The Front Porch: the place, literal or figurative, where Americans watch the world go by.
Journalists help expand America’s front porch to a worldwide stage. They put on a pretty face and soften the blow of ugly news. They must hold the line between “need to know” and “too much information.”
But when the horrors of the world become just another day at the office, what cost will delivering the news exact on those at its heart?
“The Front Porch,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.
The Front Porch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It starts subtly enough: Hey, nice lead, son; you gotta real flare for words. Try covering this. Write it up for me, will you? And you do, you get the front page, and a byline, and you find out that people read this stuff. They talk to you, they write you letters, they answer your words with theirs, sometimes in another article, always in print.
Or maybe it starts this way: maybe you have a handsome face, and someone puts you before a camera, and you see how wonderfully serious you look, how authoritative even at the ripe old age of 22, and you like your face better when you’re standing in the rippling wind of a hurricane, screaming into a microphone. Somehow your hair looks neat even though it’s blowing across your eyes; somehow your cheeks look rosy even though they’re windburned; somehow your lips look just kissed even though they’re chapped. You may not be articulate, but who is in the middle of a hurricane? Does it matter? You look good, you feel good, and when you get back, you hear: Hey, nice story, son. You got real flare. Try covering this. Make it interesting for me, will you?
After a while, the beginning stories—the moment we got hooked—all sound alike. We talk about beginnings because they’re easiest, the sweet memories, sun-kissed, dappled, all the clichés. We tell them for the same reason romance writers write about the engagement and not the marriage. The marriage is ugly, it’s work, for godsakes, and private, and hard to admit to. The engagement, the flirtation, is the only thing we can still smile about.
We sit in cold rooms in hotels all across the country and talk to each other, hands wrapped around warm coffee cups. No donuts for us—we think about weight, we think about speed, we think about our futures even now—but there’s always lots of coffee drinks. My favorite meeting room is in Seattle, in the basement of a hotel with its own coffee bar.
We sit down there and we talk and we go through our steps, and we think about quitting—some of us even do—but we have it different from the other groups, though we try to model on them. It’s tougher for us. First of all, not one of us is anonymous, except maybe the print guys. Most of us didn’t lose home and family and career—most of us didn’t have home and family to begin with and we’re all here because of the career. It’s not an addiction per se: you don’t find us in any of the books, and no psychiatrist will look on us as a hard luck case.
But we are: dear God, we are.
We divide our lives into beginnings, defining moments, and epiphanies. My epiphany came one year and five days ago, at 11:38 p.m. We had just gone off the air, and I’m screaming at the news director. He’s fifty-five, been in this B-Share market damn near since it became a market, and has a few—very few—ideas. He’s also got a wife, kids, and three grandkids whom he insists on seeing on the weekends. He’s where he’s at, where’s he’s always been, and where he’ll remain.
At the time, I felt sorry for him.
He hadn’t aired the footage. We damn near got killed reeling it in, the entire story was wrapped tighter than my grandmother’s ass, and he lops 30 seconds out of the middle, the heart and soul of the piece.
At least, that’s what I’m screaming at him. This was Emmy-winning shit—no lie there—and he wouldn’t air it, not from me, not from my cameraman Howard, and we both have more Emmys on our shelves than he ever would, from B-Share and A-Share or any-Share markets. More Emmys and more awards, including one I got when I was at C-fucking-N-N, not to mention the print awards that started it all, like the Pulitzer that got me out of print and into television forever.
I run through this tirade—I can feel the muscles bulge in my neck and my face grow so hot that I must have looked like a steamer about to blow—and through it all he stands there, taking it, even when a tiny wad of spittle hits him on the chin. And when I’m done, when I’ve said everything a man can say to his boss and still keep his job, he says to me:
“Cal, this isn’t Iraq.”
That stops me cold and I ask him what the hell he means. Instead of answering, he takes me into film editing, and he plays the footage.
In those thirty seconds, I see not the camera angles and the images, but what was happening in that chopper—Jesus. Howard and I, we were in heaven.
We get there just as the firefight started—accident pure and simple. We were heading to another story, one sixty miles away, and the boss wanted overhead footage, so we were able to commandeer the chopper for half a morning’s work. Instead we’re flying over Jefferson school playground as the shooting starts.
I see the little girl go down, then scream at Howard and he trains the camera on the fleeing children, panic evident in their every move, the teachers and the assistants pushing children down or inside or around. We go live with that, a few seconds of terror, and me saying what you always say in those situations—it’s horrible, it’s terrible, we don’t know who the victims are, or if we have victims at all, even though our second helicopter pass shows a six-year-old girl lying flat on her belly and a pool of blood seeping out from underneath her.
The shooters, we learn, are a couple of rival gangs, and the school is in the middle of the disputed turf, and scattering children shot hits every major news outlet from ABC to CNN to FOX. We go national with that, with a lot of it, actually, as the entire area turns into one big firefight.
The cops show up with armored vehicles and their own choppers and a SWAT team and we’re all told to clear the area, which we do, but not without one final shot: the glory shot—two gang members taking it in the head as they run toward the school.
We couldn’t have staged it better, that shot. One kid, wearing black and red—they all wear black and red, it seems, except for the ones who claim they’re wearing red and black—does a jerk-back slide-front reminiscent of Kennedy in the Zapruder film and the kid behind him stops just enough to adjust his assault rifle, the move that gets him killed. He falls and lands next to that little girl, the rifle leaving skitter marks in her blood.
It’s got everything, that shot. It’s got violence and pathos and a cinematic touch that you usually don’t get in TV news. And it’s got award-winning, ratings-getting footage written all over it.
Of course, we don’t go live with it. Because of the police order, the guys at home base pulled our plug. But we got the film, and we put it in the center of the wrap-up for the 11 o’clock show. I manage to cut the piece, and write and narrate, and am still in my anchor chair by 10:45—this being why I went back down to a B-Share city where you can anchor and report instead of being a desk jockey for the rest of your career. Anchors get famous, but reporters have the Ye-haw Moments, the stories to tell, the lives that make you know you’ve lived.
So I anchor and smile as I watch the story go over the air—minus the money shot—and I wait until we’re done with our post-show on-air banter before I light into the desk jockey who took my guaranteed Emmy from me.
I think about all this as I watch the footage, and I say, “Yeah, it isn’t Iraq” in a tone that tells him that I think that he’s the one who doesn’t get it.
“Cal,” he says, “Parents watch this. CNN puts warnings before stuff this graphic. We’re not that kind of show. We’re half news and half feel-good about the old hometown. We’re the front porch and the town hall and the city center all rolled into one. It’s okay to gossip, it’s even okay to report that Old Man Waters died down the street, as long as you’re not watching him gasp his last breath.”
“That’s crap and you know it,” I say. “If Old Man Waters’ last breath is good film, you’d run it.”
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t. And believe me, our viewers wouldn’t want to see it. That’s not the kind of city we are, and it’s not the kind of place we want to be.”
I didn’t believe him, but I let it drop—what else could I do? Besides, the next day there was another crisis, without the perfect cinematic moment, I’ll grant you, but in my business there’s always another crisis, always something else to point your camera at and report.
But it niggled at me, and I found myself dreaming about it, not the Zapruder jerk and slide, but about that assault rifle skittering in a little girl’s blood.
Later you learn that epiphanies aren’t waking discoveries. They come in dreams, they come in nightmares, they come in those wide-awake visions that no one can shake you out of no matter how hard they grip your shoulder, no matter how much they call your name. The problem with us, the hardcore, is that when you wake from those dreams, those nightmares, you wake alone; there’s no wife, no girlfriend—maybe there’s a sleeping partner who collapsed on you after good sex but even that’s become rarer and rarer. You get too wrapped up in it, in the search, in the hunt. You don’t even care about the story. It used to be the story, when I was in print, back in the nineties. It used to be the story and the series and the award-winning exposé. But now it’s the moment, the moment, we’re always searching for the moment, and when we find it, we’re afraid someone else has it too.
So I guess it’s not unusual that we would dream in moments, that we would define the knowledge of our hopelessness in a single moment, just as we define our beginnings in a moment, just as we define ourselves in a moment. We lose the sense of flow, and in losing that, we lose the sense of community, and then we lose the sense of self.
I didn’t get the front porch analogy. Not until my first meeting about six months after that epiphany. I was on assignment in Las Vegas, and someone told me about the organization, our organization. When I finally found the room, it looked like I had stumbled in on a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting by mistake—shaking hands, thick cigarette smoke, lights so dark none of us looked good—until I realized I recognized all the faces. I sat toward the back, which is where every good reporter sits when he doesn’t want to be seen.
By the time I found the place, I had already gone through the early steps: I identified the problem, I knew I had a problem, that my life had become unmanageable. I was having trouble with the Higher Power concept—the only thing I could identify as a Higher Power was the moment, the thing that drove me, and I knew, somehow, that wasn’t what the phrase meant.
We’re different, those of us who come to a meeting. We don’t come in the early stages: we’re performers, secret performers, every reporter is, and we learn not to step on stage too early or we’ll ruin the shot. So we go when we’re ready, and for me, that took six long agonizing months.
The table I’m sitting at is made of cracked plastic, those eighties bubble tables that used to be found in comedy clubs. The coffee was Vegas coffee, potent and not too bad, with enough jolt to keep you wandering through casinos long past your bedtime, and to think that such wandering is normal. I’m looking at the faces in the room, the speakers, the folks who are giving their testimonials, and I know every goddamn one of them. If I haven’t heard their story before, I’ve seen it, and in a couple of cases, I’d lived it. And it hadn’t bothered me, the moment that caused the other person to have an epiphany. To me, it had been a good piece of reporting or a damn fine money shot or one hell of a story in one hell of a paper. But the reporter, he had the nightmare, he got the shivers, and he couldn’t shake it.
So finally, the talk gets to me, and the man across from me—we won’t use names here. In fact, we don’t use names at the meetings, but we know each other’s names. Hell, you’d know our names if you saw us—he says to me, “So friend, what brings you here?”
And I tell him what I just told you, the epiphany, the nightmares filled with assault rifles and a little girl’s blood. Everyone in the room nods sagely, as if they understand my epiphany more than I understand theirs and I tell them, because this place is a place made for honesty and I know that even if I’ve never been to such a place before, I tell them, “The thing that gets me, the thing that really, really gets me, even now, even after the dreams, is why the hell did he clip the money shot? Why the hell did he pull the plug?”
And four guys murmur, “The front porch.”
I lean back in my chair, thinking no one here is going to understand me, no one understands me at all, and I say, “The front porch is a goddamn myth.”
My voice echoes in the smoke and the coffee-tainted air, and then real low, like something out of a dream, a woman ten tables away begins to speak.
It’s my fifth year on the job, and I’m following the drum, and I’m in some podunk backwater that I’m not even sure has a name and I’m up to my ankles in shit and water, flies so thick that it’s clear they’re eating better than the locals. We just finish shooting a sniper attack, bodies everywhere, and I got my handheld, with lotsa footage, good footage. Someone shouts the all-clear, and we start to move—all except me because I always waited an extra five seconds after an all-clear—when one of the sound boys, a man I’d been traveling with and hell, let’s not lie, sleeping with for a good half year, explodes, literally becomes human shrapnel right in front of me. I don’t scream, I don’t cry. I bring up the goddamn handheld and I hold it in front of my face and film, silently film, as two more from our crew bite it. The real cameramen are screaming, carrying on, running, but me, I’m holding that fucking video machine, watching like this is something out of Spielberg and any moment someone is going to yell, “Cut!”
And no one sees the film, no one, out of courtesy to the families, because it’s too fucking graphic for our dumbed down American tastes, like we’ve never seen something like that on one of Bruckheimer’s dramas, and I don’t get it either. It seems like excellent footage, like good and proper footage, like necessary footage even though I can’t tell you why.
After that, we get a new crew and understanding offers to go home, and even the opportunity to talk to some American therapist tied to the U.S. Embassy in, I think, Cairo, and of course we say no. But as we travel across Africa and into the Middle East, as we go from podunk place to podunk place and see more flies and shit and broken human bodies than anyone should see in a lifetime, I’m getting a nickname. Tough Bitch. She’s one Tough Bitch. And it’s not a compliment, it’s a description, an epithet, and I realize on this trip, I no longer have a lover. I don’t even have someone to curl up with on the plane, or the bus, or the train, or the jeep, or whatever we’re using to cross the godforsaken land. No one talks to me, no one laughs with me, no one even says more to me than “Yes, ma’am. Let’s do it that way. Sure, kiddo, I have no problem with that.”
The strange thing is that I’m not getting lonely. I notice the lack, yes, but with a clinical detachment like I still have the handheld to my face. And then it seems bit by bit the guys in Atlanta are rewriting my copy, pulling out stuff, adding softer words. I say, “You’re treating me like a woman,” thinking that they’re messing with my stuff because they no longer think of me as a reporter, but as a girl, and they say that’s not it at all, it’s just that you’ve lost something. You’ve lost it. And when I ask what “it” is, they give me words that have no meaning, abstract concepts, no concrete examples at all.
So I finish the tour, go back to the States, and on orders of my boss—
And here she nods to another woman sitting at the table, a woman I recognize, the woman who was her boss way back when—
I go to a shrink. And the shrink says to me, “So why was this filming that moment necessary?” And I tell him that reporting is not about thought, it’s about gut, and he laughs and says after the gut, there should be thought. So…why was this filming necessary?
Well, I couldn’t answer then, but I say, half a question in my voice, “People need to know.”
“They need to know what?” he asks. “That reporters die doing their jobs? Why is that more important than the bodies you had to wade through and the lives they once represented?”
And I said, “Because reporters, they’re someone the people know.”
He shakes his head, and he says he didn’t know them. His wife didn’t know them. These were grips, sound guys, people the American public never sees. So why, he asks, why do people need to know?
Because, I said, it was a moment, a defining moment.
For whom? he asks. For them?
No, I whisper. For me.
She finishes in the self-same whisper and everyone looks away from her, strange that looking away, because in our profession, we work hard at being looked at, but we looked away because her words felt too close to something the rest of us couldn’t articulate. And me, I couldn’t stand that feeling, and I’m confused, and I say, “So I don’t see how this has anything to do with the front porch.”
And the man sitting across from me, a man whose face was fatherly, he said, “This is our front porch.”
He meant the meeting, the group, the familiar faces in this dimly lit room.
“But this front porch has nothing to do with what my news director was talking about, nothing to do with his front porch,” I said, and the man across from me smiled, and said, “Exactly.”
This is our community. This is our front porch, our town hall, our city center all rolled into one. A bunch of ghouls sitting in the semi-darkness, thinking that we survived. But not congratulating ourselves, oh no. Realizing that something is missing, something is gone. There are parts that need cutting, need rewriting and we’re not sure what.
Our organization was started, it’s said, before there was AA. Before twelve steps, before time. It began when reporting began, when someone decided that the teller of the news shouldn’t be part of the news. When someone gets killed before you, you watch, you observe, you report. If you touch, you contaminate, and if you contaminate, you ruin.
What they don’t tell you is that if you don’t touch, gradually you become hard, you lose the very thing that made you the reporter you once were. You lose what the woman called the abstractions, the words: empathy, compassion, humanity.
We try to have twelve steps. We fail. Oh, some are possible. We’re talkers, evaluators, observers. We can make searching and fearless moral inventories of ourselves. We can admit the exact nature of our wrongs. Hell, we don’t have to make a list of the people we’ve harmed. We filmed them all or wrote about them or trampled over them in our pursuit of the moment. Where we fail is where we need to take action.
Point One: we admit that we are powerless over our pursuit of the moment, that our lives have become unmanageable.
But if we admit that, we must leave our profession, abandon the only thing we have ever lived for.
Point Two: we have come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
If we believe there is such a thing as sanity at all.
Point Seven: Ask God to remove our shortcomings.
Change? That is what twelve steps are all about, isn’t it? Change? But for change to happen, lives must be broken, and our lives are not broken. To a person, the folks who meet in these rooms are rich and powerful and famous. Our lives are fine, even though we wake to empty beds, our children—if we’ve had any—do not know us. We have no friends, no memory of friends, no one who knows as much about us as we know about ourselves.
We have only each other, and our weekly confessions. And we think, somehow, that that is enough.
I still have moments, but very few of them are Ye-haw Moments. And afterwards, they join the parade of visions that follow the assault rifle skittering through a child’s blood.
The network is talking about promoting me again, back to an A market, maybe even national. An anchor spot, substitute at first, then weekends, and eventually front and center.
I am thinking about taking it.
I will lose my place among the ghouls. At least, I hope I will. Some never do. Some come even though they have retired from active duty long ago. Apparently the epiphanies don’t retire, or if they do, they don’t take their friends, the nightmares, with them.
I used to believe, long ago, back in my beginning, in something called the Truth, and the fact that the Truth would set people free. I set out, with my reporter’s pad and my trusty eye, to observe the Truth, to send back dispatches from the front, and to let people know how it is Out Here. But the Truth does not live in the moment. The Truth lives in the flow of moments, as interpreted by those who have survived and have, in some ways, conquered.
It has taken me a year and five days to learn that my money shot added nothing to the flow. It was simply another data point in a story we’ve all heard too many times: there are gangs, there are guns, and there are children who get caught in the crossfire. I presented it wrong, and used it wrong, and saw it only as a good bit of footage, a piece of work slightly better than the rest.
I did not see it for what it was: the perfect representation of the fact that we live in a place that not only tolerates war, but accepts it as a matter of course. I had a moment which proved it, and I let that moment get away.
Because of how it started: It started subtle enough. Hey son, you.
The observer becomes the observed. We are performers, all of us, secret performers, every reporter is, and we learn not to step on stage too early or we’ll ruin the shot. Our shot. Rather than letting the shot speak for itself.
We have touched, we have contaminated, we have ruined. And the only way we can see it is in the shades of ourselves, in the ghouls we meet when we look in the mirror, as we try—and fail—to examine the state of our souls.
Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Rosebud Magazine, Number 39, 2008
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Drizzd/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.