Stricken reporter Serene Branson recalls her on-air terror

KCBS-TV Channel 2 reporter Serene Branson smiled uneasily. She was back in the newsroom Thursday for the first time since becoming an instant — and reluctant — media sensation after she had infamously garbled her words during a live report at the Grammy Awards.

But the 31-year-old journalist wasn’t going back to work just yet. Instead she was back to be interviewed by her anchor, Pat Harvey, and to finally view the 17-second clip that triggered ridicule, concern and speculation that she’d suffered an on-air stroke or worse. She had deliberately avoided the clip, fearing it would only aggravate her stress as doctors raced to determine the medical cause behind the misfire.

Eyeing a monitor in the newsroom, Branson quietly observed the report in which she began speaking incoherently. She felt a chill as she watched herself trying so hard to be professional but realizing that something was horribly wrong.

“One thing I’ve learned when working as a journalist is that when people are uncomfortable or unhappy, they react differently to what they’re truly feeling,” she said. “That was me feeling a little uncomfortable at what happened to me. I consider myself a perfectionist. And there I was, frustrated and terrified because the words I wanted to come out were not coming out.”


Branson’s chill seemed to pass quickly — aided by warm embraces from her colleagues — after she learned from doctors that her condition had been caused by a “migraine with aura.” Dr. Neil Martin, chief of neurosurgery at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said the symptoms resemble those of a stroke and can include weakness, loss of vision, difficulty speaking and headache.

“I’m fine, wonderful,” Branson said. “I’m feeling like my old self. I want to turn this into a positive, to let people know I’m OK, and that there is treatment for conditions like this. My doctor believes this was an isolated incident.”

“My mother has had them,” she added. “And I’m really eager and anxious to get back to work and concentrate on reporting on stories, not being the story.”

That story began around 9 p.m. Sunday. Branson remembered how hard she had worked filing live reports from the Grammys show from Staples Center. A few hours later, she noticed something was amiss.

“My eyes were tired,” she said. “I started to feel nauseous and dizzy.” Though she wasn’t in pain, she recalled that her “head was pounding. I was very uncomfortable.”

As she started her report, she knew something was wrong. “As soon as I opened my mouth,” she said, “I was like watching myself in a movie. I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t say it.”

When the report ended, field producer Kerry Maller and others converged on her. “I felt like I was going to collapse,” Branson said. “I was terrified. My right cheek went numb, then my right hand.”

Paramedics arrived. “They checked my vital signs and I began to regain my speech,” said Branson, who remembered feeling better by this time. “They kept asking me if I wanted to go to the hospital, and I just kept saying, ‘I want to go home.’ I was in a cocktail dress in the back of an ambulance, and all I wanted to do was go home. I was cold and exhausted.”

Finally, the paramedics released her and a friend drove her home. “I was so out of it that I went right to sleep,” she said.

A call from her mother woke her up the next morning. Her mother persuaded her to go to the hospital.

By then, friends warned her that her story had exploded on the Internet. At the time, Branson simply hoped that it wouldn’t end up on YouTube. “I’m a self-professed news junkie, but I avoided the news Monday and Tuesday,” she said. “I just thought the stress would make it worse.”

Now, with a positive diagnosis, Branson said she wants to help others who might have the same condition. But she also knows she now must deal with her instant celebrity.

After talking to Harvey for Thursday’s late-night newscast, Branson was scheduled to appear Friday on CBS’ “The Early Show” and later on “The Talk.” Meanwhile, “Entertainment Tonight” and other media outlets have been clamoring for interviews.

“This is so surreal,” she said. “It is all a bit overwhelming. I’m always used to pursuing stories. I’m really not used to being pursued.”

Steve Mauldin, president and general manager of KCBS and its sister station KCAL, said Thursday: “From top to bottom, our No. 1 concern was Serene’s well-being. She’s family and a consummate professional. Now she has a greater sense of confidence and knows what she’s dealing with. We look forward to her returning, and we’re glad she made it through in such a positive way.”

Branson’s goal is to return to her job as a general assignment reporter.

“This will all blow over,” she said. “I’m looking forward to covering the Oscars.”

Times staff writer Thomas Maugh contributed to this report.