured at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis the prior day.
And Nick’s grief was still as fresh as his awe of the Gazette’s surviving staff declaring, “We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
I know how hard it is to be on Nick’s side of the interview and to try to maintain composure as a neutral, dispassionate, third-party observer during the worst of circumstances.
As someone who wrote thousands of news stories from 2006 through 2016 as a newspaper reporter in Virginia and Maryland after spending four years earning a journalism degree in New York and interning at a newspaper in a Pennsylvania, I know it comes with the territory.
So I broke down the fourth wall separating the Fourth Estate’s finest from the government they hold accountable, and just clutched my hands over his own from across the booth.
When the Pulse nightclub massacre happened in June 12, 2015, LGBTQ Americans from across the country understood that feeling of having our sanctuary violated, that one safe place where you know that unconditionally it would be okay to express yourself as the person you were born to be.
Three years later on June 28, 2018, in an Annapolis newsroom, another gunman violated a different sanctuary, one of absolute freedom of the First Amendment, so as long as the facts are vetted and the truth is reported.
There is no space like a gay club or bar for a LGBTQ person or a newsroom for a reporter. Many people know what it’s like to be LGBTQ in a gay club. Many people know what it’s like to be a reporter in a newsroom. Fewer know both. But Nick does. And I do too.
So I sat there at Loving Hut with my lips pursed over my clenched teeth, my upper lip making a slight bubble under my nose, not thinking of myself as the politician being interviewed by the journalist but as a reporter grieving alongside another reporter.
What Nick didn’t know was the night before, as I drove along Interstate 66 toward Gainesville for an event with my 13th District constituents, I talked to my former editor in Maryland whose friends in that newsroom died that day. When we ended the phone call, all I could do was cry in the solitude of a rental car heading in the direction of the setting sun.
A little while later, I called my chief of staff to let her know that while I was struggling emotionally at the moment, I would soon put on my game face and be the professional that comes with the turf of being a public servant.
I just wasn’t ready for that moment yet. Maybe that’s why I took a wrong turn off of Linton Hall Road to Glenkirk Road instead of the right one to Rollins Ford Road; I just needed a couple extra minutes to regain composure.
Just enough so my eyes wouldn’t be a pink-to-red hue when I entered the house and my bottom lip would stop quivering.
Yet there is beauty in vulnerability, the ability to actually feel and express what makes you human at a time when everything around you says you’re supposed to be not-quite-robotic-but- not-too-animated in your emotions as a public figure performing in front of other people. As a reporter, there will always be time for neutral, dispassionate, third-party observation. There will always be a time to hold policymakers’ feet to the fire and report the facts as they are, not for what someone wants them to be.
Sometimes, as a reporter, you sit across from another reporter who gets it. And in that moment, it’s okay to express yourself as the person you were born to be: a human being.
Delegate Danica Roem (D-13th) represents the City of Manassas Park and Prince William County in the Virginia House of Delegates.