Walter looked up from his newspaper. A young man with a close-cropped mustache and an earnest expression was standing close to his counter seat. Walter had just finished lunch and was spending his last few minutes of freedom reading a regional newspaper. The young man was holding out a smartphone. “I’m sorry?” Walter had been absorbed in his reading and was jolted by this sudden question from someone he didn’t recognize.
“Trade. I’ll trade you this phone for that newspaper.”
The young man was plainly but fashionably dressed in jeans, tee-shirt, open jacket and casual leather shoes. He was clean, sporting a recent haircut and so was obviously not homeless or starving. But even if he was, what homeless, starving man would give away a smartphone for something so cheap as a newspaper?
“I… I’m sorry but I really don’t understand” Walter replied with a dissembling chuckle, taking off his reading glasses and turning in the seat slightly to get a better look. He’d had been panhandled before, here in his small hometown and many places in his modest travels. He gave as often as he could and made no demands on those he tried to help. But this wasn’t panhandling. He wondered if it was some sort of scam. He wasn’t elderly, yet, but his graying hair and even grayer beard might mark him as a chump. His khaki Dockers slacks, polo shirt and loafers didn’t mark him as some sort of urbane sophisticate either.
The man showed no signs of impatience, but said with a bit more insistence, “I want to give you this phone in exchange for that paper you are reading.”
“I don’t trust it anymore”
“Don’t trust what? The phone?”
“I don’t trust what comes out of it.”
Walter’s concerns shifted quickly from scam to mental health. What did this guy see or hear coming out of his phone? Was the phone using theta waves to push crass advertising messages from Ceti Alpha 3 into his brain? He was staring into the man’s eyes watching for something to give away the shattered plate in his china hutch. Then he remembered how popular “punking” videos were. Maybe he was target of some ruse that would make him an Internet star in a way he would hate and that would haunt him forever. He turned left and right, scanning the nearby restaurant booths and tables for someone pointing a phone or camera his way.
The young man saw all this internal monologue pass over Walter’s face like clouds on a windy day. “Look. I’m not trying to pull something on you. I just want that paper. I want to read something printed, something that was looked at by more than one guy. Something that was checked for fact or at least probability. Something that isn’t, or maybe isn’t, complete and utter bullshit.”
Walter extended his hand. “I’m Walter” he said simply, relying on old habits of formal courtesy to act as a bridge between feeling threatened and lowering his guard.
“Talib. Nice to meet you.”
“Um, sit?” Walter motioned to the empty stool to his left.
“Thanks.” Talib turned the stool by the back, sat and swiveled forward, placed the phone on the counter to his left and rested his forearms on the edge.
The head waitress had been watching this exchange with slight concern for her long time regular customer. When the young man took a seat, she made her way down the long counter, laid a paper napkin, knife, fork and spoon to his left side and beamed a smile. “Hi, I’m Melissa. What can I get for you?”
“Maybe just some herbal tea?”
“I got Chamomile, Ginger, Green, Lavender, Lemongrass, Peppermint and Rosehip.” Melissa alphabetized the list to remember and ticked them off on her delicate fingers as she talked.
“Some Green Tea would be great.”
“Comin’ right up. Walter, you need anything else?” She cleared Walter’s lunch plate and cutlery and placed it all with a clatter into the bin under the counter. “Got some fresh apricot cobbler, your fave.”
“No thanks, Mel, I gotta get back. Maybe just a heat-up of my coffee?” He pushed the ceramic saucer and cup forward, folded the newspaper and laid it on the counter to his right.
“Sure thing.” Melissa emptied the last ounce of cold coffee from Walter’s cup into the dish bin and replaced it on the saucer. She then turned to the coffee station, picked up the freshest pot and deftly poured the cup nearly full without a drip. “Be right back with that tea.” She smiled at Talib and quick-stepped away toward the kitchen.
Walter reached for a plastic honey bottle shaped like a bear and squeezed about a teaspoon full into his coffee and stirred.
“Hmmm. Honey?” Talib asked.
“Better for you than sugar?”
“Not really. Still glucose and fructose.”
“When I was young and single and broke I ran out of sugar but I had some honey. Put it in my coffee and liked the flavor better. It just became the way I take my coffee.”
“Huh.” Talib smiled.
A few seconds passed silently. Walter stirred his coffee longer than necessary. Talib looked around at the tables and booths, now mostly empty as the lunch hour was ending and people went back to work.
Walter turned to Talib and broke the silence. “You know, you could just buy your own paper. There are three vendors outside the door. Tell you what… my treat.” Walter fished in his right-front pocket for some quarters. He’d brought his copy from home, but knew it was sold all around town.
“They’re all empty. I checked.”
“Really?” Walter craned his neck to look, then scanned the small waiting booth near the door. People often left copies there for others. None today. “That’s weird.”
“I looked through the window and saw you reading, so I came in.”
“Well, there must be another within a block or so of here. I know there are a few outside the Post Office, and that’s just around the corner.” Walter was still not fully unguarded. His statement, “That’s weird” was not meant just about the sudden dearth of newspapers.
“It just feels… urgent, like I need to read a paper right now and can’t wait to walk another block.” Talib stared at his clasped hands as he said this. Walter saw that he was gripping them together tightly, like someone in fervent prayer. “It’s just” he went on, “like there’s nothing real anymore, nothing being said or written anyway. Seems like every word or pic or sound is just made up, standing for nothing, meaning nothing.” He hesitated a second, took a deep breath and exhaled. “That thing” he nodded at the phone on the counter, “is just a big antenna tuned to a single station that spews lies and bullshit and ads and more lies. I felt like…”
Melissa returned with a stainless-steel teapot on a plate and a cup and saucer. She placed them in front of Talib. “It’ll need to steep just a little longer. Anything else?”
“Welcome. Just holler if you do. Not busy now so we can rustle up a meal quick. Walter?”
“No, I’m good, Mel. Thanks.”
“Welcome again. Enjoy!” She took up a cleaning rag from the back bar, folded it neatly and made her way up the counter, wiping as she went.
Talib picked up the little teapot and poured about a tablespoon of hot liquid into the cup, then set the pot down again on the plate. He opened the lid and used the string to lift and drop the teabag a few times.
“What’s with the little bit of tea in the cup?” Walter asked.
“Warms the cup before you pour more. The cup won’t cool the tea so much.”
“Huh.” Walter smiled.
Another short silence fell between the men. Walter took a sip of his coffee. Talib stopped dunking the tea bag and closed the lid, deciding to let it steep more.
“So, you were saying” Walter again broke the silence. “About the big bullshit antenna.”
“Yeah. I mean, you know what it’s like these days. News and ‘fake news’ and maybe-fake-news and social media and trolls and Twitter, oh god, Twitter! And that’s just the surface”
“Yeah, I know” Walter echoed, “I have a smartphone too. And the Internet. And electricity.” He smiled at Talib.
Talib was too focused to notice the joke. “So how do you know what’s real and what’s not?” He was asking sincerely. Walter could see he was in real difficulty.
“What? Then we’re screwed.” Talib went back to staring at his prayer hands.
“Well, we’re screwed alright, but ’twas ever thus.”
“Information has always been power, right?
“It’s a fuel. We need it to survive and thrive and navigate our way in life. Good information is good fuel, powerful fuel. And people have always tried to hoard the best fuel for themselves. Keeping the good fuel for yourself does two things: It makes you more powerful and makes the other guy weaker. If your aim is to be stronger and overpower others, you want to keep the good stuff for yourself and keep everyone else sputtering on empty.”
Talib was watching Walter carefully as he listened.
“But misinformation is also power, just a reverse kind of power. If I have information I know to be false, I can use it against the other guy by making him believe it is good fuel. It’s like pouring sugar in the gas tank. It screws up the engine. But when the poor schmuck got it he thought it was fuel, so he used it like fuel. And now he can’t go anywhere on it.”
“Yeah. I get it.” Talib knew all this, he just hadn’t heard it said this way.
“So, I always remember two things: One, I will never know everything there is to know about anything. Never. Someone else will know more, or if not more just something different that I don’t know. This means I never have the complete picture, and it keeps me humble.”
“I don’t know everything, so I’m not gonna act like I do. I know there’s something I don’t know. I’m always looking for it, and grateful if someone gives it to me. Or,” he paused and leaned in a bit, giving his next words a conspiratorial air. “I pay someone for it.”
“I am willing to pay someone to do the work of really digging into a topic, learning about it, and making it clear to me. Books, magazines, documentaries, TV news — newspapers” He emphasized the last word. “There is value in someone making it their job, or at least their craft, to find, vet and verify information and I am willing to trade my hard-earned coin for it. “
“Two is knowing that there is at least a fifty-fifty chance that anything anyone tells me is bullshit, lies, or a sales talk.”
Talib laughed out loud and reached for the teapot. He poured the cup half full with steaming, deep green liquid, then set the pot back down. “That’s what I’m saying. It’s all a bunch of lies and…”
“Not all” Walter interrupted. “That’s the mistake. You think it’s all bunk, but it’s not. I said the chance was fifty-fifty. Now if the information is coming from someone for ‘free’”, he made air quote signs with his fingers as he said the word, “then the chances of it being BS jump — maybe to seventy, eighty, ninety percent. But there is good fuel out there. You just have to be careful, and always, always be skeptical but not cynical.”
Talib held Walter’s gaze a few seconds. “Honey?”
“Pass the honey?”
Walter blushed a bit at himself and chuckled. He slid the honey bear bottle over. Talib squeezed a bit into his tea and stirred slowly.
“Can I tell you what the last straw was for me? What made me crazy enough to come in here and bug you?”
“I did it myself.”
Talib went on to tell Walter about his adventure in the world of Fake News.
He decided to experiment. How far could he get publishing false stories? Who would call his BS and stop him, and how long would it take to be found out, exposed, and shut down? Talib decided to devote one hundred dollars and two hours a day to the project. He carried a full course load at the state college and worked part time as a groundskeeper. He’d take this on like an extra credit project. Maybe he could get actual credit for it. This was early on, before he started seeing results.
He never spent half the hundred dollars. He ended up in the black, earning almost three hundred dollars for his efforts before shutting it all down in fear and disgust. “National Net News Now” was successful almost from the first post.
“I started with just a blog. Ten bucks for a domain name — nationalnetnewsnow.com. Another fifteen got me dot US and dot NET domains. Free blog hosting, an instant logo from a web vendor for five bucks, a title bar and a “mission statement” — “What the Net Knows Next You Know Now” — and I was up. Later I started a YouTube channel, cross-posting the videos to the blog. It took off like a rocket!”
Talib poured out his heart. He confessed his “crimes” to Walter in a stream of consciousness rant. He felt like a sinner trying desperately to atone and regain his seat in Heaven. Walter could feel the young man’s desire for understanding and forgiveness like a pain in his belly.
“I started out with mild lies” Taib confessed. “‘Pope Francis Endorses Donald Trump for President.’ He never did, but I found that fake story and re-posted it.” Talib had again clasped his hands in an analog of prayer and was staring into the gap between his thumbs. “That was one of the worst things I learned: I didn’t need to write anything new! I could just pass on an unlimited number of false, near-false and plain misleading stories with a bit of copy-paste and a few clicks. I put a half-dozen ‘stories’ on my site and my channel every evening, after homework or studying for an exam.”
“And it was taken seriously?” Walter asked knowingly.
“‘Seriously’ would be an understatement. Someone posted a comment on my very first post — “Bullshit” it said. I had hope. I thought my experiment would prove that people would not buy obviously bald-faced lies. I was wrong. The comment wasn’t calling my story fake, it was criticizing the story! Almost every comment was a for-or-against-statement about the story, no matter how outrageous. And after a few weeks I realized…” Talib drifted off a moment.
“Yes?” Walter asked. “You realized?”
“I realized” Talib said, in a tired voice, “that I could post anything, absolutely anything, and people would buy it as real, and then fight each other like it was real. The comments section on my posts and later, my videos were crazy, absolutely nuts.”
“I’ve seen stuff like that” Walter said. “I’ve seen it since the Eighties and Nineties, when I first got into online forums and such.”
“The Eighties?” Talib asked, truly surprised. He was born in 1995.
“Yeah. But it’s different now. Back then it was pretty much a closed system. Members of the forums and nobody else. So, you’d have discussion groups about crazy conspiracy theories on one channel, gardening tips on another, and little or no cross-over. And of course, it was not reaching the general public at all.”
“But now it’s like the air we breathe”
“Yep. So today you can post that Pope Francis is 100 years old and endorsed Jack Kennedy before he endorsed Trump and has been running an underground railroad bringing aliens from Alpha Centauri into the country who are taking the jobs of saintly old Wal Mart greeters, and your grandmother will repost it and leave a comment — ‘I knew it’, followed by a dozen exclamation marks.”
Talib laughed easily.
“And that’s good for a laugh. But you’re worried about more…” Walter trailed off, not wanting to put words in the young man’s mouth.
Talib swiveled back to the counter and clasped his hands again. “Yeah” he said quietly. “It’s not just a joke. People believing lies. It really is dangerous.”
“Yes, it is.”
The two men sat for a half-minute in silence, each in his own thoughts. Walter reached for his cup and took a sip of cold coffee, wincing slightly at the bitterness not mitigated by the honey. Talib did the same with his tea, but liked the tepid concoction for the first time, the slight sweet making the lukewarm tea palatable.
“Here.” Walter suddenly broke the silence. “Give me your phone.”
Talib broke from his reverie, a bit confused, and handed over the device. Walter tapped a few times on the screen, frowned, tapped and swiped a few times more. Talib saw Walter’s face light a bit, then watched as he drew his wallet from his pants pocket, pulled out a credit card, read the numbers and started tapping again. After another half-minute, he handed the phone back.
“Enter your information — home address and such. Sign up with a username and password.”
Talib did as he was told, a bit surprised at himself since he was not the type to take orders. When he finished the process, he was looking at a screen for subscribers to the paper Walter had been reading. He wasn’t sure what it meant, and looked up into Walter’s eyes.
“I’ve paid for a year. It’s the paper you asked for.” He patted the folded pages to his right. “You’ll have access to the website, the app, alerts and home delivery of the actual paper — every day and Sunday with color comics.”
“Why?” Walter echoed. “It’s what you came in here looking for. An honest broker. Some ‘not fake news.’ This paper has been in existence for over a hundred years. It is broad enough to cover state news closely, national news broadly and local news fairly. It prides itself on honesty and fairness. I think it does a good job overall. You wanted this edition from me now” he again laid his hand on the folded newspaper. “I’m offering you a year of it. I hope you will accept.”
Talib thought a moment. “But I asked only for that one paper you have. It cost you what… seventy-five cents? Now you’ve paid how much? A hundred? More?” Talib looked at Walter, wanting to thank him but still unsure of what he was to be thankful for.
Walter picked up the paper, folded it again and tucked it under his arm as he rose from his counter seat. He did not want to quibble over the price he paid for that subscription. “You’ve made me realize that this one paper might be the most precious thing I have right now. I am not going to give it up. But I do want to share it with you.” He pulled several bills from his wallet and laid them over the paper ticket Melissa had left a few minutes ago, adding enough for Talib’s tea and a generous tip. “Please accept it of me and give an example of the “Lamestream Media” a shot. It may restore your faith a bit.”
Talib hesitated only a moment, keeping Walter’s gaze, then offered his hand. “Okay. Thanks.”
The two men shook hands. “You’re welcome” said Walter, “and thank you.”
Walter smiled. “For reminding me to keep an eye out.” He slapped Talib on the shoulder as he walked past and made his way toward the door. “Be well.”
Talib swiveled on the counter stool to watch Walter walk to the big glass door, push it open, and step out into the sunshine. Talib followed him through the long wall of windows until he was out of sight. A clatter of crockery being dropped into the plastic dish bin behind the counter startled him, and he turned to face Melissa, who was clearing the last of Walter’s place setting. She picked up the plastic bear-shaped honey bottle up and set it on the shelf above the coffee station, then turned back to Talib.
“Anything else? She asked with a friendly tone. “I got lots of really nice pies, cakes and donuts. Go great with tea…”
Talib looked at the screen of his phone, now on the home page of the regional paper Walter had set up for him to read. A headline caught his attention. It was simple and direct, not alarming and suggestive. He clicked through to the story, read the lead sentence and was intrigued.
“Um… could I have coffee instead?” He asked with a hesitation.
“Why sure!” Melissa replied brightly. She dropped the teapot and plate, cup and saucer below the counter where Walter’s plates had been, then set a fresh cup and saucer on the counter, along with a paper napkin and spoon. Just as before, she expertly poured a cup of the freshest coffee into the cup to nearly full, then set the pot back on the burner. “You need sugar or cream?” She asked.
Talib looked up at the shelf above the coffee station. “Could I have honey, please?”
Melissa smiled. “Sure thing!” She reached up for the honey bear, wiped it with a fresh wet cloth and set it on the counter before him. “Anything else?”
“You said something about apricot cobbler. I’d like to try some.”
“Oh, of course. You will love it!” Melissa stepped over to the pie shelves, drew back a heavy glass door and took down the tin of cobbler. She pulled a ceramic pie plate from the stack of fresh dishes and began spooning a generous serving of the fruit and crust concoction.
Talib scrolled down to read the second paragraph of the story with increasing interest.
“Huh.” Talib smiled.