Excerpt from Live at Five
Date: March 4, 1996
Lead Story: Jobless Rate Down
The jobless rate dropped by one the day Minnie Pearl died. It wasn’t her demise that brought about the statistical change. No, her story was just one more item in the news of the day.
Since Minnie Pearl rated no more than twenty seconds and a bit of video pulled from the archives on the evening news—and not even a tasteful fade to black before the commercial break—her life on the fringe of fame, and her passing, could, in retrospect, be viewed as symbolic of what you are about to see.
Call it a coincidence of timing. But in the universe of TV news, as with every other segment of the entertainment business, timing is everything.
Sound full :03 seconds – cheer goes up in noisy newsroom
This was the scene today in the newsroom at KDOA-TV in Bakersfield, California. The sound you hear is a cheer bouncing off its dingy walls.
Minnie Pearl, dead?
Just came down the AP wire.
Who had her?
The questions are bullets fired from every direction.
The answer comes in the dance of a lanky, prematurely bald news producer. Van Thompson. He’s the one you see over there at a cluster of desks in the center of the newsroom. He’s the one smiling with his index fingers pointing to the heavens.
“Minnie Pearl,” he crows. “Right after the Pope on my list. That gives me three so far this year. Yessss!” Then he drops into his chair and begins typing at the computer keyboard as if nothing significant has happened. He has a menu of stories in front of him for that evening’s newscast. “I’ll give her twenty seconds. That is, if those chuckleheads at the network feed us some video on the satellite this afternoon.”
A young reporter walks by and shrugs. “Minnie Pearl. Who knew?”
Hunter Riley is standing near the doorway of the newsroom. His lips are pressed thin as he tries to suppress a laugh.
“Death list,” he says. “What’s the jackpot?”
John Tuttle, the station manager at KDOA, is squeezing against the doorframe behind Hunter. Tuttle is round and soft, built with rolls of fat so that he looks like the Michelin Man. His skin is pasty white, and he has two button eyes buried above his fat little cheeks like the Pillsbury Doughboy. His hair is the color and consistency of a rusty Brillo pad. If God created a montage of his favorite prime-time TV commercials, it would come to life as John Tuttle.
“It’s up to two hundred bucks,” Tuttle says. “You know, we’ve had a death list in every newsroom I’ve ever been in. But these kids really get into it.”
“Two hundred, huh? A nice chunk of change,” Hunter replies.
“Yeah. Ten bucks for a pick thirty. I’ve only got one celeb in the grave from my list so far this year. Looks like I need to bump off three before Christmas to win the pot.”
Hunter nods. “Back in Chicago we used the USA Today standard. If the poor slob doesn’t rate a mention in USA Today, it doesn’t count.”
Tuttle nudges Hunter, and they roll into the newsroom. “Listen up, everyone. I want you to meet your new boss.”
Only the voices in the newsroom’s cacophony of sound die. Static-marred traffic on the police scanner ignores Tuttle’s cry for attention. A fax machine behind the central cluster of desks grinds out a continuous stream of paper with a growl. Somewhere in the back of the room a noisy street scene is playing out on a videotape machine.
Little wrinkles of amusement, etched momentarily deeper by resignation, frame Hunter’s dark eyes. You may guess what he’s thinking. He has gray in his hair and more than twenty years in the business. Reporters and photographers, even the producers, just keep getting younger. So with the exception of the guy who was dancing on Minnie Pearl’s grave, it appears to Hunter that the KDOA news staff is made up of babies, practically. Right out of college.
Hunter reads their faces. If this is like every other newsroom he’s been in, the reporters and photographers, following the lead of the older and wiser assignment editor or producer, have already feasted on the rumors of his hiring and formed an opinion. There is no time for a honeymoon in this business. You are already yesterday’s news by the time you get there.
Do they like him? Do they hate him?
He knows most of them have already made up their minds but he can’t tell where he stands. Hunter smiles at the group while his ego inside shrugs. Hell, a few months from now it won’t matter.
He follows Tuttle to the middle of the room where Tuttle points to the lean fellow with a hawk’s nose and a tired face—the beneficiary of Minnie Pearl’s journey to the Grand Ole Opry in the sky.
“Van Thompson,” Tuttle says. “Six and eleven o’clock producer.”
Hunter Riley shakes Thompson’s hand. Weak grip. Indecisive. Bad sign. “Minnie Pearl,” Hunter says. “That was a good call. Who had George Burns?”
Thompson flinches. “Everybody had George Burns, for five years running.”
“Kathy Wright,” Tuttle introduces her.
Kathy Wright has big hair, somewhere between milk chocolate and caramel with curls that sway and jiggle as she steps forward. Hunter is struck by her wide, dark brown eyes. He thinks they are happy, fun-loving eyes that meet your gaze head on and dare you not to smile.
“Kathy produces the five o’clock show,” Tuttle says.
She’s wearing a plain white cotton blouse dotted with half a dozen bright yellow sticky-notes on her bosom. Each one has a scribble of ink. Kathy arranges her curls and brushes her clothes quickly, sending two of the notes fluttering to the floor. She hesitates, undecided whether to pick them up or extend her hand to him. She ignores the notes on the floor. Her handshake is stronger than Thompson’s.
“Kathy also runs the assignment desk,” Tuttle explains.
Hunter nods and peels away a stray yellow note that had transferred to his palm. He glances at it before handing it back to her. She blushes.
“I think it says take the network feed at four o’clock,” he smiles. Hunter is conscious of his shoulders, holding them straight and projecting strength, and he adds timbre to his voice the way tea drinkers add honey to their cup. It’s thick and sweetening. It’s his TV Anchor Voice.
Tuttle makes the other introductions more quickly. The two reporters are easy to identify because Andy Blackman and Valerie Watson are dressed for the camera while Lanny, the photographer, wears a t-shirt and blue jean shorts.
“You’re on your own to meet the rest of the staff when they get in here,” Tuttle says. “Including Kent Abernathy, the anchor.”
Hunter follows Tuttle around the wheel of desks in the middle of the room, to the news director’s office in the far corner. Hunter Riley’s new office.
A large wall of glass with vertical blinds like the bars of a prison cell separates the office from the newsroom. Tuttle pauses at the door and waves at Hunter to go first.
A smaller window on the left looks out over the KDOA parking lot. Beyond that, Highway 99 and the brown hills of southern California stretch along the horizon, fuzzy in the noon haze like a vague dream. The two solid walls of the office are decorated with cheap western art and inspirational posters.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“Do it right, do it once—Do it wrong, do it over.”
The clichés on the wall remind Hunter of his high school locker room. They didn't pump up the Clear Lake High School Fighting Weasels back then; Hunter suspects they only inspire jokes in the newsroom today. Go team go! Win one for the Gipper. Yeah, right!
Tuttle catches Hunter staring at the slogans. “Matthews, the last guy in here, was big on motivation but not what you’d call an original thinker. Moved up to Fresno.”
Hunter runs a hand across the simulated wood grain desktop. It has been dusted and sanitized, leaving no trace of the previous renter. Even the small calendar propped up next to a computer monitor has a fresh page. Hunter bends and tilts his head, and finds the computer keyboard on a sliding track under the desktop. He uses his thumb to press the manufacturer’s label where it had begun to peel away from the monitor’s frame. He doesn’t recognize the brand. Scratched and abused, it has the feeling of school surplus equipment.
Tuttle motions to him and Hunter sits down at the desk. He can look past his boss, through the blinds into the newsroom where Kathy Wright and Van Thompson are leaning close and sharing a secret over the desks that form the producer’s “wheel”.
“Let’s talk about the ratings,” Hunter says.
“Let’s not,” Tuttle replies.
During the last ratings period the KDOA Channel 12 Five O’clock Report was fifth in a four-newsroom town. Fifth place. Four newscasts.
“The other stations doing news finished one, two and three. We finished behind Bozo the Clown’s Afterschool Clubhouse,” Tuttle sighs.
They stare down each other in a familiar way. Neither is sure where to start. Tuttle’s eyes narrow, and he holds up two fingers.
“Two things,” he says. “I know you’re used to being in front of the camera, but this ain’t no anchor gig. And I know you’re not in this for the long haul.”
Hunter starts to protest but Tuttle cuts him off. “Look, you’re broke and I’m desperate. So this is good. And, fuck. I still owe you for helping me get that network job with you at the bureau in Washington.”
“Back when we were young and stupid,” Hunter said.
“Like them,” Tuttle jerks his thumb at the newsroom.
“Yeah,” Hunter says wistfully. “Just like them.”
“So what if it was twenty-five years ago, I still owe you.”
Hunter gives the dreary walls of his office a disapproving look. “This isn’t quite what I had in mind for a payback. Twenty-five years and what? Seven markets later. I would think you could come up with something better than Bakersfield, John.”
“You should have stayed at the network with me. You would have made correspondent soon enough.” Tuttle turns up the left corner of his mouth, his cheek is puffed out like Popeye the Sailor. “You’d be at the network today if you could have just been patient.”
“Sure. Just sit tight, do all the leg work and have some prissy correspondent fly in just long enough to do a stand up and voice the script you wrote? They get in front of the camera and take all the credit for your work. And then maybe, if someone upstairs likes you, you get one shot at a correspondent’s job? No thanks.”
“I did eight years. It wasn’t so bad.”
“So I burned out faster.”
“You didn’t burn out. You couldn’t wait to get in front of the camera.”
“Whatever,” Hunter replies. “But even you finally dumped the network for that producer’s job in Atlanta.”
Tuttle nods. “You were in Oklahoma City by then. What was that—your fourth market in eight years? Was that before or after Chicago?”
“After. After New York.”
“Right. New York,” Tuttle says. “It’s like you’ve been living that song. You know, Route 66.”
Hunter holds up a hand but it’s too late to stop Tuttle.
“Go through St. Louie. Joplin, Missouri. Oklahoma City. Looks mighty pretty.”
“Please, John,” Hunter pleads.
But Tuttle sings, “Amarillo. Gal-up-New-Mex-ee-co. Get your kicks on Route 66.”
Hunter takes a pencil from a cup on the desk and flips it gently in Tuttle’s direction. “Okay. Give me a break. I never sank any lower than Des Moines.”
This stops Tuttle. He shakes his head sadly. “Des Moines. How could you land in Des Moines?”
“I guess you could say I was working my way down the ladder of success.” Hunter laughs without conviction. He realizes he has been thumbing the cuff of his white shirt where it was getting worn just below the monogram. E.H.R. It is his last good shirt. He picks at a loose thread and then stops. He self-consciously tucks it below the cuff and pulls at the sleeve of his suit jacket to hide the flaw. “At least you’re in management now. General manager? Not bad,” he tells Tuttle.
“Yeah. But, shit. It’s only Bakersfield.”
“Could be worse.”
Tuttle disagrees, until Hunter adds, “You could be in Bakersfield and have someone like you for a boss. Now that’s my personal vision of Hell.”
Sober. Tuttle asks Hunter how long he plans to stay.
“Only as long as it takes.”
His answer doesn’t require explanation to a news gypsy, and that pretty much sums up most young, hungry reporters in small markets like Bakersfield. Young reporters. Hunter is uneasy with that. He’s too old to be reinventing himself in this town, a television market where most of his “peers” are rookies with inadequate training and unrealistic expectations. He’s certain it’s worse than when he started paying his dues—how long ago now?
Before he leaves, Tuttle offers some advice. “Bakersfield isn’t so bad once you get used to it. And who knows? Maybe you’ll like being a news director instead of an anchor. You’ve been around. You’ve got all that pent-up experience and a lot you could teach them,” he says, referring again to the bodies outside the glass wall of Hunter’s office.
When Tuttle is gone, Hunter quietly closes the door to the office and pounces on the telephone. He stands with his back to his window on the newsroom while he dials. A woman answers his call on the second ring.
Hunter reaches down for a deep voice and tries to give it that touch of gravel familiar to millions of Americans. “This is Tom Brokaw calling for Murray Dell,” he says to the phone. His wait is only a moment. Murray is on the line with the kind of friendly greeting usually reserved for favored clients and rich uncles.
Hunter stops him cold. “Murray, it’s Hunter Riley. No, don’t blame Dolores. No, I told her I was Brokaw so you’d pick up the God damned phone. How come you’ll take his calls but you won’t take mine?” He runs a finger through the coiled cord of the phone while he listens to Murray in denial.
“No, it is true, Murray. You’re my agent. You’re supposed to be helping, but you haven’t returned a single call for more than a month.
“Listen, I’m in Bakersfield. Bakersfield, Murray. You know where that is, Murray? That’s halfway between Fresno and Hell. I’ve been here two hours already, and I can’t take it any more.
“I’m not hysterical but I am deadly serious. I can’t afford to stay off the air too long. I need to get back into the anchor chair or nobody will look at me ever again. This news director’s job isn’t for me. Damn it, Murray. I’m an anchor, not a baby sitter.”
Hunter’s face is flushing. It becomes more noticeable next to the white in his knuckles as he grips the telephone at his ear. His voice is rising, and it’s lost all of its calculated soothing tone of control.
“Murray. Let me set the scene for you here. I am standing in my office looking out the window. It’s bare dirt out there and the wind is pushing tumbleweeds around like some spaghetti western, and in the lot next door is a goddamned oil rig, Murray. It’s rusted and abandoned, probably hasn’t worked in a decade and it’s sitting there in the middle of nowhere just outside my frigging window. Get the picture, Murray? That is all you need to know about Bakersfield. Bakersfield is broadcast hell.”
Hunter pauses, listens and then says, “Okay, purgatory. Don’t make fun of me. That is where my career is right now. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I wasn’t so broke and Tuttle asked me to help him out while I’m on the shelf.”
Hunter shifts the phone to his other while Murray is talking. “You’d bet your ass this has to be only temporary.”
He is direct. “Murray, I want you to call Vesterhaven up there at WBFD in Cincinnati. I know they have an opening for weekend anchor. No, don’t lie to me, Murray. They do have an opening. Aren’t you married to Vesterhaven’s cousin or something? Doesn’t he owe you any favors?”
Hunter frowns. He doesn’t like Murray’s tone. “Well, no. He doesn’t owe me anything.”
One more exchange, and then another. Each one more heated than before and panic starts to rise. It’s followed quickly by fear, desperation and finally resignation.
“Fine,” Hunter says. He is breathing deeply now, deliberately, in an effort to regain control. It’s easier now that the outcome is clear. “Go ahead. Tear up the contract. You won’t help me. I don’t really need you. I can get another agent. No, I won’t call any more.”
Murray is the only agent he’s had in twenty years. Murray helped him land the job in Chicago. Murray was full of praise and optimism back then. He consoled Hunter after the management shake-up in St. Louis cost Hunter the job there, and even stuck with him while they tried to revive Hunter’s anchor career in Des Moines.
Dumped. After all these years.
The telephone receiver hangs in Hunter’s hand for a moment as if resisting gravity. Then it drops into its cradle the same way you watch a gunfighter’s weapon linger on his trigger finger just before they both slump to the ground at the bloody end of a shoot-out on the late, late show.
-- end of excerpt --