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Hank Phillippi Ryan Was Anchoring the Weekend News in Atlanta—That’s When She Became a Target


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The flashing blue lights were noticeable the minute I turned the corner onto Park Street. My house was just down the block, and I had been at enough crime scenes as a reporter to understand that this meant the police were there. Midnight, after midnight actually, on a Saturday, was not always quiet in Atlanta. But all was usually serene on the street where I lived.

I had just finished anchoring the weekend news at the CBS affiliate in Atlanta. Had I, by chance, come across a breaking news story?

As I got closer, I realized the  swirling blue lights–– and all the police cars attached to them ––were at my house. My house.

I screeched into a parking space, leaped out of the car, and ran toward the commotion. It was a house I was lucky to have found, a lovely redbrick single family, with a big front porch, and near the park. And I lived there by myself.

It seemed that the news story, whatever it was, was about me somehow. I corralled the first officer I saw.  “What happened?” I asked.  “I’m Hank, from Channel 2,” I began. “And this is my house, and—”

“I know who you are.” The police officer interrupted, but he was smiling, in a way that telegraphed nothing was dreadfully wrong. But certainly this batch of cops had not shown up for nothing. Still, no one was running, or yelling. No one seemed upset.

“Some guy broke into your house.” The officer at a police car. “He’s in the backseat there.”

“What?” I asked. “What do you mean, broke in?”

“He broke into your house, because he knew who you were too. Just like I did,” the officer explained. “He said he knew you were on TV doing the news, so he was certain that you weren’t home.”

I remember standing there, in the middle of Park Street, in the glare of blue lights and the weird atmosphere of a middle-of-the-night mid-May. Some stranger had broken into my house because he knew who I was from television. He knew I’d be anchoring weekend news––if he’d turned on the TV at 11, he could’ve seen me, live. Which not only told him where I was, but where I wasn’t. He knew where I wasn’t.

But how did he know where I lived? That wouldn’t be difficult, I realized. (This was pre-Google, of course.)  The more I thought about it, the more I worried I became. He knew I anchored the news. All he had to do would be to come to the station, watch me walk through the parking lot to my car, and follow me home. And I would never know.

(This was also in the days before people had home alarm systems, and I guess a neighbor had called the police. Thank goodness.)

But what haunted me most about that experience was the vulnerability of the spotlight. I made my living by having people recognize me. By encouraging them to call me and tell me things. Our station had promos on the air all the time, essentially saying “watch us!” And I embrace and honor my role as a reporter.

But at that moment, the spotlight that was necessary for my career seemed to be a dangerous place.

Think about it. As a journalist, I can never make a mistake. I can never choose the wrong word, or miscalculate, or call someone by the wrong name. I can never misunderstand a statistic, or confuse a fact. I can never be one second late.  And it’s all happening on live TV, where at any moment, someone could interrupt or threaten or intimidate or disrupt. And where, if I make a mistake, I will be humiliated, or embarrassed, or even sued. And I have to do it all while appearing calm and in control. Plus, my hair has to look good.   

But in my private life, it’s the same thing. I can’t say one inadvertently wrong word, or have a mean expression on my face, or go out in sweatpants and a raincoat. But that’s the deal we make. It’s fine, it’s good, I get it. And our news stories have changed laws and changed lives—even saved lives! And gotten peoples’ homes out of foreclosure, and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution.

And yet. There are people who are not happy with those stories. Every one of those Emmys on my shelves represents a secret someone didn’t want me to tell. People who wish I would shut up and go away.

So I’ve been stalked, and harassed, and yelled at, and threatened with lawsuits. I’ve been pushed down and chased and screamed at and bullied. (Luckily there’s often a TV photographer with me, so I always say “If it looks like someone’s going to hit me, just make sure you’re rolling. At least we’ll get the video.”)

And that’s the other side of the spotlight. Someone might know where I live. Know where I go. Know who I see. They might decide they know me. They might decide I’m their…friend. Or their enemy.

That stress, that pressure, that conflict, was what inspired and fed Her Perfect Life

So what would my fictional Lily Atwood do with the spotlight? It seems like she has a perfect life—she’s apparently so perfect her adoring viewers have created a hashtag for her, #PerfectLily. But she’d know about the beloved news anchor in Iowa who left for work one morning and never returned. She’d know about the horrific murders of a reporter and photographer doing a live shot in Virginia. About actor Rebecca Shaeffer, about John Hinckley’s Jodie Foster obsession, and the tragic life of the brilliant Jessica Savage.  And in Her Perfect Life, Lily also has a secret. A big, dark, secret. And yet she still chose the spotlight.

Problem is—Lily’s darling seven-year-old daughter didn’t choose it. Even so, the glare of the attention is trained on that little girl, too. And what may happen as a result? What happens when the spotlight becomes the most dangerous place of all—not only for you, but for those you love?

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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