The Man Behind the Screen

Hayden Hart


During her younger years, my daughter had idolized me. She, like many citizens currently do in the People’s Republic of Alatonia, once saw me as a stalwart defender of truth and freedom, a man who was willing to rage against a corrupt media empire bent on wrestling the people’s rights out from under them. I know not for how long she had secretly detested me, but she made her feelings known when, at the behest of the upper echelon of the Heritage Party, the political party to which I belonged, the PRA military invaded Al Salama, a country with no political capital thousands of miles from our borders.

                That morning, I sat with my wife and son enjoying a cup of coffee before I left for work. I heard her fly down the stairs, nearly twisting her ankle as she landed.

                “Good morning, Celia; what’s the rush?” I said, not yet having seen her scowl.

                “Why are we invading Al Salama, dad? What did they do to us?”

                “We are? Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of it. I’ll have to ask the guys at work to look into it.”

                That was a lie. I had known about the coming invasion for weeks. Oakshore News, my employer, and a close friend of the Heritage Party, had dedicated countless staff meetings to determining how we would sell this invasion to our viewers.

                “Bullshit.” she said with a look of defiance that I had seen countless times in the faces of teenage protestors lined up outside of Oakshore headquarters.

                My wife, Gail, looked at her, mouth agape.

                “Don’t talk to your father that way!”

                “Why not? He’s part of the group pushing the invasion!”

                Someone without media training might have snapped at their daughter, but I knew how to handle an unruly interlocutor.

                “Now hold on; who told you that?”

                Her eyes darted to the corner of the room.

                “Was it one of those lying media companies? You know they’re just trying to mess with your head. Let me guess, News Nation.” I said, careful to maintain a knowing, slightly condescending tone.

                “Not just them. A bunch of people online are furious at the Heritage Party, regular people.”

                “Oh, come on now, you’re gonna trust a horde of Worker’s Party members? Do you want to be a member of the Worker’s Party?”

                She wrinkled her nose in disgust, and my younger son, Alan, narrowed his eyes at her.

                “Well, do you?” he said.

                “No, of course not!”

                Her voice rose sharply at the insinuation.

                “I’ll get to the bottom of it at work. Maybe tonight’s show will clear things up.”

                Everything about her, the intensity of her glare, her aggressive posture, her quivering lip on the verge of protest, told me that she was unsure of her own position. I had watched countless passionate debaters slip into this sad state. They lost because they were unsure; as did she. She knew that something was amiss but did not yet understand the nature of my profession. Before she could formulate a response, I kissed Gail and departed.

                I enjoyed my work. Things were simple at Oakshore News. I and the other political pundits were given tasks to complete. One day we might develop an argument for why green energy was damaging our economy and endangering our people. The day after, we would argue against a new social movement that was unpopular with our viewers. I spent every day solving puzzles for millions of dollars. Every night at eight o’clock, I donned the veneer of respectability, a tie, a lapel pin depicting the flag, and a prim and proper haircut and appeared on tens of millions of screens across the country. A loud, attention-grabbing graphic heralding the Edward Matthews Show flashed across the screen and quickly vanished, leaving the audience with me. For the next hour, I regaled them with tales of dangerous foreigners, invasive leftist ideologies, and nearly undetectable threats hidden in the undesirable crevasses of society waiting to destabilize our nation.

                The fourth floor of Oakshore headquarters, where Oakshore’s writers and pundits primarily congregated, sounded like a perpetual shouting match. Analysts from every corner of the company skimmed articles on their tablets and scribbled in their notebooks. It was in this setting that we regularly constructed reality for millions of party members. Only while nestled in the bowels of Oakshore headquarters could we discuss reality as it was before we transformed it. Once we left that room, our realities, the ones we had spent all day building from credible reports and reasoned analysis, had to be cast aside. We had to embrace the reality we chose for our audience. The Edward Matthews standing in the writing room knew that the PRA’s activities overseas were illegal; he also knew that the majority of threats paraded out on the nightly news were generated in the offices and corridors of Oakshore.

                The instant I stepped through the door, Carter, my head writer, approached me, juggling three different tablets and a stack of papers.

                “Hey, Ed. We’ve got a lot of great footage for you to look over.”

                He led me to a conference room packed with the rest of my writing staff. He laid the tablets, each of which displayed an article criticizing the Heritage Party, on the end of a long, table covered with papers and gestured for me to sit. Burnt-out writers occupied the other chairs, each one with a tired smile on their face.

                “You all look satisfied. So, what do you guys recommend?”

                “Well, sir, there aren’t really that many angles to approach here. The PRA clearly breached international law by sending unrequested troops to Al Salama. The media is framing this as an attack on a helpless nation in order to lessen our energy dependence on other powers, and they’re correct.”

                He slid a notebook towards me. In it he had written the names of legal scholars that argued against the PRA’s occupation, names of conglomerates that had published stories to that affect, and scribbled-over ideas for how to retaliate. Carter had worked for me for years; we both knew which approach to use. Fear was by far the most effective motivator at our disposal. Even a teenage would-be revolutionary would relent if faced with the threat of savages overrunning the nation. If we framed the Salaman people as threats to the PRA, party loyalists would eagerly turn against them.

                “So, use something that defames Salamans. I’m sure they have something we can work with. Don’t they do polygamy or something? Party members over forty hate polygamy.” I said.

                By acknowledging the unethical elephant in the room, I had given the others permission to indulge in maskless conversation. Even in the heart of Oakshore, the slightest leak could blow one’s cover. The Heritage Party commanded considerable support from the military and the arms dealers it employed. If we could justify the Al Salama occupation, the military would receive a substantial funding boost and multiple arms dealers and manufacturers would stand to make billions, some of which would trickle down to us. It was critical to Oakshore’s profitability that the trappings of legitimate news remained intact.

                “There are multiple incidents of tourists from the PRA being killed while vacationing, if we want to go that route.” Carter responded. He had done the necessary research; he just needed permission to share.

                A few of the writers let out sighs of relief. They had already unearthed decade-old, archived articles describing crimes committed by Salaman immigrants and generated lists of cultural differences that could, with the correct presentation, horrify our base. By far, the most effective misdirections were the purposefully misleading graphs. What were they graphs of? Whatever statistic could inspire fear in the viewer. One of them simply showed violent crime broken down by cultural background without correcting for socioeconomic factors. This graph proved only that sleek presentation and a salesman smile took precedent over truth.

                Together, the staff and I poured over their findings. It was quickly determined that security camera footage of Salaman people committing violent crimes would be a major component of the primetime lineup. We scrolled through various social media sites to gauge public opinion. A post claiming that I should be held liable for Salaman deaths overseas was trending.

                “Goddamn, Ed. They hate you. Don’t worry, we’ll try to do something about that post too.” Carter said and kept scrolling.

                My chest tightened. I wondered if Celia had seen this post and whether or not her rebellious attitude was fueled by something other than simple disagreement. I had never monitored her online activity; she could have thought I was a monster. A couple of other posts featured me as well. One was simply the image of me that Oakshore plasters on advertisements, an image with which Celia as well as the rest of my family was familiar, with the caption “child murderer” written below it in capital letters. I had long since made peace with the fact that my name would be perpetually dragged through the mud online, but I had not considered that, as my children grew, they might witness it. For fourteen years, in Celia’s eyes, I had been a hero, but I could be stripped of that position in an instant by a holier-than-thou keyboard warrior.

                “Ed, are you paying attention?”

                It occurred to me that Carter had been speaking for the past couple of minutes.

                “Yeah, I’m sorry; I had something on my mind. Do you think we could address the trending post tonight?”

                Carter looked into the distance and pondered for a moment. I outranked him. If I wanted to include something on my show, I would, but I valued his opinion.

                “Maybe tomorrow but not tonight. We have a lot of work to do and only an hour, minus commercials, to do it. I’m worried that it could distract from our core message.”

                Carter was right. Tonight’s show was far too important for me to allow a petty vendetta to interfere, especially one against a post my daughter may not have seen.

                “Alright, tomorrow.” I said.

                “Anyway, check this out.”

                Carter showed me a post made by a representative from the Worker’s Party claiming that this “invasion” would be a stain on the PRA for years to come. Fortunately, he had supported military action in a nation adjacent to Al Salama five years earlier. Within two hours, my writing staff had compiled over two dozen instances of our opposition supporting similar actions. In the absence of an argument, calling attention to the enemy’s hypocrisy was an effective substitute, and our standard of evidence for hypocrisy was low. I could already hear myself on air. I would stare into the camera with a look of genuine concern and warn the people of the PRA that they were in imminent danger at the hands of foreigners. I had to illustrate that these people were different from us and that this difference justified a fearful response. Then an image of the Worker’s Party representative would appear beside my face, and I would read his post aloud.

                “Was it an ‘invasion’ when the PRA, at the behest of your party, occupied Karasan? We got oil then; we’re getting oil now. What’s the difference? Of course, you guys already know the answer: the Heritage Party is winning more and more support, and they have to demean our every victory.”

                Once I had read five or so similar posts, I would say:

                “The mainstream media is curiously silent on Worker’s Party member’s hypocrisy, wonder why. Only Oakshore brings you the quality, unbiased journalism that the PRA needs in these troubling times.”

                We were always in troubling times. Every piece of legislation our opponents drafted, every time even minor rival candidates were polling within the margin of error, every time the military’s budget was to be cut, the nation was on the brink of total annihilation. My job was to inspire the necessary amount of fear to send them to voting booths and, more importantly, prevent them from changing the channel.

                As my staff and I sat down to prepare the final draft of the show, the conference room door swung open and slammed against the wall. LeeAnne, the woman who hosted the show after mine, stood in the doorway with the look of condescension that those who debated her described as insufferable.

                “Ed, my assistant found our primetime cash cow. Take a look.”

She walked over to Carter and I and thrust her phone in front of our faces. A short Salaman man with a mustache dressed in a military uniform stood in front of a podium and spoke in another language to a ravenous audience.

“This man is Zareb Rahimi, former military adviser to the leaders of Karasan. He is calling for the destruction of the PRA which he considers to be predatory superpower.”

His face reddened as pointed to the PRA’s flag and shouted the names of various politicians he wanted dead.

“How does this help us? He has almost nothing to do Al Salama.” LeeAnne closed the video and began scrolling through a webpage detailing Zareb’s life.

“He is related to the current dictator of Al Salama, Yasin Rahimi.”

“That’s beautiful. What do the party leaders think?”

“They love it! It checks all their boxes. You get the ball rolling tonight, and I’ll keep it going.” She smirked and started for the door.

“I’ll be sure to leave some gruesome details for your show.” I said as she turned the corner.

“You better.” She called out from the hallway.

My staff and I spent the afternoon hunting for anti-PRA sentiment in Yasin’s other family members and constructing our rhetoric accordingly. Any slip of the tongue within his bloodline would be prominently featured in our lineup. Carter compiled a list of the most objectionable statements made by the Rahimi family and helped me fit as many into my airtime as possible. LeeAnne would critique whatever remained.

A half hour before the show while combing my hair in the bathroom, I received a phone call from Gail.

“Hey, honey, what’s up? I can’t talk long; I’m getting ready for the show. Are you and the kids going to watch it?”

“Alan and I are. Celia went to a sleepover at a friend’s house.”

I mouthed obscenities to myself in the mirror.

“Whose house? Do you think she’ll be able to see it?”

Gail scoffed.

“They’re teenagers, Ed. They don’t watch political pundits at their sleepovers. I just called to ask if you’ll be working late.”

“Oh, yeah I guess that makes sense. I’ll probably be a little late, but we made a lot of progress today. I wanted Celia to see what was really going on.”

“Are you worried about earlier? She didn’t mean it. Besides, if the mainstream media hate you half as much as you say they do, she’s probably heard some rumors or something. She’s smart. She’ll figure the truth out eventually.”

I stared at myself in the mirror. Gail was right; Celia may have been the most intelligent member of the family. She would probably learn the truth before her own mother.

“Ed, are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here. You’re right; I’m sure everything will be fine. I’ll see you tonight.”

I hung up and straightened my tie. Whether my daughter would be watching or not, I had both my reputation as well as that of the Heritage Party to defend. When the clock struck eight, my smiling face greeted millions of party loyalists across the country.

“As you’ve probably already seen, the lying, leftist media is disseminating pro-Yasin propaganda all around the internet. Why? Isn’t it obvious? Worker’s Party representatives rarely support our military, unless of course, it gives their party an opportunity to look successful. The Heritage Party has been propping up our military for decades. Maybe these radicals could ruin something of theirs instead of something we built together.”

I spent the entirety of the opening segment denouncing various Worker’s Party representatives and supporters as hypocrites. Defaming the Worker’s Party typically occupied at least a quarter of the show. After a barrage of commercials pandering to fearful would-be survivalists, I reappeared with a grave expression. My usual salesmanship smile and energetic demeanor had vanished. This moment demanded gravitas.

“Loyal viewers, during the break, some of my writers rushed to bring me this report on the anti-PRA activities of the Rahimi family.”

I held up a stack of blank papers in front of my face and tried to look down at them while speaking instead of at the teleprompter. The effort was soon rendered moot when a staff member began rolling the video LeeAnne had shown me earlier.

“The man speaking here is Zareb Rahimi, brother of the current dictator of Al Salama. He is calling for the destruction of the PRA and expressing his hatred for its people.”

We showed footage of one Rahimi family member after another. Yasin’s sister was sympathetic to Zareb’s cause, as were his father and three of his cousins. Almost half of Yasin’s family hated the PRA to some degree; though, Yasin was not yet among them. It mattered little. Drawing attention to what we generously termed hypocrisy and showing our audience frightening footage of people related to him sufficed.

“Time and time again we have seen the Worker’s Party’s complete disregard for the health of this nation. We’re trying to bring you cheaper gas and security, and they’re selling you out to Al Salama because they’re afraid to look like failures. You remember that.”

The Worker’s Party was simultaneously the greatest threat to the PRA and laughably incompetent. They never succeeded on their own, but they could, with the slightest concession, prevent The Heritage Party from doing whatever was necessary to safeguard the nation.

“Well, as much as I’d love to sit here and outline the threats to our nation all night, my show has come to an end. Let’s head on over to my colleague for the latest in this breaking story.”

A line bisected the screen; LeeAnne sat on one side and I on the other.

“Great show, Ed! We can always count on you to hold them accountable.”

“I appreciate it. Did you see all those videos? It really makes you wonder what kind of evil could be lurking here at home.”

She gave me a little smile and nodded.

“We’ll see if we can’t put a dent in it here on Tonight with LeeAnne Tate.”

The camera in front of me switched off. The viewer had been seamlessly transitioned to the next speaker in an endless line. By the next morning, the majority of our audience would support the occupation.

                I saw Celia the next morning shortly before work. Her scowl from the day before persisted.

                “Did you see any clips from the show? Those Salamans aren’t exactly angels, sweetie.” I said with a gentle tone.

                “Even if they commit more crime than we do, why are we invading them? The Daily Herald said that one-hundred thousand Salamans could die in an invasion, and for what, oil?”

                “For our safety.”

                “They also had an article about you. Apparently, a lot of folks think you’ll be responsible for some of the deaths.”

                “The Daily Herald is a leftist rag, Celia.”

                My voice was harsher than intended. The party often forced me into difficult positions such as this, positions that grew increasingly precarious as my children aged.

                “I keep telling you that you cant trust people like that. Just watch tonight’s show; it’ll set things straight.”

                I kissed her forehead, despite protest, and departed.

                At eight o’clock that night, my family gathered around the television and tuned into my show. They as well as the rest of my audience were in for a spectacular performance. The intro graphic flashed and vanished to reveal an uncharacteristically tearful Edward Matthews.

                “Hello ladies and gentlemen. I’m sorry to appear before you in such a sorry state, but the lying mainstream media has attacked me personally.”

                An image of the article my daughter spoke of appeared behind me.

                “The Daily Herald released a story yesterday that platformed a horde of angry Worker’s Party extremists. These people wrongly claimed not only that the Al Salama occupation was unjustifiable but also that I should bear a share of the responsibility for the resulting deaths.”

                I swallowed and stuttered for a moment. The camera zoomed in slightly, careful to show my teary eyes but not overemphasize my wrinkles. I wanted my daughter to love me, perhaps even idolize me, but Oakshore’s interest was in their broader audience. I had no choice but to weave the two together.

                “I spend every waking minute behind this desk trying to hold the mainstream media and lying politicians accountable. I live to defend your freedom. This distasteful display is low, even for a tabloid like the Daily Herald.”

                I paused for a moment and looked away from the camera. I knew she could see me. Celia was unaccustomed to this sort of weakness in her father. The strangeness of it alone would command her attention. She was watching. I knew she was watching.

                “My daughter saw this article. These liars convinced my own daughter that I was a monster. Do they ever think about the people their lies hurt?”

                She must have felt at least a tinge of guilt. Even if for just a moment, Celia had put her faith in my enemies, the ones I spent the bulk of her life denouncing. She would feel guilty for the way she had spoken to me and hopefully resent the Worker’s Party and the media companies that supposedly served it.

                “Well, if they think they’ve broken me, they’ve got another thing coming. No amount of mudslinging is going to stop this show or this network. Remember folks, no matter what they do to this country, Oakshore News and Edward Matthews will be right here to fight back.”

                The red light on the corner of the camera shut off and the television at home transitioned to a commercial. My career had been a continuous sequence of walking fine lines. Between legality and illegality, truth and fiction, right and wrong. My duty was to make the world make sense in a way that benefitted the correct people, but his time, I had used my platform to make the world make sense for my daughter.





Hayden Hart studied Creative Writing and English at Mercer University. He was a finalist in the 2020 Agnes Scott Creative Writing competition and the 2021 Black Spring Press Group’s Global Novella competition.