Journalists routinely report on calamity and death. But even the most seasoned reporters cannot be prepared when tragedy comes home, when we have to report on the passing of a friend and colleague.
Lateef Mungin, a reporter at CNN, died Friday in Atlanta. He was 41.
He suffered seizures at his desk in the CNN newsroom early Tuesday and after he fought to survive for several days at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, his heart gave out.
It’s difficult, as Mungin’s friends all said, to anecdotally sum up someone you loved. It’s that much harder when you’re not even ready to accept that he’s no longer with us. That he is gone too soon.
He will be missed in ways you might imagine — the absence of a regular byline to a media organization — and in ways that are intangible.
Mungin worked for The CNN Wire, a group of reporters and editors who produce original news stories that are published on CNN.com and are utilized by all CNN networks. The pressure to get stories out quickly and accurately can be great, especially when there are a lot of news developments here in the United States and around the world. Think Boston bombings or the Arab Spring.
On nights when things were crazy, Mungin was a steady force.
He was a giant in his humanity. Cool, but understated cool. Dapper. With a glint in his eye, a sly smile slipping from his lips.
I worked with Mungin at CNN and for many years before that at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We shared friends and acquaintances and as the wretched news of his death spread in our circles, a common theme quickly emerged: Mungin always smiled. And he made other people smile.
He was the guy who brought the funny to the table, the guy who kept us all laughing, even on bad days. He was the guy who started colleagues on pun-offs, epic wordplay battles that he refereed. The guy who picked a song of the night that related to the news. A small harmless earthquake in D.C.? Let’s hear “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
He was the guy who, in the middle of fast and furious news developments, called us over to say: Hey, take a break. No one’s too busy for a cat video.
Lateef Mungin was devoted to his wife, Aileen Dodd Mungin, and daughters Jade and Ami (in front).
“These distractions mattered. These distractions helped,” said CNN Digital senior assignment editor Saeed Ahmed. Especially on nights when the news just kept coming and stress levels skyrocketed.
“We work in a business where we are churning out copy relentlessly — moving from Miley to Malawi, from snow days to Snowden, at such a dizzying daily pace that it’s enough to give you mental whiplash,” said Ahmed, who worked with Mungin on the overnight shift.
“Our business needs folks like Lateef. Laid-back in a sea of loudness. Calm in a cacophony of chaos.”
Last year, when colleague Faith Karimi was reeling from a bad breakup, Mungin went online and found a compilation of the worst police mugshots. They were of people who had been booked for unsavory crimes. He e-mailed the pictures to Karimi and marked it “high priority.” Underneath the assortment of photos, Mungin wrote this: “It’s just a breakup. It could have been much worse; you could have been one of these people.”
“Lateef could have a conversation with a rock, and it’d still be funny,” Karimi said.
The media have a reputation for being full of calloused and egotistical people who care less about the truth than about getting a starring role in the next big story. But that’s not the whole picture.
“The media is filled with many caring people who are in search of the truth,” my colleague Nicole Parks wrote on her Facebook page. “But we are one less tonight.”
Many of you may have read Mungin’s stories — from his latest work, a harrowing account of the unrest in the Ukraine, to the daily CNN news update, “Five things to know about your New Day.” He wrote breaking news with speed and precision but loved sports and crime stories. He also had a nose for the offbeat and quirky — like a piece on the backlash at all-male Morehouse College, which Mungin once attended, over its ban on the wearing of women’s clothes and high heels on campus.
Mungin developed his love of writing from a very early age. His mother, Geraldine Mungin, described her son as a precocious child, born in New York City but raised in California’s sunny Contra Costa County, just outside San Francisco. (Mungin never held back on his love of the Bay Area.) When he got into trouble, he laughed through the scolding he received from his parents.
“It never bothered him, so we decided to try something else,” Geraldine Mungin said.
Her son was ordered to write essays about his wrongdoing. When he failed to watch over his younger sister Rashida, for instance, he was forced to write about responsibility. Another time, he turned in an essay called “Notes from a Prisoner.” It was about how he had been grounded in his bedroom.
“He got really good at writing creatively,” said Geraldine Mungin. When he graduated with a journalism degree from San Francisco State University, he used his valedictory address to thank his mother and father for forcing him to write those essays.
A former professor called Mungin one of her favorite students.
“He was a gem of a human, wrote like an angel, had the heart of a warrior, was true to his values, overcame so many obstacles to become a star reporter at CNN,” Yvonne Daley wrote on Facebook. “It is his friends’ and family’s loss, but also our loss, journalism’s loss.”
Mungin had not always planned a career in journalism. One of his first jobs was cleaning hot-dog carts. He came home smelling like mustard every night. He was a young teenager then and felt it was that job that instilled in him the work ethic of his father, Ted Mungin, who died just five weeks before his son.
“You are the reason I am such a hard worker,” Mungin said in a poignant video tribute to his father.
Mungin had written a speech for his father’s funeral. He was too distraught to read it all but posted it later on a memorial page.
“He taught me not to sleep late. Get up early. Always have a job. Work hard. Be on time. Walk fast. Even if you don’t know where you are going if you walk fast you look like you know where you are going.”
After college, Mungin did a brief stint at the Marin Independent Journal before landing at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2001.
Some friends spoke of Mungin’s love of music — he was an encyclopedia of hip-hop and rap. Loved Tupac Shakur, Chuck D and Digital Underground and even aspired to become a professional rapper himself during his youth in Oakland.
He’d dropped out of college at one point to chase “sideways schemes of music, microphones and money,” as he once put it, until an encounter with another black man at a BART station. An exchange about slavery reminded him of the importance of education.
But he carried his music with him wherever he went. On a Sunday afternoon in the AJC newsroom, Mungin told colleague Add Seymour about his rapping abilities.
“I don’t believe you,” Seymour replied. Then Mungin began doing his thing.
“I was like, ‘OK, you got skills.'”
Mungin asked Seymour to DJ his wedding reception. In the fall of 2004, he married Aileen Dodd, a fellow journalist he courted at the Journal-Constitution. He saw her picture in a new employee newsletter and told a colleague: “I’m going to marry that girl.”
He asked for a transfer from the newspaper’s downtown Atlanta office to a suburban bureau where she was based. He went by her desk every day to chat.
“I’d tell him, ‘This is not a bar. I’m trying to get some work done,'” Dodd remembered.
Mungin was devoted to his wife. He was the best daddy to his two girls, Jade, 13, and Ami, 8.
He often took breaks in the middle of his overnight shift at CNN to get a coffee from the diner. And when he did, he liked to talk about his girls. He recounted stories about them, switching his voice to a shrill, young-girl tone and then back to a deep voice to describe his response. Mungin was already plotting how he would give their prospective dates a hard time.
He was frequently the last to arrive at social gatherings. If a party invite said “4 p.m. to 10 p.m.,” we all knew to keep the food warm for two more hours.
“Hey man,” he’d say when he finally arrived. “Let’s get whatever’s left of this party started.”
Mungin loved to get together with his journalist buddies in a dark basement to watch football on TV — he rooted for the Oakland Raiders even through losing seasons. He felt he had to keep faith in his home team. But his friends remembered him as always being the first one to get up to leave. He had to go home to his family.
His kindness and love shone, too, in his journalism, a fact that is most starkly noted in his Twitter profile: “I work at the CNN Wires newsdesk. We love news here. And we love you.”
These qualities often take a back seat in the lives of journalists trying to cope with human misery and wrongdoing and the constant stress of deadlines. Mungin loved covering crime but was not jaded by his subjects. He was not overwhelmed by the fact that he had an hour to get his story out.
“Lateef was like no other police reporter I had ever worked with,” said Glenn Hannigan, who was his editor at the Journal-Constitution in the early 2000s.
“Because of the extraordinarily stressful, competitive nature of the beat, cops reporters are often cranky, if not unapologetically irritable,” Hannigan told me. “Lateef was neither. In fact, his calm, easygoing demeanor was almost as out of place in the newsroom as was his relaxed, gentle smile. And he smiled often.”
In that sense, Mungin was a rare man in the news business. But that’s not to say he was not a dogged reporter determined to dig for the truth.
His calm manner allowed him to slip into the right place at the right time and glean information from people, remembered Reagan Walker, another of Mungin’s editors at the Journal-Constitution.
He was reporting a complicated murder story when he drove down to a sheriff’s office in Alabama to get information about the case. He arrived at the same time as investigators who were looking into the primary suspect. Mungin followed them into a meeting that was not open to the public.
“We’ve had this reporter calling around,” someone said halfway into the meeting. Mungin interrupted him.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m the reporter who’s been calling around.”
Law enforcement officials were less than thrilled. But Mungin returned to Atlanta with the story.
“Our business needs folks like Lateef. Laid-back in a sea of loudness. Calm in a cacophony of chaos.”
Saeed Ahmed, senior assignment editor at CNN Digital
Danny Porter, the district attorney involved with the case in Georgia, said he admired Mungin as a reporter. He was aggressive when he needed to be but also knew when to protect his sources.
“I always knew I could trust him,” Porter said.
On Monday, before he came into work for the last time at CNN, Mungin had spent time with his mother. Geraldine Mungin was planning to move back to New York and had driven to Atlanta from her home in North Carolina to give her son her 2000 Lexus RX 300. She would have no need for wheels in the city.
Mungin drove that car to CNN headquarters that night and settled down for his shift that lasted all night into morning.
A colleague was taking dinner orders for a run to Taco Mac. Most everyone else was ordering burgers with bacon or chicken wings slathered in sauce — journalists are not known for the healthiest eating habits. Mungin e-mailed his request: “Shrimp & Avocado Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing. Don’t judge me…”
It made colleague Ben Brumfield snicker.
“That quip highlights two of his great traits — his sense of humor and his tolerance. He was as nonjudgmental as they come,” he said.
Not even an hour later, Mungin started suffering seizures. And his family got the awful news that he’d been rushed to the hospital.
Last May, Mungin had undergone surgery for meningiomas, benign tumors in his brain. But he’d recovered and was thrilled to be back at work. We were more thrilled to have him back. No one could tell this was a guy who’d just had brain surgery.
“He was back, wisecracks and all,” Ahmed said. “The same old Lateef — except he’d let his hair grow. ‘You know,” he’d say, ‘to hide the scars.'”
“His death is so shocking, not only because it was sudden and he was so young, but because he beat it to submission last year,” Ahmed said.
Geraldine Mungin knew how strong her son was. She warned the nurses in the intensive care unit that he was a loud man with a large presence. “Get ready,” she told them about his waking up. But he never did.
“My heart just hurts so much,” she told me. “I have lost the two most important men in my life within five weeks.”
She could only take consolation in knowing the same thing about her son as she did about her husband. He was loved.