3 PARK AVENUE
The Starbucks barista narrowed her eyes as she took Nate's order.
"You don't work at the magazine upstairs, do you?"
It caught Nate off guard, a stranger recognizing him from his work.
"Oh, uh, yeah. I guess we can start calling it by its real na--"
"Nope. Sorry. Next." She pointed to the door.
"I don't understand what's happening," he said.
"The two guys you work for? They're banned from here for life, and so is anybody who might pick up for them. Besides nearly starting a fuckin' fire, they traumatized a bunch of girl scouts."
"Oh. Oh shit. I didn't realize--"
"It is just stunning to me that you people haven't been ejected by the owners. You want your regular? You're going for a walk. NEXT!"
Denied his cookie, Nate walked back to the elevators. A moment of embarrassment gave way to laughter as he realized his bosses might have tried to set a girl scout troop on fire. It was weird and evil, sure, but still kind of funny.
A man burst out the elevator doors in front of Nate, hurrying for the exit, bumping into a woman, knocking her laptop bag down and scattering papers across the lobby. One hurried apology later, the man was sprinting down Park. Unable to suppress his Midwestern decency, Nate walked over to help with the mess.
"Stop, stop, stop-- just stop," she said, impatient and frustrated.
Nate was taken aback by her severity, and she saw it in his eyes. This kid was trying to help her, and she'd barked at him for his trouble. She caught herself and tried again.
"I'm sorry," she said, easing off. "This is all privileged, and it's not supposed to be lining the floor. It was sweet of you to try and help."
"How about this," he said, holding her bag open and looking away.
She let out a heavy breath and started filing the mess.
"Thank you. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have snapped at you. I'm having a bad day, but it's no excuse. Can I buy you a coffee or something?"
He smiled at the offer, but decided against explaining that she'd end up guilty by association.
"It's fine, honestly. I was just headed back upstairs, anyway."
"Well, at least let me hail you an elevator," she said as they stood.
"You here to see clients?"
"If you can call them that," she said, gesturing for him to go in first. "A mess got dropped in my lap, and I'm here to do damage control. Well, maybe triage."
Nate pressed 42. She gave him a long, searching look.
"What's your name?"
"Nate." She shook his hand.
"Esra Dawson," she said, tilting her head to see the floor numbers climb. "I used to date your boss."
"Did you end up talking to your doctor?" Fraction asked as the makeup artist finished up with him.
"I did. Now, he generally doesn't support self-diagnosis, but I explained the situation to him in some detail," Walker said, a production assistant attaching a mic to his lapel.
"He agreed with the premise, but cautioned me this might not hold up at a pharmacy."
Walker handed Fraction a prescription slip. It read "It is my medical opinion that Mr. Walker and his business partner need to become as famous as possible."
"And if a pharmacy can't fill it, well..." Walker said.
A kabuki of graphics and pensive music brought the cable news network back from commercial break, revealing Fraction and Walker opposite the anchor for the 2pm slot.
"Welcome back to The Report, I'm Riley Thomas. Coming up, we'll take a look at the ongoing conflict over the debt ceiling, and we'll update you on the escalating crisis in Crimea. Before we get to that, yesterday saw the surprise debut of "The Subvertiser", a new magazine that has readers talking and industry insiders raising their eyebrows. The first issue features articles on the political influence of the religious right, social media scandals, and the state of modern media. Joining us in the studio today are the magazine's co-editors in chief, Steven Walker and Ethan Fraction. Gentlemen, welcome."
"Thank you so much for having us," Walker said.
"Thrilled to be here," Fraction added.
"So, I've got the magazine here," the anchor said, preparing it for camera 3, "and I wanted to talk about the cover. This is a pretty bold statement to put on something you're trying to sell to the public. Was it meant as a bit of a dare?"
"No, that was a pretty flat statement of fact," Fraction said. "Critical thinking and media literacy in America have flatlined. We can rationalize our guilty pleasures all we want, but at some point we have to admit that the electorate's dopamine only spikes when they're exposed to vacuous garbage. We put a lot of energy into ignoring just how ignorant we are."
The anchor paused just a little too long, a stumble.
"You don't worry about having a combative relationship with your own readers?"
"We had to order a second printing this morning, so I'm not losing any sleep over it," Walker said.
"Our audience is whoever wants to expose themselves to challenging ideas. We're not interested in a feedback loop. If they want material tailored to their biases, they've got," Fraction paused to look around the studio, "you know, options."
"Well, the magazine certainly has some incendiary material. There's a feature from Nicole Watts about the religious right being manipulated as a voting bloc, and it makes some pretty strong claims about how Christians are incentivized to vote for the GOP. Have you received any pushback over that?"
"No," Walker said, "because they'd sooner not call more attention to themselves. Two things happen when you start delineating a cult's methods. First, you start to see how you've been indoctrinated, yourself. Second, you start to realize that your cult is uncomfortably similar to everybody else's."
"A cult? Sorry, did you just say Christianity is a cult?"
"Absolutely not. You asked us a question about the religious right in this country, not Christianity as a whole. There's a pretty easy distinction, too: the religious right aren't remotely interested in the teachings of Jesus Christ."
"Nik's piece explains a pretty clear distinction between Christians and Evangelicals. Christians are interested in the teachings of their namesake. Evangelicals are interested in obedience and advancing conservative policies. Realistically, they're just a voting bloc the GOP bribe with false promises so they can give themselves tax breaks.
"They say followers have to be 'fully broken'. They make a moral imperative of recruitment. They believe in literal terms that any day now they're all going to be taken to Heaven so they can watch the rest of us suffer through the apocalypse. We're not saying Evangelicals are a cult."
"We're saying they're a doomsday cult."
Something shifted in Nate's peripheral vision, his phone lighting up. "HOME", it read.
"Hey Mom," he said.
"Congrats on your article, sweetheart," she said. The warmth in her voice struck him. Taking the call had seemed a little like a chore. Now he felt guilty.
"How'd Dad feel about the cover," Nate asked, a little sheepish.
"It did get a chuckle out of him. He's proud. We both are. It's a good experience for you, living in the big city."
Nate winced. She hadn't read it.
"Have you talked to the university about when you're going to come back? I know you're dad's nervous about you being able to graduate," she said.
There it is, Nate thought. And in record time.
"Actually, I may be able to finish up from here," he said.
"I guess we're just concerned that being so remote might hurt your chances when you want to get your masters. They might think you ran off to join the circus." She said it with a bit of a chuckle, assuming Nate was on-side.
"I didn't join the circus, Mom, I took a job. And I like it here. These guys are doing something big, and I get to be a part of it."
"Sure, but what are you going to do when the contract is over? This is great for now, but you need to have a plan."
"Mom, my contract isn't up for almost a year."
"But honey, you're not a journalist. This is kind of a fluke, isn't it? It might not last, and you need something stable."
Nate shut his eyes, his teeth starting to grind. He wanted to know if she'd only called to tell him he was out of his depth.
"Well, for the time being this is stable, and I don't think they'd appreciate me eyeing the exits eleven months ear--"
"Oh, your dad's just coming in, let me put him on."
"I'm on deadline for something, can I call you guys back?"
Nate ended the call, letting out a long exhale. He was ahead of his deadline. A hand rested on his shoulder. Watts.
"Hey," she said. There was something in her voice. She'd heard the call.
"The guys are gonna be on in a few minutes, everybody's watching on the big screen. Come on."
"How much of that did you hear?"
"Well, I wouldn't be much of a reporter if I weren't nosy."
"So, all of it."
"Only ninety-nine percent."
"You know, I read your stuff before the guys brought you in," she said.
"You should stick around."
"There's an article in the issue called 'Forecasting the Narrative Ecosystem'. It's a fascinating idea about the relationship between stories, and I wanted to ask about the author. A lot of your staff come from established publications, but this is the first piece by a Nathan Adler that's seen print. Is this a newcomer, or does the Subvertiser have a pseudonym on the payroll?"
"Adler's a 22-year-old boy genius we abducted from Ohio State, not a Ronan Farrow pseudonym," Fraction said. "His piece is the start of a year-long series. I'd try explaining it on television, but we'd be hitting a syllable count audiences aren't comfortable with."
The anchor paused, then tapped a pen on the desk.
"Well, we'll have to see if there's an APB out for him," the anchor said with just a bit of an edge.
"It's a big idea," Walker said with a cordial tone. "People talk about prevailing trends, but they don't think of them as interacting with each other. Nate says if you can appreciate the scope of it and see the patterns, it's a lot less chaotic than it seems. And there might be an almost-algorithmic way of understanding it."
"How do you see the magazine in relation to other outlets?"
"It's a lot easier to stand out when everyone's doing the same thing," Fraction said. "Blogs, print, social media, TV networks— they've all decided the best way at audience retention is short-term dopamine feedback loops. They exacerbate and prey on group identity, pitting people against each other so they can live in self-satisfied filter bubbles that celebrate and reinforce group identity.
"Where we fit in is the gaping hole that was left when the industry decided to openly treat audiences as something to be algorithmically managed."
Another pen tap.
"But people are consuming that content."
"Don’t conflate the audience’s lack of meaningful choices with agency," Walker said.
"People do vote with their dollar, though."
"Explain to us how someone would vote with their dollar to move a network towards substantive, nuanced coverage," Fraction said.
Three pen taps. Loud ones.
"I think we're already doing that."
"Last night in the 8pm block I saw eight heads in little boxes yelling talking points at each other," Fraction said. "If the person handling your closed captioning needs a dozen extra arms to do their job correctly, there's a solid chance you're just producing noise."
"We do the news, and for my money we're the best, most unbiased network in the business."
"Forget for a second that what you call journalism is an incurious reading of the headlines and tribalism posing as debate. You're selling a product that provides a thrill at the expense of the audience's intellect and awareness. And if it sounds like I'm accusing you of being a crack dealer, it's because I am."
"Okay, thank you very much for your time, gentlemen," the anchor said, turning to camera one.
"Coming up, we'll talk to the former ambassador to Ukraine about the threat of further annexation. I'm Riley Thomas, you're watching—"
The anchor stopped short. There had been no cut to camera one from the wide shot. Dead air filled their earpiece. The control room was empty.
"It looks like we're having some technical difficulties," the anchor said.
Walker tapped a pen on the desk.
Nate's phone went off before he could join the staff. "JAMIE". He drew a blank as to why his thesis adviser was calling and slid his thumb across the screen.
"Hey, what's up?" Nate said.
"Well, some things," Jamie said with some weight. "Have you got a couple minutes to talk?"
"Sure, I'm just trying to find an empty-- yeah, I'm good. What's going on?"
"Okay," Jamie said with a sigh. "Nate, I won't be able to keep advising on your thesis. And I'm sorry."
"Is everything alright? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. This-- it's not a decision I made myself," Jamie said. "The department was okay with you taking the year when I sent you there, but," he trailed off. "They're nervous about being affiliated with the magazine, and there's probably pressure from donors. Fraction and Walker pissed off a lot of people with deep pockets yesterday."
"Wait, so they re-assigned you because you sent me here? You just made a referral, it’s not like--"
"No. They're not letting anyone serve as your advisor. That's what I'm trying to say. They don't want to go through the hassle or the PR backlash of trying to get rid of you, so they're starving you out."
"Wait, they won't even let me finish?" Nate said, panic setting in.
"I'm sorry. They may back off when this dies down." He let out a long exhale. "You didn't do anything wrong here, and you don't deserve this. If I knew this would happen, I never would have referred you." Jamie went on, but Nate was barely paying attention. His academic career had been pronounced dead over the phone. Would he have to start over? Could he even start over? His mother's words rang in his ears as he felt his future evaporating.
"Let me make some calls and see what we can do to get this back on track," Jamie said. "I own this, and I'm going to make it right. I promise."
"Thank you," Nate said softly.
"Nate, I read your piece in the magazine," Jamie started. "It was word-for-word perfect. You took a brilliant, complex idea—your idea—and made it accessible. I mean, have you searched your name on the web today? Or checked your e-mail?"
"I've been in meetings most of the morning," Nate said, reflexively anticipating bad news.
"You're at the epicenter of the biggest thing to happen to the literary world in decades. We'll find a way to fix things with the school eventually, but... I mean, do you not realize you're probably going to be famous?"
The anchor was a consummate professional, pivoting before the air was flooded with silence. They searched Fraction and Walker. Something was wrong, and the two hadn't blinked.
"Gentlemen, since we still have you, let's talk about the magazine a little more. Robert Morris takes social media companies to task for their psychographics practices in a feature. Do you think it's unfair to criticize the big tech for a marketing tool used by everyone from Coca-Cola to Ikea?"
"Well, that's a fair point," Walker conceded. "And the data on what Swedish furniture is doing to our neurochemistry is overwhelming. Honestly, I can't go five minutes without checking my couch for notifications."
"There's no need to be sarcastic," the anchor responded.
"And there's no reason to go easy on these guys. In the space of a decade, they reformatted our neurochemistry without consequence. Zuckerberg isn't some child prodigy made good, or a benevolent captain of industry. Venture capitalists don't heap millions on start-ups that just want to make 'a more open and connected world'. Facebook is a tool for collecting consumer data and selling access to it. That's the price of admission for any real conversation about the company. Anything else is an abdication of responsibility."
"So covering stories like the Cambridge Analytica scandal or the company's role in the Myanmar genocide— that just didn't cut it for you?"
"Not when it's the exception to the rule and buried in a weekend D-block. You're unwilling to challenge your audience because it's too difficult, and it's too difficult because you stopped challenging them."
"Not everyone wants to turn on the news and be lectured every night. If it's the case that only more discerning viewers such as yourself are willing to watch more esoteric content, then putting it in the A-block on a weekday is a good way to lose the majority of your audience."
"If you keep treating the audience like idiots, then the electorate will continue behaving as such. Now I get that you're not comfortable asking people to eat their vegetables, but you work in the fucking produce department."
"So, I'm curious then," the anchor began, "which bygone era would you like the news to emulate? Should a president be afraid that losing me means they've lost middle America? Is there a senator whose witch hunt I should be crusading against?"
"Well, yeah to most of that," Fraction said, as if he'd just had to explain Raisin Bran. "Why does doing the bare minimum to serve the public good always seem like starry-eyed idealism to people paid a hundred grand a year to read tweets?"
"You don't get to decide what the public good is, Mr. Fraction."
"You shouldn't get to dodge the question of what the public good IS. Being feckless and noncommittal between Cialis ads doesn't sound like it's serving your audience."
"So I take it you've formulated a perfect alternative to advertiser-supported media outlets."
"No, but I've got a terrific method of identifying straw man arguments," Fraction said. "If you want to drop your principles like third period French, fine, but don't sit here and tell me you're the last bastion of truth in public discourse."
"Since you're so adamant about the truth, at the top I mentioned your magazine was controversial. A number of sources claim you've effectively hijacked it from your publishers and frozen them out. Care to comment?"
"Sure," Walker said. "We did that."
Nate watched with the staff, as speechless as everyone else. After giving a respectable five seconds for their pronouncement to settle in, Fraction turned to camera 2.
"Coming up: someone will feed you a first-grader's version of geopolitics, pretend that you have a role in the democratic process, and tacitly suggest that you only matter if you're famous. I'm Ethan Fraction, and you're watching this on a device that has more control of your neurochemistry than you do."
What followed was the first Cialis commercial to be buried by applause. Drinks were poured and work stopped for the day at 2:30.
The ground beneath Nate's feet felt even more unsteady. He'd been ejected from university for working at what he just realized was a pirate magazine run by lunatics. Even worse, he worried his parents might have been right. Seeing the wheels turning in his head, Ash handed him a drink.
"What's this?" he said.
"Southern Comfort and ginger ale. Viva la revolution," she said, raising her glass.
"They stole the magazine?"
"It can't be theft if it's legal."
"Are we going to get shut down? I mean, I signed a lease and--"
Ash held his shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Listen. Breathe, and have some of the excellent beverage I just handed you. A lot just happened, but I know for a fact-- A FACT-- that you're safe. Oh, but maybe don't pick up your phone for a little bit, because you just got name-checked on the biggest thing to happen on cable news in a couple decades."
Nate's eyes widened.
"Okay, I know how to handle this. Finish that," Ash started, pausing to watch Nate down the drink in one sip. "Don't know if that was a good idea, but I like your attitude! Let's switch you over to beer and get you to actually talk to some of your coworkers."
"I talk to people," Nate said, a shade defensive.
"You talk to me, the guys, and otherwise you're burying yourself in research. AND-- you just got singled out by the bosses on TV. A lot of these people don't know who you are, and the jealous ones will start thinking you're aloof and superior if you don't prove otherwise."
"They don't know that. So they'll fill in the blanks as they see fit."
It gave Nate pause. Less because she was right, and more because he was starting to figure out she might be the smartest person there.
THE FOLLOWING COULD BE OVERHEARD DURING THE PARTY.
CONTEXT IS FOR THE WEAK AND WILL NOT BE PROVIDED.
WALTER (COPY EDITOR): Have you guys noticed the smell in this place?
ANA (CREATIVE DIRECTOR): No, but I'm usually high anyway.
ROB (SENIOR WRITER): I don't smell anything.
WALTER (COPY EDITOR): Exactly. The entire office is completely scent neutral. Not like a sterile hospital smell-- it's just the absence of scent.
ASH (UNKNOWN): Oh God, yeah, I’ve seen this one. So bad.
NATE (4 DRINKS): Look at the view count, though.
ASH (UNKNOWN): 75 million.
NATE (5 DRINKS): Even if people only watched a minute of her video, that's like 140 years in total. Technically she's a murderer.
WATTS (SENIOR WRITER): Apparently his car got blown up. Real Terry Benedict stuff.
PRIYA (MARKETING): You hear about Fraction's place?
WATTS: I talked to him this morning. He actually ended up in the black after selling the bricks.
The setting sun poured in the southwest windows, gold light casting across the office. Walking back from the kitchen with a beer, Nate slowed to a pause. In the distance he saw a group scattered around the big screen; Ash was getting crushed by Ana at a video game, Esra stood talking with Rob and Watts. There was a surreal quality to the moment.
Nate was atop a New York City skyscraper. Where he worked for a magazine as an essayist. At a work party on a Thursday afternoon. Hanging out with a girl he liked.
The deep orange light lent itself to the feeling he'd wandered into some halcyon age. People were relaxing in the sun, seemingly unburdened by anxiety. Tellingly, it took a second to put his finger on it.
He felt safe.
Then the gorilla walked by.
The boys had returned to celebrate. Both their triumph over journalistic malpractice and exploitation of a tenuous host/executive producer relationship had been resounding successes. Fraction emerged from his office with drinks and gripped the gorilla's shoulder.
"Sprinkles, we did god's work out there, today," Fraction said, trying to jam a lime into the bottle. Sprinkles didn't respond, but his mask's dead ocular cavities clearly articulated his fury.
"Kid, I hear we ruined your life," Walker exclaimed, accepting a beer from Fraction.
"You didn't--" Nate started.
"I just talked to Jamie, we one hundred percent ruined your life," Walker said. "But like I always say, if you set a girl scout on fire, it's up to you to put them out.
"I teach at Columbia, we can make a transfer happen. If Ohio State decides to play hardball, we're not above making trouble with a bunch of gorillas."
"Actually, there's a solid chance we'll end up doing that, anyway," Fraction said, still trying to push the lime in with a finger too short to be remotely effective. "You're also getting a raise. Standard practice whenever we jeopardize somebody's future."
"Well. Unless they have their own TV show," Walker added. "Then we're liable to send a sympathy bouquet--"
"You're back," Ash said, suddenly tense.
"I have arrived and this time you should believe the hype," Fraction said.
"Neat. So, good news: every bookstore and newsstand in the city's been picked clean of the magazine."
"Excellent, thank you for telling us this good money thing."
"Yeah, bad news: every capable printer in the country just blacklisted us," Ash said. "We have no way of getting the second issue made."