Authors: Keith Hartman,Eric Dunn
Stonewall had been one of the first conservatives to figure out how to make hay from the situation. Under the rallying cry
One Nation under God,
he led a messianic charge against the Cherokee, painting them as godless heathen, and the World Court as a sinister foreign power bent on dismembering the United States. He promised to oppose any rulings from the Hague, using force if necessary. The tactic had won him the fanatic loyalty of the citizens of north Georgia, who were terrified of waking up one morning to find their homes and businesses standing on Cherokee land. They voted for Stonewall when he ran for the senate, they gave money to his campaigns and ministries, and they signed up for his Christian Militia.
The techie added a glint of red to the child's eyes, looked at it, and then rejected the idea. Behind us, Cantor was yelling himself hoarse. He obviously wasn't accustomed to discourse on this level.
"IF YOU'D JUST SHUT YOUR FAT MOUTH FOR A SECOND AND LISTEN, TRENT!"
I walked over to see what the other techie was doing. On her center display, she was running a clip of a fat hairy man in buttless leather pants dancing on a float. Subtitles identified the scene as a
Homosexual Recruitment Rally
. The techie was wearing headphones, and on her secondary screen she was paging through a directory of sound effects. It looked like she was picking out some suitably sinister music for the background.
To the side, she had a couple of monitors set up as virtual windows. One was looking north from the top of the building, at the midtown skyline and Piedmont Park. The other was looking down into the open area in front of the building, Freedom Plaza. Even at this time of day, it was full of pilgrims. Mostly teenagers, coming to touch the spot where Justin Weir's naked body had smashed into the pavement.
"OWEN, STONEWALL TRUSTED ME WITH THIS NETWORK! AND WHEN HE COMES BACK HE'LL..."
"WHEN HE COMES BACK? WHEN HE COMES BACK?! GET A GRIP TRENT! THE MAN MURDERED SOMEONE ON THE AIR! THEY'VE GOT AUTHENTICATED FOOTAGE OF HIM DOING IT! THEY'VE GOT THE MURDER WEAPON WITH HIS PRINTS! They've got... they've got..."
Owen voice finally gave out. He tried to croak out something in a hoarse whisper, then threw up his hands in disgust and stormed out of the room. Trent glared at him, then slumped into his chair, fuming. I moved in quickly. I wanted to catch Trent while his emotions were still hot and malleable. I walked over to him and touched him on the shoulder.
"You OK, Trent?"
He looked up at me, and the anger drained out of his eyes. Trent was old-school chivalry, which prevented him from yelling at a woman. Well, an attractive woman, anyway. The abrupt shift of emotional gears left him a little disoriented.
"Oh, hi Natalie. I'm holding up."
"You know," I said, "there are some good things about being in a crisis."
Trent raised an eyebrow.
"Tell me. I could use some good news."
"Well, for one thing, you find out who your real friends are." I nodded in the direction of the door that Owen Cantor had just walked out. "The ones who'll stick with you and see things through to the end."
Trent managed a half smile at that.
"You might be on to something there." He rubbed his forehead. "I guess you've brought the latest numbers?"
"Right here," I said, holding up my notebook.
He grimaced slightly, bracing himself for the bad news. "
How we doin'?"
"Crappy," I said, putting the notebook down in front of him. "But you didn't need a survey to tell you that."
Trent eyed my notebook without picking it up, then slumped down into his chair.
"Of course," I said softly, "the important stuff isn't in the numbers, anyway."
"What do ya mean?"
"The numbers will tell you that we're getting creamed. They'll tell you that the audience isn't watching our shows, they're not buying our products, and they're sure as Hell not donating to Stonewall's personal ministry. What the numbers don't tell you is how the audience feels: betrayed, angry. But above all confused. Their world has been turned upside-down. They don't know who to trust, or what to believe, and they are desperate to find someone who can make sense of it all for them."
Reed leaned back in his chair and studied my face.
"And I suppose you've got some ideas on what we should do about that?"
"Look Trent, I'm just the second banana down in Demographics. I'm not gonna tell you how to run the network. But I watch the stuff we put out, same as everyone else. And it's real obvious that you've never figured out how to handle the news about Stonewall. You've got us running stories on the Cherokee, and therapies for homosexuality, and faith healing, but you avoid any mention of the Reverend's trial. It's like you're hoping it'll just go away and everyone will forget about it. And it's making the network seem... well, ashamed. Ashamed, and weak, and uncertain about what to do. And that's killing us. Because what the people want more than anything right now is a sense of boldness, and sureness, and righteousness."
Reed's face turned red, as he leaped to the wrong assumption and exploded at me.
"What would you have me do!? Stonewall built this network! Am I supposed to stab him in the back? Join the Christian Alliance and denounce him!?"
"Just the opposite," I cut in, keeping my voice pleasant and disarming. "You've got to start defending him to the hilt."
Reed looked at me like I was crazy. Even he believed that Stonewall was guilty. I hadn't been sure of it till then.
"There's no other way," I went on. "If you tell the viewers that Stonewall tricked them, that there is no Satanic Conspiracy, no army of darkness fighting for the soul of America, then they will never have faith in anything again. These people built their world on the belief that Stonewall was right, even though the rest of the world couldn't see what was going on. All you have to do is convince them that they weren't fools to believe in him. That they were the smart ones, the ones who got it right when the rest of the world was blind. That they still are the smart ones. Believe me, it's not a difficult message to sell."
Something lit up in Reed's eyes. He was beginning to see my point.
"You've got to lay it out for them," I explained. "Stonewall was investigating a series of Satanic murders, and the next thing we know he's been arrested and charged with murder. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's been framed. How else would the Conspiracy silence its most dangerous foe? I don't know how they did it. Maybe they summoned a demon that could assume his form, or maybe they sent one to possess him. The point is that THEY are still out there. And with Stonewall in jail, they are more dangerous than ever. The network should be alerting people to the threat, fighting to get Stonewall out of prison, protesting on the courthouse steps and raising money for his legal fees."
Reed was getting caught up in the idea.
"It's a gutsy plan."
"It's the only one that works," I said. "The Christian Alliance has been hitting us hard. We need to start hitting back, branding them as the hypocritical cowards that they are. They were all too happy to make use of Stonewall when he was useful to them, but the minute he's in trouble, they turn on him like a pack of jackals. We need to stop playing defense and go on the attack."
"You've been thinking about this for a while, haven't you Natalie?"
"I care about this network," I said, as I picked up my notebook. I called up the chart that showed our ratings broken down by age groups. "This is where you need to hit the Alliance."
"The fifteen to twenty demographic group. They've mobilized against us with a vengeance. If we are going to turn the tide, we need to start with them."
Trent looked at the numbers in that column and whistled. The youngsters had been huge fans of Justin Weir, the singer that Stonewall had killed. Their hatred for the old man was like an erupting volcano.
"Not gonna be an easy row to hoe," Trent observed.
"Nothing worthwhile ever is," I said.
"You think it can be done?"
"There's still one person at this network that they trust."
I tapped on the notebook, and called up the survey for that age group. Trent read the results.
"Yeah. They've grown up watching her "school news break" every day. She's close to their age. They trust her. If you have her lead this attack, the kids will listen. And once you get them back into the fold, everyone else will fall into place."
Trent rubbed his chin while he thought about it. I gave him one last push.
"Look," I said, "either we do nothing and go under. Or we fight. And even if we lose, then at least we go down swinging."
I stood up and walked away, giving him space to think about it. As I reached the door, I lingered for a second, listening. Reed was already on the intercom, summoning copywriters for an emergency meeting.
I knew he'd take the bait.
Out in the hall, I checked my watch. Ten till five. If Reed lit a fire under the writers, they could pull together the new copy for Sandy in about half an hour. I went down to the cafeteria and killed time over a bowl of soup while I waited for them to finish. And then I went in search of Miss Roberts.
I found her in studio three, finishing up a short political skit that would run in tomorrow's
BNN Junior School News Break.
I stood by the exit and watched while a succession of puppet animals complained about the environmental movement. First a beaver told Sandy that the environmentalists wouldn't let him chop down a tree to build his home. Then a mole in a miner's helmet said that the Greens wouldn't let him dig holes in the earth to find all the beautiful things that God had hidden there for him. And finally a rabbit with a straw hat and a watering can complained that the environmentalists wouldn't even let him use fertilizer in his own garden, and now he didn't know how he was going to feed his children.
"But that doesn't seem fair!" Sandy said. "God gave all of us the earth to use. How come the environmentalists can tell the rest of us what to do with it?"
Then she looked out at the camera.
"Maybe you should all discuss that, while we take a short break."
Sandy stood flashing her hundred watt smile until the director finally said, "Great! I think we're done, people."
The puppeteers dropped their cuddly animals, and Sandy dropped the smile. A couple of her "people" rushed up to her: a beefy blond guy with a juice bottle, and a woman in her fifties who was reading something to her off a notebook. They trailed Sandy as she headed for the exit. I stepped out in front and pushed the door open for her.
"Miss Roberts?" I said, jogging backwards to stay in front of her. "Miss Roberts?"
I noticed that she had dropped the southern drawl along with the stage smile.
"I'm Natalie Blain, from Demographics. I normally wouldn't bother someone like you but..." I lowered my voice to a conspiratorial tone. "...but we really need to talk."
Sandy looked me over, doing a quick freak check. I must have passed, because she didn't tell the beefy guy to break my legs.
"Really?" she asked. "What have we got to talk about?"
"Well... I came across some stuff on the latest audience survey. And... do you know what Trent Reed is planning for you?"
That got her attention.
Sandy walked into her dressing room and waved for me to follow. She sat down at the makeup table and the beefy guy started massaging her shoulders. I made a mental note to look up his job description. The older woman stood by the door.
"So, what do ya know?" Sandy asked as she studied her own reflection in the mirror.
"Well... uh..." I stammered. Sandy glanced at me, and I eyed her entourage meaningfully. She shrugged and shooed them away.
"Satisfied?" Sandy asked, as the door closed.
"Sorry, it's just that a lot of people talk to Mr. Reed. And I don't want to lose my job."
Sandy wrinkled her forehead.
"So what's this all about?"
I took a deep breath.
"Well, like I said, I work down in Demographics. And um... well, you probably know this, but anytime the boys upstairs are thinking of a major change to a program, they start slipping things into the questionnaires that we e-mail out to the audience. You know, to try and predict their reaction to it."
I pulled out my notebook.
"Do they ever let you see raw polling results?" I asked.
"I know my approval ratings, that kind of stuff."
"But not the raw numbers, I'll bet. Not before they've had a chance to edit out what they don't want you to see."
Sandy gave a cautious shake of her head.
"No, I didn't think so. Well, this is the survey that they sent out last night." I handed her the notebook. "It probably doesn't look that out of the ordinary, unless you're used to reading these things and understand what the pollsters are really asking."