God & I: Joe Birch

July 08 2024 | by

WHO WAS the most influential person in your religious formation? 

My parents were Frances and Joseph Birch, and we grew up in a place called Teaneck, which is right next to Englewood, New Jersey, where I was born. So as the George Washington Bridge crosses the Hudson River from New York City, it lands in Fort Lee. And my great-grandfather on my mother’s side was the second mayor of Fort Lee. 

I have two brothers and two sisters, and we were blessed to have a beautiful set of parents who truly loved one another. Now when children grow up with parents who love each other, it’s obvious that this has a wonderful impact on them. 

We went to Mass every Sunday. My father would kneel down at the bedside and teach us the Our Father and the Hail Mary. He was a wonderful guiding force in our spiritual development. 


You have been professionally recognized with an Emmy Award, and inducted into the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame and the Silver Circle of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. What, in your opinion, makes for a great journalist?

I was deeply influenced by the Watergate Scandal. There was a pair of reporters at the Washington Post named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who played a pivotal role in uncovering that affair, which eventually led to President Nixon’s resignation. 

While the scandal was unfolding I was a young adult, and I just looked upon journalists as a force for good. I understand that journalists are not looked upon that way by many people nowadays, but those two journalists were able to unearth a tremendous amount of information. From that episode I decided to become a journalist myself. 

What I think makes a great reporter is, first of all, the hunger for truth and the desire to share it. As a journalist you can only see just a little, but we do our best to make it known, and this requires a lot of work. We invite people to share information with us, but this entails stepping out of our comfort zones to establish relationships with people. For instance, when I was young and ambitious I wanted to get to the bottom of an episode of corruption that may have been happening in Memphis. So I went to the leader of the organization who was overseeing Beale Street, the famous home of the blues in Memphis. I went to see this person every day, I was relentless. He didn’t want to share with me the information he had as an auditor because I was so new and green. However, after months and months of knocking on his door, he finally relented and shared the information, and we were able to tell the story.


What type of audience should a good communicator imagine they are addressing if they want to get their message across effectively? 

I imagine myself speaking to just one person when I am reading the news. This is because we generally watch TV as single individuals. Also, the way we connect with people is through the heart. We want to see people accomplish things that matter in this world, so I just shoot for those stories that will touch the heart; that will ring true; that will show the human experience in a way that is meaningful to people. 

One story I’m working on right now involves a military veteran who unfortunately got caught up in drug abuse. He has now recovered, and is currently dedicating his life to helping others get free of their addictions. He does this by going to impoverished neighborhoods. This is a story that touches people because they can feel his passion, and people want to feel something. 


You have also won numerous awards for your charitable and civic initiatives. What are the motivations that drive you to work for others? 

It is all our Lord’s work; I am only an instrument in his hands so I don’t take any credit for anything good I may have done. I’m just a lazy couch potato. The real me is a lazy man who tends to lose the TV remote control! I was blessed to grow up in a family that prized service in the community. 

I’ll tell you this episode I’ve never shared with anyone before. When I was about 7 years old my paternal grandfather, James Paul Birch, had begun to fall into poor health. So after Sunday Mass we usually went to see him at a senior citizens home, where he was bed-ridden. I raced up the stairs before anyone else and happened to start eavesdropping  on the conversation between my grandfather James and his beloved wife, my grandmother Mary. What I heard had a profound effect on me. My grandfather was in his mid-70s, and he would die just a few years later. He said to my grandmother, “I could have done more!” But I knew he had already done many significant things for society. Now I think I banked that thought. That was a seed that was planted in me. So finally, when I broke out of my selfish, misspent youth, I was inspired to dedicate myself to many social and charitable initiatives.


In 1992, you came to Italy to prepare a documentary on the Vatican museums. On that occasion you met Pope John Paul II and recorded the exchange to broadcast it on Action News 5. What memories do you have of the Polish pope?

I was thrilled to go to Italy. It was my first trip there. We were at the Paul VI Audience Hall, invited by the Vatican Museums to prepare a documentary about an art exhibition from the Etruscan Museum, a part of the Vatican Museums, that was coming to Memphis.
I love Italian food so much, I gained 15 pounds in just seven days in Rome! 

When the time came for the Papal audience, I had some presents wrapped up like wedding gifts in a stationery store. The presents consisted of T-shirts from The Today Show in the United States, and coffee mugs and little knick-knacks. I brought them over in gratitude for all the hospitality we enjoyed in Italy. Now I presented these gifts to various people, including the woman who runs the press office for American journalists at the Vatican. This woman looked at me and said, “I’m going to take care of you.” So she took a chair and placed it right in the middle of the aisle in the Hall, meaning that my chair was just 20 feet away from the Holy Father. I felt I was in an odd position, but the Holy Father kept looking at me, trying to figure out who I was, and we made eye contact a couple of times during his speech. After he had finished he went out to greet some people on wheelchairs, and then he came right over to me! My heart was pounding at that point, and I said to him, “Holy Father, the people of Memphis send you their warmest greetings!” And he replied in his Polish accent, “God-a-bless-Tennessee!” I was thrilled that he knew that Memphis was in Tennessee. 


You have interviewed many celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, sports, politics, even religion. Which person has impressed you the most and why? 

I have interviewed many great human beings. One of those who really touched my heart was Father Gregory Boyle, who was in Memphis last year. Father Gregory is a Jesuit who began Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. He started the company as a desperate attempt to help Latino gang members in his parish area. This little enterprise snowballed, and has become a multimillion dollar example of how great God’s blessings can be when we unite and work together to build the kingdom of God. Fr. Boyle was consequently even able to establish schools willing to take in young men and women who had been in the gangs and had a history of trouble. They were not exactly academic superstars, but Fr. Greg, with great patience and diligence, started these enterprises. 

Fr. Greg wrote a book that had a profound impact on me, called Tattoos on the Heart. This May he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a US citizen that our country bestows, from President Joseph Biden at the White House. 


If you were offered the opportunity, would you interview a notoriously evil person?

If the opportunity were offered to me, absolutely. Before starting the interview I would recite Psalm 19 to myself: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. However, during the interview, I would never consciously and knowingly promote anything that is evil. I would try to expose evil for what it is – no matter who is standing in front of me. As a journalist I would try to be a bearer of truth.


What image do you have of God?

I spend time with the Lord every morning and evening and, as needed, throughout the day. I begin my day with prayer, and my image of Him is that of a loving God. Jesus presented himself as the Good Shepherd. When our Lord became incarnate, the angels above the crib gloriously sang to the shepherds, who were people at the lowest levels of society.

Pope Francis likes to talk about our Church being a field hospital, and wants his pastors to have the smell of their sheep, which often is not a very good smell, but that is the human condition. 

Jesus says, in John 10:10, “I came so that they [my sheep] may have life, and have it more abundantly.” I call Jesus my savior and my Lord. I believe that with every fiber of my being.


Do you find it easy to talk about your faith with other people, especially when you are working in the TV studio? 

I never go on television trying to proselytize or evangelize, but the people who have come to know me over the 46 years so far of my work life know where my heart is.

That said, it’s not easy to talk about religion in a normal conversation. In my newsroom, for instance, faith is hardly ever discussed among us journalists, even though it is covered a lot in our reporting. 


Has Saint Anthony ever played any particular role in your life? 

I am blessed to have Anthony as my confirmation name. My paternal grandmother, Mary McCaffrey Birch was born on December 8, 1893, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. She had three children. Her first child – a daughter — arrived when she was 27 years old in 1920. Her name was Mary because she was born on the Feast of the Annunciation in March. Then another saintly daughter was born five years later, Catherine. And then my grandmother began to pray to St. Joseph, St. Francis, and Saint Anthony for a son. And lo and behold, on December 10, 1929, my father was born, and received Anthony as his confirmation name. Now because I loved my father so much I wanted to be like him, so I chose Anthony as my own confirmation name.

Whenever I lose anything it comes natural to me to call on St. Anthony for help. Just two months ago I bought a delicious pie from a restaurant near my work, and put it carefully in my car so that it would not overturn while driving. But in the process I placed my house keys on the roof of my car, and then drove home, about 2 miles away. When I got out of my car I couldn’t get in, of course, so I had to walk all the way back to the TV station, praying the whole way, saying, “St. Anthony, please help me find my keys!” And boom, there they were! Right by the driveway where we exit our parking lot!


BORN IN Englewood, New Jersey in 1955, Joe Birch was educated at Paramus Catholic Boys High School in Paramus, New Jersey. He majored in English at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, TN, in 1978.

On the same day of his graduation Joe began working with WMC-TV (channel 5), a leading television station in Memphis, TN. Starting as a reporter, Joe rose through the ranks to become News Anchor for the evening news broadcasts, and is now a household name and face in the Memphis region.

Joe returned to his alma mater in May 2022 to give the Commencement Address, where the University bestowed an Honorary Doctor of Public Service on the veteran journalist and community servant. Joe has won numerous awards for his charitable and civic endeavors.

Joe and native Memphian Robyn Davis Birch were married in June 1983. They have been blessed with two sons, Joseph III and Matthew, who have gone on to present their parents with three beloved grandchildren.


Updated on July 09 2024