Elizabeth Bear joins the Trump Story Project with a tale of the fake news industry

The Trump Story Project: You Too Can Have an Exciting Career in Fake News

The Trump Story Project: You Too Can Have an Exciting Career in Fake News

Novels, stories, and more.
Feb. 16 2017 7:14 PM

“What Someone Else Does Not Want Printed”

Comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

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Lisa Larson-Walker

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Lisa Larson-Walker

In the Trump Story Project, we’re presenting a series of short stories from contemporary writers, compiled by Ben H. Winters, imagining America’s future under President Donald Trump. This series was made possible by support from Slate Plus members. Read Ben Winters’ introduction to the series.

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This isn’t the world I wanted.

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Let’s be honest; this isn’t the world anyone wanted. Except for maybe about a thousand sociopaths with the grift sense to be making a killing, and a few tens of thousands of disaster preppers who get to say I told you so.

It’s not even the future the people who voted for it wanted: They got sold what my grandfather would have called a bill of goods. The fact that some of the rest of us have figured out how to make a living off the carnage, in a small way, doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. It just means we’re keeping our heads above water in hard times.

Which was why I was staring at the brief for the alticle I was supposed to be writing, frowning, while the timer on my screen ticked down from 30 minutes. I’d accepted the brief: an easy one, not much research required to sell it.

Then I’d started thinking about it.

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Now I had under 26 minutes left to bang it out, or I not only wasn’t going to get paid; I was going to get docked for delaying the queue.

Most of the employees at Spin, the boutique news agency I worked for, kept earbuds in. We didn’t need to communicate with each other. The office was basically an old-school boiler-room operation, except instead of dozens of us on phones—shouting, whispering, cajoling—there were dozens of us at rows of linoleum desks, Googling quickly and then typing away.

I can do 120 words per minute, if I get rolling. And I can craft a convincing argument out of hairballs and fake statistics. Hell, I’ve got four-fifths of a journalism degree. Keep your wrist braces on and you can make a pretty good living doing what I do. Especially since Spin gives me a cut of the ad money once an alticle goes above 10,000 impressions.

I must have grunted or sighed, because Carl who sat across from me hit his TRANSMIT key, then glanced at me over our monitors, glasses slipping down his broad nose. He was like me—didn’t like earbuds. Too easy for people to sneak up on you. “Stuck, Winston?”

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“Horrified.”

He looked back down. I could see from the colors reflected in his lenses that he was scrolling through briefs, looking for his next newsgig. Flick. Flick. “How bad is it?”

“We can’t keep them out.”

Furrows plowed his face around the frown. “Can’t keep who out?”

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“Climate refugees.”

Flick. Flick. “They voted for it.”

Not much I could say to that. Yes but. They were duped into thinking it wasn’t real. Yes and. They decided to ignore the evidence, when plenty of other people didn’t.

I sat there with my mouth half-open so long that he looked up again. “What’s the brief?”

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“Climate-change denial arguing the refugees from the Gulf States coming to New England are economic migrants who don’t really need to move and who will take jobs away from hard-working Yankees. They want something militant, in support of the border patrols and the New Minutemen.”

Carl sucked his teeth softly. “I’ve got some sympathy for the Minutemen, honestly. Not like we’re going to get any money from the feds to help feed and house a bunch of refugees.”

“The feds are broke.”

“The feds gave all our money to their cronies to pay for what used to be considered public services. And honestly, I don’t see that it’s really our problem that Florida is underwater, you know what I’m saying? We tried to tell them. We prepared.”

“Kind of a brutal irony that it was the bits of the U.S. least economically able to deal with climate change that were the most desperate to deny it.”

“People are real good at not seeing things that mean work or inconvenience until they can’t be avoided.” He shrugged. “ ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed.’ This—” The mocking sweep of his hand took in the whole bullpen “—this isn’t journalism. You can write this in your sleep.”

Which was the problem, when it came right down to it.

He half-stood to lean over and shoulder-surf my monitor. “Better get on it, too. You got 19 minutes left.”

“Trade you?” I asked, as his hand moved to accept his next brief.

“Thanks,” he said. “Think I’ll stick with this here Idaho militia guerrilla-war apologia. Though I don’t know why we’re bothering to litigate this in the press. It’s not like the Feds have any money to do anything about them either.”

“They have private contractors for that. Anyway, they were going to save a mint by privatizing Medicare, Carl.”

“Give a mint to their friends. While you’re cataloging bitter ironies, write down the one where, when the libertarian militias finally went to war with the federal government, it was over losing their disability income and senior citizen benefits.” He started typing before he finished speaking.

* * *

There used to be a lot of talk about “right livelihood,” back in the ’90s and early 21st century. Making a living and making the world better, or at least not worse, while you earned your way.

Yes but. Yes and.

I wasn’t proud of my job. But I also wasn’t in debt peonage, which given 11 percent unemployment and the rollback of the federal minimum wage, put me in a better position than a lot of people. Especially in the wake of what happened to the National Labor Relations Board back in 2018.

So, I wrote the climate-change alticle.

I sourced invented quotes with two made-up representatives of the Florida state government—such as remained of it—and one real one. I filed with five minutes to spare, and got up to use the bathroom. Carl winked at me as I went.

When I got back, I found a brief for an alticle on how alligator attacks were down because the global temperature was dropping, even as tourism was up in the Florida Keys. None of these things were true, but it looked like an entertaining 15 minutes of fiction, so I clicked on it. A second later, I heard somebody off to my right mutter in disappointment.

I smiled. Mine, all mine. My colleague would just have to content herself with yet another tissue of lies about George Soros engaging in human trafficking and white slavery in order to bus illegal voters across the Canadian border. Or the puff piece on who made Putin’s shirts.

I finished with 15 of my 30 minutes to spare, just as I’d anticipated. It was nearly lunchtime. Carl refilled his mug with black tea, brewed strong in a thermal carafe. The man has a bladder of steel. I didn’t have time to pull another brief out of the queue, so I used a tunneling program to conceal my identity and used that spare 15 minutes to flick through some underground and pirate news sites that imported real journalism, so I’d have some grounding in what used to be called the mainstream news cycle before I went back into the queue. I figured out early on that if I didn’t do something like it, I started believing my own conspiracy theories. The human brain is great at making up patterns out of nothing but a few inconsistencies.

In the wake of stories about terrorist threats against polling sites, the government was recommending that states postpone voting in the federal election. Unless it was real, which I supposed was possible, the terrorism angle had propagated from a story I had written, so I forwarded it to HR for my bonus. A sheriff’s department in Mississippi had ordered water cannons turned on a line of people attempting to register to vote. The governors of Connecticut, California, and New York had vowed to call out the National Guard to defend polling places. They probably even had the budget to do it.

Al-Jazeera, in several reports about U.S. troops fighting amongst themselves in Nevada, claimed the conflict was over a vice-presidential order to seize genome-sequencing data from private firms so Homeland Security could use it to identify citizens of Middle Eastern descent and those carrying the “gay gene.” That one really sounded like it had to be an alticle, except it came with a video interview, either an Air Force colonel or a very convincing actor saying, “I have a duty to refuse an illegal order.”

It had been picked up by Reuters, but a few of my stories have been too, so you never know. A little Googling didn’t clear it up, but led me to some interesting stuff on officials in the IRS blocking administration attempts to use the tax code to harass private citizens, and an underground railroad for Muslims supposedly running through Minnesota into Canada.

The president was on another rally tour, and he had fired half his staff again. He was holding a call-in runoff for replacement Cabinet secretaries, and I set an alarm on my phone so I’d remember to ring the number and vote for Ted Nugent for Homeland Security after I ate my lunch.

Why not, right? None of them are going to last six months anyway.

I pushed my keyboard aside and pulled the food out of my insulated bag while I scanned the queue. If I found a good brief now, I could think about it while I ate, and that would be like having extra time, as long as nobody else snagged it out from under me. The good ones tended to go fast ... but everybody slowed down a little after lunch.

I swallowed the first bite of my sandwich and washed it down with a swig of seltzer. Carl submitted another alticle and grinned at me while he popped tupperware. Leftover spaghetti; his lunch looked better than mine.

I poked at the matted sprouts on top of the soft white cheese and oily sun-dried tomatoes. “It’s time we admitted to ourselves that marinated mozzarella is just mozzarella in a coat of canola oil and stopped paying extra for it. It doesn’t actually taste any different.”

Carl shook his head. “Just because you have no tastebuds, man. You still eat sprouts?”

“I like sprouts.”

“Those things are a Petri dish, unless you grow your own. Not like the FDA is doing inspections anymore.” He twined spaghetti around his fork with his left hand, scrolled briefs with his right. Flick. Flick.

I was flicking too.

“Spending all their money prosecuting sedition.”

Flick. Those climate refugees were still nagging me. “How do you live with it, Carl?” Flick. Flick.

He huffed, a choked up laugh, and didn’t need to ask what I meant. “You gotta have a secret.” If he was about to tell me one, he corked it with a mouthful of pasta and chewed. The rich smells of garlic and oregano filled me anew with regret for my sandwich.

“Like a mistress?”

He swallowed before he grinned, thank God. “The truth is a mistress, I guess, when you’re married to a job like this.”

I winced.

He waved his fork in the air. “It may not be literally true. But it’s thematically true.”

“Whatever the hell that means,” I grumped. “Sounds like Newspeak.”

And because it was still sitting there unloved, I picked up that damned George Soros story. I’d rather fake a Hillary sex tape any day.

* * *

The next morning, the Department of Homeland Security—or their privatized mercenaries, who I think were operated by some relative of a Cabinet member—arrested my friend Carl. The feds didn’t have much power anymore: The states were Balkanized and two-thirds of federal law-enforcement personnel had quit or been downsized or fired. But there was always money for cronies and the family members of cronies, and their private-sector paramilitary could field three guys in black tactical gear, toting semi-automatic weapons, in a getup that looked more calculated to intimidate than to provide protection.

I noticed the Slackwater guys as soon as they came into the bullpen, about a minute and a half before they located Carl. At first, I had no idea they were headed our way. I was wary, but wary the way a rabbit is when a hawk passes along the treeline, not as if it were circling overhead.

Carl glanced over that them. His skin went greenish and his lips tightened, but his expression stayed calm. I think now he must have spent weeks rehearsing in his head what he would do if they came for him.

“I left you something in your desk,” he said conversationally. “The password is Joseph McCarthy.”

He stood, and was facing them when they reached him. The smallest one stepped forward and through the glass of his riot helmet said, “Carl Woods, you are under arrest for fomenting rebellion, sedition, and giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States of America.”

I had jumped up too, and as I took a step forward the mercenaries rattled their tactical gear. Like snakes.

Carl glanced over. “No, you should stand back. If anything happens to me because I was stupid, I prefer you’re around to lecture my corpse.”

“And call the ACLU,” I said.

The son of a bitch actually winked at me.

It was the last time I ever saw his face, though his name turned up on a list of detained terrorist sympathizers. In alphabetical order. Down near the bottom.

You think you’ll be brave, stand up. I just stood there staring after him while my timer counted down 200 seconds as they led him away in handcuffs.

My tax dollars at work.

* * *

It took me 20 minutes of poking around between alticles to find the thing in my desk, which was pushed into the back of the top drawer among the ink-stained rubber bands and rusty paper clips. It was a flash drive. I almost slotted it into my work machine, but at the last second I realized how stupid that would have been. I took it to a public library in a very small town out on State Route 9. Just drove until I found one you could see from the road, an OPEN flag flapping beside the door. It was a Victorian brownstone with gargoyles on the downspouts, no doubt built by some guilt-stricken local industrialist during the Gilded Age. We used to get a better class of robber baron.

Librarians are fiercer in defense of the First Amendment than anybody else I’ve ever heard of. I asked if there was a public computer and she smiled sunnily and said, “Over there. Half an hour limit, but that’s only if somebody else wants to use it.” She gestured around the empty hall.

I sat down in the chair and put the flash drive in, entered the password Carl had whispered. It took two tries before I got the spaces and capitalization right. The drive contained a folder with a couple of word-processor files. One file was just a 10-digit number. The other was a note from Carl.

If you can call something a note when it’s unsigned and undated and there is no greeting, just a bullet list of facts. It didn’t look anything like a letter. It looked like research notes for a story.

But I knew what it was and who it was meant for.

Here is what it said:

  • The International Military Tribunal opened in Nuremburg on 20 November 1945.
  • Among the twenty-four Nazis tried on a variety of charges were Julius Streicher and Hans Fritzsche, the Nazi propagandists, who were charged as war criminals.
  • Streicher was editor of Die Stürmer, a newspaper that printed a number of articles calling for the “Final Solution” in regard to the Jews.
  • Fritzsche was the head of the radio division of the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, a relatively minor official under Goebbels.
  • Fritzsche was acquitted, but later found guilty in a West German court. He was likely brought to trial largely because Goebbels was dead, and therefore unavailable to answer for his crimes.
  • The Tribunal found Streicher guilty of crimes against humanity. This was in large part because they found a direct link between his articles calling for the elimination of the Jewish people, and the effectiveness of the extermination camps.
  • They sentenced him to be hanged by the neck until dead, which sentence was carried out on October 16th, 1946.

* * *

Those 10 digits just about have to be a phone number, don’t they?

* * *

I bought a burner phone today.

I know how Carl lived with it, now. And I know what I can do to help the climate refugees.

It’s true. They voted for it. They could have done the research. They could have thought past somebody who made them feel good about themselves, told them there were simple solutions that didn’t involve learning new things and facing change.

But in the final analysis, what it comes down to for me is that they were duped. And maybe they allowed themselves to be duped. Con artists rely heavily on the willing participation and self-delusion of the people they con.

But they were duped, in part, by people like me.

This isn’t the world I wanted. I wish I had not been born into this time.

Yes but. Yes and.

Somebody must do something. Say something.

And God help me, I have four-fifths of a journalism degree.