A few thoughts
The Story Behind the Story: “Speak”
Editor’s note: We published Cassandra Khaw’s story “Speak” in Fireside this week. It deals with news and sensation and right and wrong, and it tickled my dark little journalist heart. We were thrilled when Cassandra said she had more to share about the genesis of the story. (And you should check out her terrific-looking novella “Hammers on Bone,” out on Oct. 11.)
The news cycle is broken.
In theory, the media serve as curators; impartial, driven by the imperative to inform. They bring light to dark places, illuminate tragedies, thin the gap between worlds, show us what lies outside our immediate reach.
In practice, that is a soap-bubble dream, an aspiration that is often sidelined by something even more crucial: the need to keep the lights on. Whether anyone likes to admit or not, newspapers and news outlets aren’t charities. (I’m sure there are some funded by volunteer spirit, but let’s not get derailed here.) At the end of the day, your favorite rag is a business, complete with investors and bills to pay, salaries to fulfill, advertisers to satisfy.
And that last bit? That last bit is where the problem sits.
Speak emerged from my uneasy relationship with that knowledge. I’ve spent time in the news cycle, filtering through swathes of data, picking through events on Twitter, checking RSS feeds for something of note. And it is unnerving as to how quickly that experience can transform the world into numbers.
A startup begging for Kickstarter coverage? Dime a dozen. A student invention? Irrelevant unless they’ve done something really big. Suicide attempt? Depends. Did it catalyse a chorus of voices? Was it somewhere pastoral, somewhere not already perforated by conflict? Was it interesting?
When you get right down to it, it’s about what you can promise your advertisers, your sponsors, about how you can grow your readership from year to year. It’s about money.
This is a generalization, of course. Not every magazine and newspaper operates that way. And I know at least a dozen editors who will fight tooth and nail to tell the stories that need to be told, who will trade profit for purpose. They exist. They are there.
But they are few, and the serpent of capitalism is ravenous. If you want to put food on the table, you’re going to have to sell pieces of your soul.
The worst thing about all of that is how much is internalized. By and large, the news cycle devalues individuals, putting more stock in momentous events. We care about celebrities, not about the everyman. We are concerned when first-world nations erupt into flames. But when it is a country that has already been tormented for years? We ignore the explosions. We ignore the screams. After all, everyone already expects this. It’s. Not. News.
And after a few months, a few years, you forget how fundamentally horrific that mind set is. I wrote Speak after choking on my own silence, after wanting to talk about injustices, shootings, terrorist activities, and being told over and over that these weren’t part of our wheelhouse.
(Two of these topics became fundamental to the news cycle everywhere. Hm.)
I was so angry. Not at my editor. Not even at his employers. But the intrinsic brokenness that defines the entirety of this industry. Ouroborosian and starved for someone else’s pain, it feeds on its writers and on its subjects, on the people who play into the worlds that it creates.
I don’t have any answers as to how fix it. I’m not sure anyone does. I’m hoping we find out one day. The protagonist in Speak doesn’t know the answer either, but he has had enough. He’s walking out on the system. If you want to know how, you’re going to have to read the story.