She was a woman who wore many hats. No!, I didn’t think that, thought Lydia Hawkins. It was the sort of thing an officious busybody would say besides being a ridiculous metaphor, conjuring up not versatility but some ungainly cross-dressed male popping up over and again in various and sundry headgear. Monty Python. Old hat. There was not a phrase she could think of with a hat in it that should ever be uttered by a person with any self-respect. But this was what happened on a new project. Her mind racing with words, words, words, starting with the wrong ones. Slogans, clichés, packaged expressions. Part of the process, she told herself and knew she was talking through her hat.
Lydia Hawkins taught in the Media Studies Department, several tracks dedicated to training students in TV production, web design, video games. PR and advertising–her field, and one in which she still earned considerably more as a consultant than from her faculty salary. But she was headed today to the second floor, the journalism lab smudged with odor and grease from the snack bar directly below. It was journalism that trafficked in prepackaged language, she reminded herself. Advertising was creative. For this project, however, her own students, slick and ready, wouldn’t do. She needed fresh-faced youngsters diligently preparing themselves for a world where print was dead and bloggers weren’t paid. She needed faces so candid and naïve in front of the camera, TV viewers would immediately feel superior. Consciously dismissive, secure in self-importance–that’s when a person’s guard comes down. That’s where an advertiser wants them, unconsciously open to suggestion.
“Can you tell a compelling human story in 60 seconds?” she asked.
Marisela Contreras wrote about campus protests, demands that the university divest of shares in corporations exploiting fossil fuels; expand access to scholarship funds for undocumented students–really just luck she wasn’t one of them; respond with sensitivity, urgency, and effectiveness to reports of sexual assault. She called her stories “advocacy journalism” while being careful to quote accurately and stick to fact. And cliché. She would agree with Lydia on that, though growing up in a home where English was rarely spoken, for years she’d hear the stalest phrases out in the world and to her they’d seem fresh.
How do they do it? she used to wonder, cover a story and have it written and to the editor an hour later. Easy. The story was already written. Just change the names and dates and plug in the new quotes. It’s why the news never seemed to change. Pick up a newspaper from today, last month, last year, last decade, it all read the same. Which is why, she thought, Americans were so ill informed. You couldn’t blame it all on FOX. An intelligent person could read the paper cover to cover and it was all so familiar, nothing registered.
You’re a writer? said the men she dated and dated only once if they added You could work in advertising. Marisela Contreras would never stoop that low. But now she saw she could get an unimaginably large audience to care about something that mattered. Not the Syncro 6G network, of course. The African women. Marisela–child of refugees who’d survived civil war–took it personally, the African women and children fleeing for their lives.
She made an appointment with Professor Hawkins and offered her scenario.
“I heard the news reports and all I could think was Léonce, Léonce, please don’t let anything happen to her.”
“What could happen to her?”
“Massacres, whole villages slaughtered, women raped.”
“Can you hold it there? We’ll start again. Could you find less disturbing words?”
“The scenario, it does take place in a civil war.”
“The conflict was raging,” said Marisela.
“Better let’s say ongoing.”
“The ongoing conflict in her country had me worried. About my friend Léonce.”
“Léonce. It’s a funny name. French?”
“Well, yes, I’m thinking Central African Republic. Or DCR. Chad. Mali.”
“Can’t even tell if it’s male or female.”
“I said her.”
“Marie? No too common. How about Albertine?”
“Thanks to the SynCro 6G network, I reached Albertine instantly, 10,000 miles away.”
“Are you sure it’s ten thousand?” asked Lydia. “Check and confirm. We need to be accurate.”
“I thought we were just making it up.”
“Yes, of course. To be safe, say, how about, almost ten thousand.”
“Safe, that’s the point. I reached her instantly, almost instantly, safe in a refugee camp almost ten thousand miles away.”
“Her voice clear as a bell.”
One young woman came in with a scenario of calling her family in the Philippines after the typhoon. Then there was the story ripped from the headlines: the family lost at sea, the damaged craft, the sick child, no hope–except the mother’s smart phone is on the SynCro 6G network! But Marisela’s scenario. Lydia had a good feeling about that one. Three good stories for The Client. A hat trick.
Marisela sat in front of her clutching a steno pad. Hadn’t they even discovered digital recorders on the second floor?
“This goes national,” said Lydia, “you’ll never worry about your student loans again.” Cut in some news footage and the spot was a winner. But now she wanted a backstory, “just in case they ask.”
“They know it’s made up,” Marisela said. “Right?”
“But it has to be convincing.”
Which made sense, and it was easy enough–even fun–to come up with a story: volunteering at an orphanage, her homestay with Albertine’s family, three children, and Albertine herself: so warm and welcoming, her radiant smile.
The Client was not the Syncro 6G network but rather the advertising agency and while Lydia continued to use the singular noun, Marisela found herself seated in a small conference room across the table from two men and a woman. The man who asked all the questions had shaved his head. Better than a comb-over, she thought. He sat with his chair pushed far back from the table so he could lounge with his long legs stretched
out before him. His tie was tossed over his shoulder for no discernible reason. Middle aged but still behaving like a brat. The blonde woman sat crosslegged on top of her chair, her thumbs working away on her phone, either sharing her impressions or not paying attention. The third, a young Asian man wearing a checkered cap, did intricate maneuvers across his fingers with an e-cigarette. The camera had been lying in wait on the table and when he picked it up, she shook her head.
“I didn’t realize I’d actually be in the commercial. I’m not an actor.”
“That’s the point,” said long legs.
With the camera pointed at her, Marisela delivered her spiel, so flustered she said “Léonce” instead of “Albertine,” not that it made any difference. When they asked for another take, and then another, she figured it safest to stick with “Léonce.”
“Of course we’ll want to get Léonce on tape,” said the Asian man.
According to Marisela’s parents there were two kinds of journalists: those who wrote what they were told (or bribed) to write; those who risked death by telling the truth. She always insisted it was different here where you might risk your conscience but never your life.
“I have to withdraw,” she told Lydia. “I can’t do this.”
“It’s too late for that,” said Lydia, her own credibility on the line, threatening the outside gig she couldn’t afford to lose.
“But you said this was just a scenario. I’m a journalist,” said Marisela. “I can’t appear on TV saying things that aren’t true.”
“No one expects commercials to be true.”
“They’re promoting this as a true story,” said Marisela. “I’m out.”
Two days later, she was in–and with Professor Hawkins on the fourth floor asking the head of the television production department if he knew anyone reporting from a refugee camp in Francophone Africa. The Client had promised them a US visa for Léonce. When Marisela reminded the professor–”I said she has three children”–there was no problem. Four US visas for the family.
“How can they do that?” Marisela asked.
Lydia said, “These people have more money than God.” She’d guessed right about Marisela: a person so concerned with principles and personal integrity would put those concerns aside when four lives were at stake.
Jeremy Block realized he needed to find a new line of work the day he looked over at the bodies blown to bits, turned to his cameraman and said, “Where you feel like getting lunch?” Now the cameraman had been shipped back to the States, “went psycho,” he explained to the new cameraman, “probably the anti-malarial meds.” “The Lariam? The shit we’re all taking?” Well, yes. And Jeremy hadn’t quit after all. Here he was covering the refugee camp and even though it was hell, here, at least, you didn’t have a chance to ask about lunch. You hid in the van, chugging water and wolfing down the MRE’s, furtively, because they didn’t have any to share with the starving women and kids, and this furtiveness proved to him his humanity was not entirely lost. “I don’t know why we’re here,” he said. The camp was the same hell as dozens of others. The network could have recycled footage and no one would have noticed. And he would have told Lydia to forget it except that this new cameraman, Bobby something, was still in shock, complaining he couldn’t get the right shot what with the dust, the smoke, the
haze and then his first-timer plaintive cries–”Can’t we do something for them?”
The women and children knew the drill. The media doesn’t bring food or water or protection. The women still get raped when they gather firewood. They still wear colorful robes but their eyes go blank. The trucks kick up dust around the perimeter, young men wave weapons and wait their chance: women to grab, relief supplies to loot. Jeremy had seen it all before: the lack of sanitation, the stench, the flies and disease. The little kids with dysentery. The tent where a volunteer leads the healthiest of the children in song. The scramble and scuffles when there’s anything to distribute. Every day the weakest children die. The women die too, even the most healthy, and their deaths are ugly and violent. The women may be illiterate but they know: the media is there to tell the world and the world doesn’t care.
“Léonce,” said Bobby. “Three kids.”
“Find one,” said Jeremy. “Get her last name. Have her memorizes the lines phonetically and tape her.”
It wasn’t work, it was a favor, and he turned it over to Bobby. Let Bobby be helpful and hopeful, but Jeremy had to admit at least to himself he didn’t mind being part of it.
“We found her,” Jeremy said via the satellite phone. “And wait till you see the video. You’ll love her.”
“Send it to Dropbox,” said Lydia.
“Sure thing. But…Léonce Malangu’s got four kids.”
Marisela turned to Lydia. “So tell the Syncro people five visas. She just had a baby.”
“She does have a baby,” said Jeremy, “and it’s dying.”
“Then she doesn’t really have four kids,” said Lydia. “We’ll get the family out as soon as the baby dies.”
“We leave tomorrow,” Jeremy said. “If she doesn’t come with us, I don’t when she can get out.”
“Will the baby be–?”
“By tomorrow? I don’t think so,” he said.
Marisela said, “If we can get them here, with proper medical care–”
“Find another Léonce,” said Lydia.
When Jeremy called back, it was to say they could stick with Léonce Malangu after all. Only three children would travel. The oldest boy said he could take care of himself; he’d stay behind.
“How old is the oldest boy?” Marisela asked.
“Don’t ask that,” Lydia said. And to Jeremy, “Don’t answer.”
“Ten years old,” he said.
You can save some. You can’t save them all, Marisela told herself. But she kept imagining the boy. He would die on his own. He would join the rebels and he would kill. He would become one of the thugs preying on his own people. Or she could imagine something better. He would walk hundreds of miles and find a safe place and a school and he’d become a teacher, a doctor, a priest.
She had taken the first step in all innocence. Not quite. Wasn’t she the one who’d said she’d never stoop that low? Then step by step she’d done what a journalist shouldn’t do: she’d become part of the story, affecting–even creating–the outcome.
And much to everyone’s surprise, having more money than God wasn’t enough when it came to US immigration. The Client’s government contacts could expedite matters but they needed cover, i.e., the basis for a solid asylum claim. Something that made Léonce different from all the other desperate women the government was determined to ignore.
“Time to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” said Lydia.
Léonce Malangu was illiterate, but Jeremy registered a Twitter account in her name and sent off a flurry of tweets. The government had betrayed them. Left them to die. Refused to protect them. The words of Léonce went viral. Petitions were signed in her support. The Client was disappointed that Syncro wasn’t mentioned in any of the coverage, and then relieved the company remained unnamed.
The last time Jeremy had been at the airport, it was the day after he and several women tackled and disarmed the machete-wielding cameraman while the UN peacekeepers stood by and watched. The man was tranquilized and subdued when Jeremy saw him board the plane for home. This time at the airport, Léonce and her kids were separated from the Americans. Jeremy objected but as he repeated later, again and again, there was nothing he could do.
The bodies were found in a ditch a few miles away. Disfigured, but not so much as to hinder identification. If the bodies aren’t found, how can they serve as a warning?
Léonce was famous. The tweets, the petitions. When she was murdered, the media went wild with outrage.
Can you imagine how Marisela felt? Can you picture her, eyes as blank as the
refugee women’s except they, suffering though they were, didn’t suffer from guilt.
You start with one small compromise. Which leads to another. Put yourself in her place. Tell yourself a story. What would you have done? And what about the soldiers who killed Léonce and her children? They started out, too, as human beings, serving principle, ideals, or simply hiring on to do a job. The first step was so simple. Save four lives. What was the cliché? About an offer too good to be true. Step by step, it got complicated. The taint became a poison. People died.
It’s easy to imagine that Marisela tried to write about it. An op-ed, a personal essay. Something like Ethics and Capitalism: The true story of a lie. But what would it change? It would only get her a byline, stepping on the tortured bodies of the dead. Then what? Maybe she withdraws from school. Quits her part-time job. Tells her roommates she’s leaving.
Imagine her studying the map of the US. Every state, every city brings to mind the news that repeats over and over: riots, police brutality, racist killings, histories of slavery and genocide. Till she looks at Burlington, Vermont. The only negative story she can find is the weather report.
Of course it’s more likely that burdened as she feels inside, outwardly nothing in her life has to change. But as long as you’re creating a scenario, make it a good one: Marisela Contreras getting in her car and heading north. The winter will be bitter but let it come. Let it freeze her tears and turn her heart to ice.
What story can you tell–a startling, compassionate, original human story–in under 60 seconds?
The family lost at sea.
Sergio trying to reach his family in Chile after the earthquake.
Celie calling the Philippines after the typhoon.
Good, said The Client. But the Léonce scenario, that one has power. Especially now. With the murder of the asylum seeker, Americans were ready for a feel-good story from a refugee camp. Plus the footage of Léonce was too good to waste. Her name, of course, was a problem, too well known.
They threw out the segment with Marisela and hired an actress who earnestly told about reaching her friend Albertine.
They played the video and Albertine née Léonce took their breath away. “My friend, do not worry,” in that wonderful African French accent. “I am safe. A-OK.” And there it is: her radiant smile.
“If that doesn’t go national,” said Lydia Hawkins, “I’ll eat my hat.”
“I can hear you,” Léonce says now on whatever device you use for content. “Your voice,” she says. “Clear as a bell.”
EDIT: “Bad Connection” was originally published with the incorrect author. Sandy Denim is not the author of “Bad Connection.” It was written by Diane Lefer who holds full copyright.