Against All Odds

WCCO TV reporter Darcy Pohland followed her dream and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer

EDITOR’S NOTE:

This article was pulled from the Minnesota Monthly archives in remembrance of Darcy Pohland, 1961-2010.

Published July 2002

IT’S A MONDAY MORNING in the WCCO-TV newsroom, and reporters, producers, and assignment desk editors are gathered in a stark, white-walled, windowless office to determine the day’s news agenda and divvy up assignments.

Two white boards covered with markings hang on the walls. On one is listed the long-term projects reporters and photographers are already pursuing for newscasts in the days, weeks, and months ahead. But this morning’s meeting is about filling up the other board with the stories the “Hometown Team” will be covering for today’s noon, 5, 6 and 10 o’clock news reports.

Of the names of reporters that appear on the board—Caroline Lowe, Bill Hudson, Alan Cox, Trish Van Pilsum, Kevyn Burger, Pat Kessler, and Darcy Pohland—Pohland’s would seem the most unlikely to be listed among them. Television newsrooms use the term “stand up” to refer to the stock convention of reporters appearing on camera in some germane location to wrap up a story, either live or on tape—but Darcy Pohland cannot stand up. She cannot walk, and has only limited use of her hands.

In a medium where highly paid consultants tutor anchor people and reporters on what to do with their hands while they’re on the air, or when to look down at their scripts, even how often to blink, Pohland is an anomaly.

“Let’s face it,” says Pohland, “it’s a visual medium and you have to look good on camera. If you’re not just perfect, you don’t get a job.” The thing is, perfection can be defined in many ways.

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1983, Pohland was a college intern with WCCO-TV’s Washington, D.C., bureau. She’d studied journalistic theory college at the University of Minnesota and George Washington University, but this internship offered a chance to learn to both shoot and edit videotape—practical, hands-on skills she’d need to land her first reporting job at a small market station, the traditional starting point for aspiring on-air reporters.

But one night that summer, in a moment of youthful exuberance and impulse, Darcy dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool, breaking her neck. The broken vertebrae severed her spinal cord, paralyzing her from the chest down.

Darcy faced relearning the quotidian tasks of day-to-day living. Eating, traveling, caring for herself, even managing to brush her teeth became Herculean challenges. Forget the more arcane skills needed to report the news for television.

After the accident, “I thought there was no way I’d ever be a reporter,” she says. “I always believed I’d be able to use my education to work in TV. But not as a reporter.”

She underwent extensive and difficult rehabilitation followed by successful hand surgery to maximize her severely compromised manual dexterity. “It takes a full year to do and it is very painful,” she says. “It’s bad enough to have limited use of your hands when you’re paralyzed. But then to have one of your hands in a cast—well, you can imagine.”

Photo by John Noltner

ALMOST THREE YEARS AFTER HER ACCIDENT, Darcy started her first job in television news at WCCO-TV. Pohland wasn’t a reporter. Instead, she worked as a dispatcher in “the shack,” a cramped space just behind the assignment desk filled with computerized radio monitors. It’s the dispatcher’s job to listen for “spot news” (fires, car accidents, shootings, and other emergencies that are still the meat and potatoes of the visual medium of TV news) and then direct TV crews to the site of that day’s mayhem while the action is still afoot. It is the quintessential entry-level job of most large-market newsrooms, including WCCO-TV. It rarely leads directly to an on-air reporting job.

When the scanners go quiet, the crews are dispatched, and beat calls to the medical examiner and police and fire dispatchers have been made and logged, there’s time for reflection. Pohland began contemplating how she could advance and where her disability would not be a limitation.

“I knew I could do something. I thought maybe I could direct [newscasts]. You don’t need manual dexterity or legs to direct. But once I got into the dispatch shack, I thought about the assignment desk.”

But apart from earning an interview with the assignment editor, simply getting to the interview confirmed Darcy’s worst fears about her viability in TV news. “There was no ramp leading to the raised area where the assignment editor’s office is,” Pohland explains, a rueful smile spreading across her face. “The assignment editor didn’t know how to get a wheelchair up a step, and he was struggling with the chair and I was almost falling out. And I was thinking, ‘Isn’t there another office in the building we could use?’”

But once a ramp was installed, Darcy settled in as an assignment desk assistant. Her days were spent fielding calls, charting the course of the news day, and generally assisting the assignment editors. Her bosses promoted her to planning editor, a position that gave Pohland the opportunity to take a longer view to story assignments in a world dominated by moment-to-moment reaction to news.

She liked working the desk and was content to stay in that position. But then she got a big break in a most unusual place—in church, during reporter Darryl Savage’s wedding. After Pohland delivered an inspired reading from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Savage’s wedding, fellow guest and anchor Cindy Hilger asked Pohland why she wasn’t on the air.

“‘I don’t know,’ I remember telling Cindy,” says Pohland. “‘Why don’t you ask your husband?’”

Hilger’s husband is John Culliton, who was at that time the general manager of WCCO-TV. Not long after the wedding, Culliton and then-news-director John Lansing called Pohland into Lansing’s office and asked her if she’d be interested in becoming the community news reporter.

“At that time they were rotating reporters doing the community news segments,” says Pohland. “None of the reporters liked doing them, quite frankly. They wanted to do harder news. I didn’t even know if I could do it. I hadn’t done actual reporting since college. But I didn’t tell them that. I just said, ‘yes!’”

In 1996, Ted Canova was hired to replace Lansing as a news director and he promptly cancelled community news, liberating Pohland to become a general assignment reporter.
 

 

POHLAND IS THE LAST TO ARRIVE at this morning’s “news huddle” after making her rounds at the Hennepin County Government Center checking for newsworthy criminal complaints and search warrant affidavits.

The assignment editor informs Pohland that her choices of assignments are a pitiable pair that seem destined for a slot low in the producers’ lineups: newly minted Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s 90-day plan, the sort of visually anemic story guaranteed to earn a reporter a mere 45-second slot, or a follow-up story on a weekend house fire that killed a 12-year-old boy. Though the fire story appears to lack any new facts that might advance the story, Pohland decides to head over to the site of the fire in St. Paul and try for an interview with the boy’s family—a prospect she, like most reporters, dreads. If she gets nothing, well, there’s always Rybak’s 90-day plan. The fire is the sort of story where Pohland’s disability often proves an advantage over other reporters.
“It’s really amazing,” she says. “I really think it makes a difference. I think people see me in this chair and think, ‘She can relate. She’s gone through something traumatic.’ I really think people see me as a lot less threatening.

“People may want to talk about what’s happened. But they may not trust reporters. And then the see me wheeling up and think, ‘She’s all right.’ Other times, they tell me to keep moving along like any other reporter.”

But what about news conferences where the herd descends on a solitary news source for a sound bite? “That was a problem in the beginning. But now I just plow through and park in front of the photographers ’cause they can just shoot over me.”

When the meeting breaks up, Pohland goes straight to her desk to call St. Paul arson investigators in the hope that they’ll have new information. Nothing yet. Maybe this afternoon, they tell her. So Pohland heads downstairs to the garage where WCCO-TV photographer Peter Molenda is moving his gear from his usual news car to the ramp-equipped van the station bought to accommodate Pohland’s chair.

“Having to switch their gear from one car to another when they work with me is sort of a hassle for the photographers,” Pohland says. “But it doesn’t hurt that I can haul their gear on the back of my chair,” she adds, laughing.

“In fact, once a reporter rode on the back of my chair when we needed to whip around the Mall of America. People were scattering to get out of our way. But we were late for a live shot.”

When she first started reporting, Pohland had to use her own van and meet the photographer at the site of a story or a live shot. That meant that in a late-breaking news scenario Pohland, unlike most reporters, could not begin writing her story on the way back to the station while the photographer drove. That, and the fact that Pohland cannot type with any great speed, put her at a distinct disadvantage when it came to reporting breaking news.

“It taught me to listen very carefully during interviews,” she says. “Instead of thinking of my next question during an answer, I listen very closely so I’ll be able to write the story in my head and pick sound bites in my head and be ready to put the story in script form as soon as I get back to the newsroom.”

Not wanting to rock the boat, Pohland put up with using her own van to get to stories. But the inequity of the situation was beginning to chafe when Pohland was sent to Cannon Falls to do live reports about a 3-year-old girl who had been allegedly murdered by her mother’s boyfriend.

“My van was getting old and the lift wouldn’t go down that day,” says Pohland. “I had to do the live shots from the lift of my van. So there I am up in the air. The viewers couldn’t really tell where I was. But the photographer had to figure out a way to shoot me up there that didn’t look bizarre. After that I thought, ‘This isn’t fair. Either you get me a van I can use here or buy a new one for me.’”

The big weather-related stories are the only assignments Pohland concedes are beyond her disability. That frustrates her a bit, she says, because weather disasters are visual and immediate stories that play to television’s strengths, but not to hers. “If there’s a huge tornado like the one in St. Peter, I can’t do it because the streets are impassable for someone in a chair,” she says. “If there’s a blizzard, I can’t get through the snow. If it’s a flood, I can’t wade through the water or my chair will short out.”

On the trail of the St. Paul fire story, Pohland and Molenda roll up to house, a moribund-looking structure set on a corner lot in a working-class neighborhood just off Rice Street. Bright yellow police line tape ropes off the site. The home’s yellow aluminum siding is charred black in the back where the fire started and where the 12-year-old boy died of smoke inhalation. There are no fire inspectors on the scene. The only sign of activity is the family’s black cat wandering around the back of the house looking for a way in.

Relatives of the next-door neighbor, whose house suffered fire damage as well, are hauling some of her possessions out to a truck. They tell Pohland that the boy’s family is staying with another family around the corner.

A fresh 2-inch snowfall covers the ground, and Pohland directs Molenda to pull into a nearby church parking lot where she can more readily exit the van.

The sidewalks haven’t been shoveled so Pohland takes the street from the parking lot to the house. Molenda tells her to be careful of traffic and Pohland good-naturedly shoots back, “I’ve gotten out [of the van] in much more dangerous situations than this, Peter. Like downtown at rush hour!” Pohland’s wheelchair tracks through the slush to the curb behind a Monte Carlo with “Drive like you stole it” stenciled in Old English typeface on the rear window.

“That’s another thing,” Pohland explains. “The poor photographer ends up having to go to the front door because I can’t get up the steps. That’s the biggest problem with the chair. I can’t get into people’s houses. It’s not such a problem in warm weather because I can just interview them outside. “But I remember one story, in which a kid had just gotten home from the hospital, and I had him standing out in the bitter cold. He was turning pale from the cold. I felt so bad.”

But with a little creativity, the access problem is easily worked around. On a recent assignment, she credits photographer Bob Cowan with the idea of using a cell phone to enable Pohland to ask questions from the van while Cowan shot the interview inside the house.

“It was a great suggestion,” Pohland says. “I’d ask the question on the cell. The interviewee would set the phone down and answer on camera.”

But on this day the couple that live in the house see Pohland coming and meet her at the curb. They explain that the mother of the dead child doesn’t want to talk to reporters. Pohland keeps the conversation alive by mentioning the black cat. “He kinda looks like he wants to get in,” she says. The couple confirm that it’s the family cat, “Pervie,” and send their son to bring him back to their house.
 

 

Pohland asks for a photograph of the victim. The couple agree to ask the boy’s mother, who is looking on warily from a front porch window, for a photo Molenda can shoot.

But she sends them back to Pohland empty handed. All the photos are still in the house. Pohland trundles back to the van and gets on the phone to the assignment editor to discuss whether or not to continue pursuing this story or move on: “I don’t really know how we’re going to advance this story without a cause for the fire or an interview with the victim’s family.”

Pohland decides to drive back to the scene of the fire and just hang around for a while before giving up. A neighbor from across the street approaches the van and tells Pohland that the victim died trying to rescue the family dog, who was secured in a portable kennel. But the neighbor demurs when Pohland asks him to speak to her on air.

“I don’t even like my picture took,” he explains. “I’m real shy.”

She persists, struggling to draw out the neighbor. “You don’t seem shy to me at all. You seem very friendly and outgoing,” she says.

Then she spots another man and a teenager lingering near the house. Their body language suggests that they want to talk but need to be approached gingerly. Molenda maneuvers the van the wrong way against the curb to enable Pohland to lower the ramp in the middle of the street so she can speak with them.

The man and his son were at the scene the night of the fire. His teenage son tells Pohland that he hollered to the victim and tried to break the window to reach him. He says he heard the dog barking and the boy calling for the dog.

And then, silence.

The man and his son agree to an interview. The neighbors who are housing the survivors of the fire come around to say a fund drive is being organized for the family. When Pohland points out that a picture of the victim would help that aspect of the story, finding one becomes a likelier possibility.

A call to fire investigators confirms the neighbors’ suspicions that the victim started the fire, and that he was the only family member not to get out because he went back for the dog.

Pohland phones the assignment desk to report she’s got a story. She’s slotted for the 5 and 6 o’clock newscasts. She’ll do a “wraparound” stand up from the “video wall,” a green wall like the sort weather people stand in front of when they’re showing viewers radar of an approaching front.

Now that she’s been on the air for a few years, Pohland views her disability as an asset. She doesn’t feel like the editorial brain trust at WCCO typecasts her as the “disability beat” reporter.

She’s also not naive about the marketability of her disability. “I don’t think they are unaware that it’s a promotable feature of the newsroom,” she says.

“But I don’t want to do all the stories related to disability, any more than Dave Huddleston [a WCCO-TV African-American reporter/anchor] would want to do all the stories about African-Americans. And they’re sensitive to not always give me those stories.”

She recalls a letter she got from a woman complaining that Pohland was allowing her disability to be exploited. “How can they exploit you like that, showing your wheelchair and making you use a special microphone?” Pohland remembers the woman admonishing her. “It makes it look like you’re disabled.”

Pohland laughs. “Well, I am disabled. And I am very grateful to Tony Rhome, the engineer who rigged that special microphone for me, and for everyone else who’s gone out of their way to enable me to report for WCCO.”Pohland credits her presence in the newsroom for raising the entire news staff’s awareness of disability issues.“I am happy to be a resource, a reality check, for other reporters. When reporters are doing a story involving the disabled, they’ll check with me and ask, ‘Can I say this? Can I say that?’

“The public recognizes me now. It’s a great gimmick. I think people really feel comfortable with talking to me in the chair. I wish the public would treat other disabled people the way they do me,” she says. “The best thing I ever heard was from a woman who wrote to me about her son who’d just been paralyzed. She wrote that when he saw me reporting from my chair it gave him hope.”

As for life after daily reporting, Pohland says she will probably just make a graceful exit when the time comes. “I think I’ll just leave the biz. It’s a young person’s business. And I’m sure there’ll come a day when I’m tired of rushing out to a fire where a 12-year-old has died.”

Jim Leinfelder is a writer and producer for print, TV, and radio. He lives in St. Paul.

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