Throwing Shade

One of my heroes sits right next to me. She inspires me every single day.

Anita Lee, right, and Amanda McCoy on assignment at John Harrison Doucet’s homecoming at Million Air airport in Gulfport.
Anita Lee, right, and Amanda McCoy on assignment at John Harrison Doucet’s homecoming at Million Air airport in Gulfport. File

About four days after Hurricane Katrina battered my hometown, I knew I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up.

I had stayed at my aunt’s house in the Kiln as the storm rolled through Mississippi, but I left about a week after to stay with family friends in Anniston, Alabama.

It was there I first saw live news coverage of what I thought would be destruction. After all, my family, who’d left the area for the storm, said all they heard on the radio was, “If you live in Hancock County, don’t bother coming back. Everything is gone.”

Bridges that connected Mississippi Coast cities were demolished. Homes were flooded. People were dead. There was no power. Some had no food or water. It was an emergency.

But all I saw on every major TV news channel was the same footage of a small group of people looting a store in New Orleans. They showed them dragging items through waist-deep water. The only words I could see were looting. A couple of days before I left the Coast, my mom and I drove down to Waveland to check on my Uncle Charlie, who had stayed at his home in a subdivision not very close to the water. He was fine, but his home was flooded. He saw snakes slamming into windows. He had no food or water, so he’d gone to a grocery store and taken what he could until help could arrive.

To me, it wasn’t looting. It was surviving.

I had always been fond of writing, and I love people, and getting the “scoop,” so I promised myself I would choose a career path that would allow to me to give the underdog a voice, to uncover corruption and to find out the truth and report it.

I went to college, got a journalism degree, and took a job at the Sun Herald as a summer intern on the digital desk. I’m still here five years later, and now my focus is on SEO, digital storytelling and social media. I haven’t been able to do a lot of investigative journalism. Lucky for me, my office is full of people who have that covered, and they’re the people I consider heroes.

Anita Lee, a pretty much household name on the Coast, is someone I’ve looked up to since I started here. She’s as sweet as honey on a biscuit but tough as nails. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, and she’s always honest with you about everything — even if you didn’t want to hear it.

I remember as a teenager reading her byline. She covered the things that mattered. She uncovered corruption. She sat through trials. She reported the stuff certain people didn’t want the public to know. And here she is, sitting right across from me.

I work the weekend shift often, and the first time I worked a Sunday with Anita, I was excited. But I had no idea I was in for a treat.

She didn’t have an assignment from her editor, but Anita Lee is not one to just sit around and do nothing. Hurricane Sandy had just battered the East Coast, and she found a Coast connection. She wanted to write about Rep. Steven Palazzo, who’d voted against sending aid to the northeast for Sandy victims.

Anita called. His media relations representative at the time picked up. She’d give him the message, she said.

Anita waited. And waited. And waited. She had all the information she needed to post the story, but it was clear after she contacted Palazzo’s rep again that the congressman did not want to talk.

“Post it,” she told me.

Within five minutes of the story going online, Palazzo was on the phone.

“Whoa,” I thought to myself. “She’s who I want to be when I grow up.”

I’ve worked with Anita on several projects, and have gone with her to cover the DMR corruption trials involving Bill and Scott Walker. We spoke to Katrina survivors for the 10-year anniversary of the storm.

And, most important, we’ve shared stories and a little gossip while she took smoke breaks and I just wanted a break from the computer screen. There’s also the hundreds of lunch breaks to our favorite Chinese buffet or to Shady’s.

I need Anita because she is living, walking confirmation that journalism is important. But what I learned earlier this week is that the community needs and respects her and her craft just as much as I do.

Anita took Amanda McCoy (an amazing photojournalist who has taught me almost everything I know about portrait photography) and me with her to the Million Air airport in Gulfport on Tuesday to write about John Harrison Doucet coming home after months in a Georgia burn unit, recovering from being shocked by power lines in Gulfport.

Anita had exclusive access to most of John Harrison’s recovery, and she wanted to be there with his family and friends to see him come home.

And when John Harrison’s mother, father and brothers helped him into a wheelchair and through the doors in Gulfport, I looked back at Anita as he appeared. As she cheered his arrival, I saw a look in her eyes that made me tear up. This is what she had been waiting on for months. She wanted to see a young man, who fought for his life, come home to be with friends and family.

The next day, John Harrison’s stepmother sent a text message to Anita to ask for copies of Wednesday’s paper. John Harrison wanted them.

Anita asks the tough questions. She writes the tough stories. But she also has the biggest heart. There’s no doubt I’ll be working on some project with Anita Lee again in the near future. And there’s no doubt she’s going to do something that solidifies why she’s one of my heroes. It never fails.

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_