Saturday, April 3, 2010

What Gets Read

Every week, the fiction board at has a theme challenge. This week's was:
The characters of Touhou, who are in the real world for whatever reason (justify it however you want, if at all), must deal with the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life. They may keep their special powers and danmaku if you wish, or they can be mundane; it's completely up to you. Tone can be whatever you wish. All I ask for is an urban, modern-day setting.

So this is my entry.

It's the morning meeting. Graphic design, sales, subscriptions and four of us journalists are there. Ted, the editor, is there, as is our publisher extraordinaire, Laura. Aya is not. But we'll wait for her, and pretend it's no problem that she came in late, again. That's because her stories have doubled our readership in the past year. She's broken amazing news, her writing is simple, fast-paced and engaging. She's the star of the paper and she is a fraud who I am determined to expose.

Not that I have any proof she's a fraud, mind you. She covers her tracks well enough. There were times I thought I was maybe just a little jealous, and inventing reasons to find fault. But now I'm convinced. Her stories are just a little too good. The interviewees say all the right things. The narrative is a little too tidy. More than anything else, though, my gut tells me Aya cooks stories.

I've tried talking to Ted about this. He seems on the fence. That's because Laura adores Aya. Every time Aya walks into the room, you can practically see the dollar signs flashing in Laura's eyes. Sales naturally love her - ad space sells itself. If Ted were to kick the hornet's nest and lock down her office while he did some deep cleaning, it's likely the whole office would hate him. I can tell he agrees with me, but he always says, "Even if you were right, my hands are tied here." I suppose he's right.

At last, Aya arrives. She strides in with a smile, a crisp "Sorry I'm late everyone!" and drops her jacket and laptop bag into the first available seat. "I just had a really interesting conversation on my way in today." She grins conspiratorally, pausing for effect. I don't roll my eyes.

Laura raises an eyebrow, grinning. "Well, do tell."

Aya chuckles a little through her nose, which always makes me want to snap a pencil. I make a note to do that later. "I was coming out of the café, when this homeless man approaches me. I thought he was going to ask for change, but instead he introduces himself. Says he recognizes me from the paper."

Ted and I look at each other. He briefly clears his throat.

"So what did he want?" Ted asks Aya.

"Well, he said he's a traveling musician. He travels all around the country by stowing away on freight trains."

"Really?" says Laura. "I didn't know people still did that."

"Oh they do. And he told me some amazing stories about the society of people who 'ride the rail' as he put it." She makes air-quotes, too. "I'm going to see him right after the meeting to get an exclusive."

Ted nods. "Alright, that could be an interesting slice-of-life piece. Maybe some quirky news story."

"No, come on, Ted." Laura chides. "This is ... feature material. You know, the country's forgotten underworld. A people forgotten by time. The way it's kind of a metaphor for the economy and stuff. Yes." She turns to Aya. "I'm thinking feature."

Of course she's thinking feature. Aya could do a feature on the greenness of grass, Laura would rubber stamp it.

Aya beams. "Thanks, Laura. Well then! Guess I better get going. You sure know how to make me work!"

"Hey, don't mention it," Laura kids back. With a brief wave, Aya is out again.

We all look at each other momentarily. Ted doesn't seem pleased. This is the second time Laura has made an overriding editorial decision in the past few months. She used to let Ted call all the shots, but lately, she's been pushing to get Aya out in front of everything.

Sales briefly run down the numbers for the past week. Laura is pleased with this, so she adjourns the meeting. The other journalists, myself included, had no purpose here. I sigh, and go back to my desk.

Scrolling through the police blotter for something remotely interesting later that morning, Ted comes up to my desk. He sits on the edge, looking at his coffee for a moment, not saying anything.

"Do it," he says at last. "You think Aya's cooking stories? Bring me proof. Solid evidence. You don't have to have your name involved if you don't want, but-"

"No, that's alright." I tell him, without hesitation. "I don't mind if you tell them I was the one who found her out. It'd be my pleasure."

Ted nods, gives my shoulder a little clap, and leaves. I open my desk, get my dictaphone and digital camera, and I'm out of the office.

Aya's easy to find, of course. She's at the café, sitting at a table in the back, typing in her laptop, earphones in. That's another thing. I have never seen Aya Syameimaru on the scene of anything. Sure, when I interned she took me with her a couple times. Interviews with someone from city hall, basic Q&A. But even then it seemed like a put on. Like she was faking her way through it. At the time, I just took it to mean she works on the fly - no prepared questions or follow-ups, the barest research on the subject beforehand. And she could pull it off, too. Even I was impressed at first. Maybe even a little star-struck.

I think I started to wise up the time she reported on this jazz performance last spring. She was griping about the assignment from the moment she got it, but Ted told her they were really short on interns. Aya doesn't normally do music. Reluctantly, she covered it, and came back with a glowing review of the performance. The way she described the tiny bar, the atmosphere, the different turns the music took as it was performed, you could almost feel as though you were there yourself. It was great work.

Then about a week later, I went to the same bar. They'd advertised another jazz ensemble, a trio, and so I was curious to see if these guys could live up to the same standard as the band Aya reported on. I remarked to the bartender that I heard last week's performance had been pretty amazing. "Yeah, could say that." He smiled. "The band had to stop playing after the third song because the drummer got a call from his wife that she was going into labor."

Now, it's possible Aya saw some of the performance. But this kind of detail is exactly the kind of thing she would put in a story. No question. And yet, it was never mentioned. It got me thinking about her other stories. I realized that yeah, a lot of them have a very similar narrative to them. And that grain of suspicion has snowballed into me at this café right now, watching Aya typing away.

I approach her table and seat myself. I reach into my jacket pocket and turn on my dictaphone.

"Hey Aya," I say cheerfully enough. "What are you working on?"

She is clearly annoyed, and does a bad job hiding it, but probably thinks it doesn't show. "Oh, just putting together some questions for my rail-rider, heh."

"Yeah, OK. Hey, amazing luck that, by the way."

"Mhm." She responds, and begins typing again.

"Where did you say you ran into him again? A café, right?" I press.

"That's right."

"This one?"

"No, another one."

"Which one?"

"The one up around the corner there. I can never remember the name of the place."

I do. I know the name and location of every business within a ten block radius. "Soul Shack? Fast Eddie's? Art's Bagels?"

"Yeah, Fast Eddie's." Aya says, eyes still on the keyboard, typing.

"Fast Eddie's closed last October."

"Alright, well, obviously not that one then. Look, do you mind?" Aya looks up now. "I have a feature to work on. It's a lot of work to do a feature, maybe you'll get to find out for yourself some day."

That's just about enough to set me off. "Oh some day huh? Mighty generous of you, star journalist. Thanks for seeing the potential in me."

Aya looks up again. This time, she doesn't say anything for a moment. She then closes the lid of her laptop.

"Alright, Hatate." She says steadily. "What's your problem?"

I don't care about finesse anymore. I know I should back off and just follow her. But instead I say it. "I think you cook stories."

She laughs derisively through her nose and shakes her head. But she doesn't deny it. Then she leans forward a bit. "Hatate, let me ask you something. What's the most important thing the news can do?"

"Inform people." I answer at once.

"Wrong. It needs to be read first. If it is not read, then it cannot inform, correct?" It's rhetorical. I just let her continue. "And what makes someone want to read the news? You probably think it's to become informed, right? You'd be wrong again. I could become informed about the state tax code if I read it." She takes out a pen, fiddling with it between her fingers as she talks. "You could become informed the same way. But neither one of us are ever going to read the tax code, as informative as that would be to read. And you know why?"

"Because it would be dead boring." Of course. I had a feeling I knew where this was going. I adjusted the dictaphone in my pocket as furtively as I could.

"That's right. People read the news because they want to feel like they're getting informed. Look at how everything these people read bills itself." She gestures to a magazine rack against the opposite wall. "Look at those titles. 'Ten Ways to a Slimmer You'. 'How to Make Your Money Work for You'. 'Why the Middle East Peace Plan Will Fail'. Snazzy, snappy titles, and you can bet the articles lean far more heavily on story than facts. You read a neat little story that gets your blood pumping, and you can put down the paper with the self-satisfaction of being an informed person."

She laughs, putting her pen down. "It doesn't matter what's true or not in these stories. What matters is that people read them. I write articles people read. People reading means people subscribing. And of course you know what that means." She levels her eyes against mine. "So grow up. You can sit at your tiny desk with your quaint ideas about news and feel smug. I have a story to write. So if you'll excuse me."

I hesitate a moment. I imagine myself reaching into my pocket, and slowly, dramatically, showing her the running dictaphone. I decide, no, that's alright. It'll be worth it to see her face as she's carrying her stuff out of the office.

"Alright then, ace reporter," I smirk, rising. "You have a great day now." I leave her, hitting the street.

True, she didn't outright admit that she makes things up, but she might as well have with that little lecture. Guess she couldn't help schooling the junior reporter a bit, gloating over me. I've seen it before - someone too big for their britches tripping over their own feet spectacularly. And the bigger they come ...

Laura, Ted and myself are in Ted's office. I've been back all of thirty minutes. The moment I walked in, I went straight to Ted's office and played him the recording. He blanched as he listened. When at last the recording stopped. He took a deep breath, and wiped his face downwards, slowly, with both hands.

"How many stories do you think she's cooked?" He asked at last, to no one in particular. "How many are we going to have to recant? Oh god. This is ... really not good." He took another deep breath. I could see he was in agony, the poor guy.

"Look, Ted-" I began, but he picked up the phone, and held up a finger to me. "Just hold that thought. I have to call Laura."

Now the three of us are listening to Aya's soliloquy about how readability trumps facts. Ted is standing, looking out the window. Laura is at Ted's desk. She is listening attentively. I watch the two of them, and think about the paper. It's done. We're going to be a laughing stock. I'd thought of that, of course, but even losing my job is worth it if it means Aya never works for so much as a sewing club newsletter again.

When I started at this paper it was struggling, but it had integrity. Everyone worked crazy hours for less than the guy making our coffee makes, but that was because we had a name. We were known for investigative pieces. We blew the lid off a bribes-for-redistricting scandal before any other news source, which led to the dissolution of city hall and emergency elections. That story went national. That's what made us who we were. That's why I wanted to work here. And that's why Aya doesn't belong here.

At long last the recording ends. Laura nods. She turns to Ted. "So what's the problem?"

Ted is used to this. Laura can be a little slow on the uptake. "Aya basically admitted she's cooking stories." I said. "She makes things up."

Laura appears confused. "I didn't hear her say that."

"Not those exact words, no," Ted cuts in. "But everything she's saying, she's saying it's ... I mean come on. What are we to assume here?"

"Nothing." Laura says, calmly. "We don't make assumptions about our journalists around here. Especially ones this serious." She stands. "Ted, do you remember how things were here before Aya showed up? Do you remember the staff full of interns, and one underpaid full-timer? The burned-out sales team? Because I do." She walks towards the door. She doesn't even look at me. "I'm not prepared to go back to the way things were. Least of all not based on ... an assumption." With that, she's out the door. She doesn't even say good-bye.

Ted leans against the window of his office, hands in his pockets. He appears defeated, shoulders slumped, head bowed. I feel incredibly insulted.

"What the hell is that woman's problem?" I say to Ted. "We all heard what Aya said. Is she really going to let this slide?"

Ted shrugs. "What do you think?" He pauses a moment. "Can't say I'd much enjoy being known as the editor of the story-cooker, either. I'd likely never work again."

Ted's words make me more broken-hearted than angry. He's right. There's not a damn thing anyone can do. So I bite my tongue. "Guess I'll get back to work." I say, rising, and head for the door.

"Hatate," Ted says. I turn. He steps away from the wall, picking up my dictaphone from his desk, and hands it to me. He looks as though he's starting a few different sentences at once inside his head, but just says, “Don't forget this.”

I nod, and go back to my desk. Back to the police blotter. And Aya sits at the café a few blocks away, typing in her laptop, making a story that people will want to read.

(Image: Pixiv)