The Role of Media Watchdog in Democracies

This is the prayer of the original watchdog of modern democracies, the muckraker. The prayer is attributed to Ray Stannard Baker, one of the progenitors of the muckraking journalists who responded to threat presented to American democracy from unregulated capitalism by proclaiming themselves the watchdogs of freedom and equality (Semonche, 1969, p. 98). Some might well argue—and with good reason—that what American and many other modern democracies around the globe needed than anything in the opening decades of the 21st century was almost spiritual call to do big things. What is most distressing about the latent realization of this need may not be the damage that has been wrought upon democratic ideals due to a lack of muckraking idealists heeding the call of doing God’s work through journalistic integrity, but rather than such journalistic integrity seem to be viewed as old-fashioned, outdated and, worst of all, a really bad choice for those with a career path that focuses on reaching the heights of media glory.

The media has played a starring role in the promotion of justice and socio-economic equality in the transformation of the defining political system of society from monarchy to democracy, although it is very important to assert that this role has not existed in a vacuum in which any crusading journalist can ever be said to have individually kept the freedom of the people intact (Streitmatter, 1997, p. 239). When one defines the role of the media across the span of the history of this political transformation, that definition has usually been characterized as a watchdog. In fact, the role of the media in keeping the world safe for democracy has usually been closer to establishing itself as an instrument of open surveillance camera recording the furtive actions of those in positions of power so as to make the world safe for democracy by protecting it from the structure of democracy itself.

The type of open surveillance that allows the media to play an active and vital role in protecting freedoms offered by democracy from the freedoms abused by democracy is an essential element of the concept of the “public sphere” which can be defined, in at least one sense, as the “various regions of mediated space in which political affairs are reported, analysed, interpreted and discussed” (McNair, 2000, p. 13). The cultural sociologist Jurgen Habermas has asserted that “the modern political public sphere requires these media, if political communication and debate is to extend beyond simple (and generally ineffective) face-to-face interaction” (Baxter, 2011, p. 163).

The creation of modern day democracy with the birth of the United States was founded upon the consolidation of rule within a constricted sphere of representatively elected or appointed leaders. It can certainly be argued that the single most prescient element incorporated into the concept of democracy by the founding fathers who drafted the US Constitutions was the separation of powers that distributed rule fairly evenly across a threefold matrix of executive, legislative and judicial agencies. Those checks and balances can take democracy without corruption or overreach only so far, however and it is vital to the continued functioning of democracies constructed upon such a separation of powers that the press and media ws “conceived in this system as the ‘fourth estate’ and freedom of the press was provided by most Western democracies as a fundamental right and as a key institution within a constitutional order based on separation of powers in which the media would serve as a check against corruption and excessive power in the other institutions. (Kellner, 2000, p. 276).

Media could not become a primary player in this system until the rise of the machine because there would not be much call for the type of watchdog surveillance of the misuse and abuse of the powers afforded by democracy until the Industrial Revolution. The sweatshops, factories, steam engines and various other urban-centric machines that would put way too much power and wealth into the hands of way too few so-called “barons of industry” were the driving force behind the expansion of the media into a genuinely indispensable component of the public sphere required to allow democracy to foster, flourish and revolve (Tichi, 2004, p. 62). The rise of the machines during the Industrial Revolution both transformed nations that had been dependent primarily on agrarian economics and transformed the demographics, resulting in a changes not just on population, but in the way that citizens contributed to and took advantage of that public sphere (Hall, 1990, p. 60). With more opportunity for the freedoms endowed by democratic rule to be abused, so came a greater need for the open surveillance by media watchdogs to keep such abuse in check. Especially when the gaps and crevices holding the rocky foundation of a democracy built upon the idea of separation of power allowed for the furtive abuses to come right out in the open without fear of retribution (Allen, 1993, p. 110).

Unfortunately for those desiring to take advantage of all the power that the Industrial Revolution afforded, the consolidation of populations and technological advancements also helped the muckraker intent on holding them accountable. Muckraking and investigative journalism was only made possible as a result of the urbanization of populations and the ability to print and distribute newspapers with astonishing alacrity (Jillson, 1994, p. 47). The circulation of big city newspapers skyrocketed during the late 1800’s and into the early 1900s as a result of the population shift, but also partly due to the popularity of such investigation reporting that served as watchdog surveillance preserving all the lofty ideals of the democratic theory of governance (Kaplan, 1995). Citizens of the world from small villages in England to the bustling metropolises of New York and Chicago were buying up newspapers not just to read the latest lurid crime reports of murders, but also to revel in the latest bringdown of a formerly respected leader caught with his hand in the till. What the media were doing during the height of the muckraker was more than reportage; they were doing the real job of showing how democracy worked and what it could be at its best.

Merely half a century before the rise of the muckraking journalist as watchdog of democracy, most of the population had not even been capable of reading a newspaper even if they had wanted to. The centralization of the population and the ready available of public education meant that over the course of those fifty years more people were able to read than ever before and the collapse of illiteracy as the norm meant greater participation in the public sphere of political action than ever before (Barnes, 1939, p. 34). Vital to understanding the role of the media as the watchdog of democracy, however, is the much more centrally pinpointed history of the media as shapers of democracy. A century before the muckrakers established their primacy as protectors of the freedoms that democratic ideals espoused, newspapers in England were igniting a spirit for the democratic ideals being practiced across the Atlantic Ocean. The fiery flames of revolution that turned autonomous colonies into United States were actually being fanned by the press within what still remained a very political robust monarchy “through the promotion of certain concepts of liberty, in particular the belief that Britons were all free citizens living in a free state, newspapers encouraged the public to believe they had not just the opportunity, but the right, to involve themselves in the nation’s political life, and to protest when they disapproved of government action” (Barker, 2002, p. 94). If such a reading can be taken to its logical extreme to form the basis for arguing that the 18th century press in Britain was directly responsible for further movement of political capital away from the already outdated and old-fashioned aristocratic system and toward democracy, then it can also be equally supposed that the last great gasp of investigative journalism as media power was responsible for bringing down a democratically elected President of the United States.

Such is the power that proponents of the libertarian press theory cling to as the great hope for the future since above all else the “libertarian concept has its aspect of social good” (Gilmore & Root, 1975, p. 33). The social good, of course, can vary greatly on perspective, but since one of the greatest principles of a democratic government is that almost every perspective is welcome to take part in the deal, this aspect of the libertarian theory of media generally will have little negative consequences. For instance, when it comes to that last great gasp of a libertarian press as the Fourth Estate in charge of keeping everybody else honest, the political perspective carried great weight, yet ultimately proved defenseless against the theory being put into practice.

Ideally, the names Woodward and Bernstein would be on the lips of everyone who wants to go into journalism regardless of their political perspective. While conservatives may take issue with the way that Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post turned the quaint idea of objective journalism on its head by going after Richard Nixon and his co-horts in the wake of the Watergate break-in with all the intensity that might have been expected from the Democratic leadership in the Congress at the time, they should also be intelligent enough to realize that libertarian press free to act as the watchdogs of democracy could just as easily go after a liberal Democrat in the White House (Ladd, 2012, p. 78). Should such a creature ever prove not to be extinct, that is. The names of those two reporters whose watchdog approach put them front and center within a much larger public sphere of influence that, in fact, helped to bring down Richard Nixon, transformed remarkably quickly into the kind of out-of-time icons of a meaningless era long past. Something happened in the wake of the brilliant success of Woodward and Bernstein that probably nobody could have seen coming. Nobody except, perhaps, those critics who had loudly proclaimed that “the excesses of investigative journalism, along with the experiments in New Journalism, had undermined not only the authority of government but the authority of truth” (Ettema & Glasser, 1998, p. 66).

One is forced to ponder whether those proclamations of the injury being done to democracy by watchdog media from the critics of Woodward and Bernstein would have been proclaimed so loudly, publicly and overzealously had they seen the future of a constitutional crisis that made the shenanigans and dirty tricks of Richard Nixon look like summer camp hooliganism by comparison. What if the direction of the media and its approach to its job of being the watchdog surveillance camera of democracy had gone in the opposite direction following the high point of “All the President’s Men” instead of in the direction in which journalism is just another name for the entertainment arm of the media?

The ascendency to power by George W. Bush as a result of a stolen election and the subsequent abuses of executive power and the corruption of the constitutional powers still represents the greatest threat to the course of democracy in America since the illegal secession by a bunch of slaveholding states imagining themselves to be a legitimate Confederacy (Campbell, 2005, p. 38). The utter lack of investigative journalism at the highest levels of the mainstream media in America not only allowed the George W. Bush administration to routinely circumvent not the spirit of the Constitution, but almost every one of its letters. Essentially, the Bush White House made a game of rewriting the rules of the game regardless of the game or the consequences (Jacobs, 2010, p. 156). The President of the United States—the chief executive the largest democracy in the history of the planet—routinely rewrote laws he didn’t like or circumvented them through means that managed to be both undeniably legal and of highly dubious ethical standards at the same time (Pfiffner, 2009, p. 71). Ask the average American what those legal yet dubiously ethical means were or come right out and ask them what “signing statements” are and the typical result is likely to be little more than a look nearly as blank as that when Bush is asked whether he lied about anything in order to drum up support for the invasion of Iraq. The blankness on the look of Bush may be difficult to adequately explain, but the blank look on the face of the typical citizen is easy to explain.

When the media should have been engaged in doing merely workmanlike watchdog duties, they were instead spending inordinate amounts of time covering now such forgotten “hot topics” as “the Runaway Bride” and the murder of Laci Petersen by her husband and the disappearance of Natalee Holoway as well as such more memorable, but equally unimportant stories as the death of Michael Jackson and the half-second flash of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show (Monahan, 2010, p. 39). Ask the average person which two teams were playing during that Super Bowl or the name of the “Runaway Bride and it’s blank look time again.

The reaction of the mainstream media to the daily onslaught of lies and half-truths and mistruths and cover-ups on behalf of the Bush administration bears an uncanny resemblance to life inside the political arm of the public sphere:

“when Bush claimed that Iraq may have tried to secure “yellow cake”

to make nuclear weapons, only one person questioned this claim. The

dissenter, Richard Clarke, who was sent to check this fact, found it not

to be the case. As a result of writing about his opinion in the New York

Times, he was punished by having his spouse, Valerie Plame, a CIA

employee, outed by the administration” (Hickson & Powell, 2010).

In essence, what trying to become a media watchdog hoping to retain the essence if not the outline of the democratic ideal in the 21st century get you is not a movie produced by and starring Robert Redford, but losing your job, being tagged a traitor or simply becoming the butt of a jokes. It would be almost approach the sensation of relief if the reason behind such lack of reporting by the media during the Bush administration was entirely related to an excess of power in the hands of those in charge of the political processes. When the political power grows too unwieldly, the result is usually some sort of backlash by the watchdogs.

The reality is that much more frightening than that the idea that political power is controlling the media from doing their job and acting as the watchdogs of democracy is that the media and the political structure have become so inextricably intertwined as to almost be a single entity. The story of 21st century democratic politics can be summed up in a single word: money. A poor man cannot be elected to any position of great power in any of the largest democracies on the planet even if he really did have all the answers to all the world’s problems. The media controls the electoral process because the electoral process controls the media.

Deregulation of media ownership is at the heart of the transformation of journalism from the watchdog into a partner in the political process. This is true whether the democracy in question is America or England (Eldridge, Kitzinger, & Williams, 1997, p. 56). Globalization is one of the culprits, but all the problems of the lack of media oversight as part of the public sphere issue cannot be laid at the door of Rupert Murdoch:

“market sizes and particularities in the organizational cultures of

media systems might be part of the difficulty in constructing a prescriptive

and detailed policy, the lack of any substantial control has only helped

existing players (with considerable access to national political elites) to

expand their operations. An example of this is the Antenna Group, owned

by a Greek media mogul who controls 40 per cent of Greek television

audience, owns radio stations in Greece and has expanded to Cyprus and Bulgaria” (Chakravartty & Sarikakis, 2006, p. 102)

The consolidation of ownership of media companies by a mere handful of transnational conglomerates has impacted the way the relationship between the media and politics in ways that may not become entirely apparent for decades. Lest anyone suppose that the fear of how far this impact can stretch goes, consider just one very small and seemingly almost benign finding of research into that link between media ownership and political will: “newspapers owned by chains were more likely than independent newspapers to endorse Presidential candidates and that chains tended to be homogenous in their endorsements” (Hollifield, 1999, p. 65).

The last thing that anyone should ever want from a free press it depends upon to keep democracy safe from democracy is homogeneity in any form. If conglomeration consolidation of the media can impact something as potentially meaningless as endorsements of politicians, then it stands to reason that their influence on those areas of public opinion that actually do matter may reach deeper than anyone might like to suspect.

Or, perhaps, the real issue should focus less on how malignant such influence gets and more on what qualifies as malignant. For instance, which would be considered a more benign and harmless example of the danger that exists between too much media in the hands of too few very rich friends of politicians: having 500 newspapers across the country all endorse the same Presidential candidate or having five or six television networks all agree not to air video of the arrival of coffins carrying dead soldiers back home from a foreign war?

The numbers would indicate the former would be a better example of the danger of the politicians and the media jumping into bed together. In fact, the handful of networks agreeing not to air video of dead soldiers returning home in coffins from Iraq is almost certainly the more malignant example. After all, how bad can a war really if you never actually witness of your soldiers coming home dead? The censorship of coverage of the Iraq War by the American news networks has been routinely referred to as self-censorship, but the reality is far different:

“When Arab television trotted out a group of dazed, banged-up U.S.

Army POWs, American television refused to air much of this disturbing

and humiliating footage, citing self-censorship factors such as privacy,

respect for the prisoners’ families, and outright revulsion. Yet during

the first few days of the war, American viewers witnessed a parade

of emaciated, surrendering Iraqi army conscripts, their bony wrists

held fast behind their backs with white plastic bands” (Katovsky & Carlson, 2004, p. xvii)

and:

“CBS withheld its Abu Ghraib story at the request of the Defense

Department for two weeks. The network finally aired the story on

April 28, citing other journalists who were ready to break it—a reference

in particular to Seymour Hersh, who was working his prodigious network

of sources for what would become two lengthy investigative articles in the New Yorker. When the story finally aired, over four months had passed since the last of the abuses pictured had taken place” (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2007, p. 73).

This final example of the deconstruction of a long tradition of the media as a Fourth Estate charged with being the watchdog that protects the values of the democratic ideals should be the final word. After all, CBS has long been the poster boy for the ill-conceived thesis that an enormously influential liberal bias exists throughout the mainstream media (Groeling, 2008). Of course, it is also worth remembering that CBS was the media watchdog most responsible for bringing down Sen. Joseph McCarthy and bringing an end to the period of outrageously misplaced hysteria known as the Red Scare (Alwood, 2007, p. 143). CBS, that icon of icons when it comes to the ideal of the modern day media watchdog spitting in the face of not only government overreach but corporate control and collusion with the government was every bit as willing to engage in so-called self-censorship during coverage of the threat to the American democracy popularly known as the Bush Administration as any other media entity.

Anyone who is still currently depending on the mainstream media to keep democracy safe from democracy should be afraid.

Very afraid.

References

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Addison-Wesley.

Alwood, E. (2007). Dark Days in the Newsroom: McCarthyism Aimed at the Press.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Barker, H. (2002). 4: England, 1760–1815. In H. Barker & S. Burrows (Eds.), Press,

Politics and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America, 1760-1820 (pp. 93-109).

Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Barnes, H. E. (1939). Society in Transition: Problems of a Changing Age. New York:

Prentice-Hall.

Baxter, H. (2011). Habermas: The Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Stanford,

CA: Stanford Law Books.

Bennett, W. L., Lawrence, R. G., & Livingston, S. (2007). When the Press Fails:

Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, D. G. (2005). Chapter 1- George W. Bush Policies — The Height of Folly.

In D. Campbell, J. K. Sagala, Z. A. Smith, S. Guthrie-Shimizu, J. L. Moan, D. Rich,

et al. (Authors), A Bird in the Bush: Failed Policies of the George W. Bush Administration (pp. 19-54). New York: Algora.

Chakravartty, P., & Sarikakis, K. (2006). Media Policy and Globalization. Edinburgh: Edinburgh

University Press.

Eldridge, J., Kitzinger, J., & Williams, K. (1997). The Mass Media and Power in Modern

Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ettema, J. S., & Glasser, T. L. (1998). Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism

and Public Virtue. New York: Columbia University Press.

Evensen, B. J. (2000). 1- The Muckrakers as Evangelicals. In R. Miraldi (Ed.), The Muckrakers:

Evangelical Crusaders (pp. 1-19). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Gilmore, G., & Root, R. (1975). Ethics for Newsmen. In J. C. Merrill & R. D. Barney (Eds.),

Ethics and the Press: Readings in Mass Media Morality (pp. 25-35). New York:

Hastings House.

Groeling, T. (2008). Who’s the Fairest of Them All? an Empirical Test for Partisan Bias

on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 38(4), 631.

Hall, S. (1990). 3: The Rediscovery of ‘Ideology’; Return of the Repressed in Media Studies.

In M. Gurevitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran, & J. Woollacott (Eds.), Culture, Society, and the

Media (pp. 56-90). London: Routledge.

Hickson, M., III, & Powell, L. (2010). Let Them Eat Yellow Cake: The Consequences of

General Semantics Violations in Public Affairs. ETC.: A Review of General Semantics,

67(3), 242.

Hollifield, C. A. (1999). Effects of Foreign Ownership on Media Content: Thomson Papers’

Coverage of Quebec Independence Vote. Newspaper Research Journal, 20(1), 65.

Jacobs, M. (2010). 7- Wreaking Havoc from within: George W. Bush’s Energy Policy in

Historical Perspective. In J. E. Zelizer (Ed.), The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment (pp. 139-168). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jillson, C. (1994). 2: Patterns and Periodicity In American National Politics. In L. C. Dodd & C.

Jillson (Eds.), The Dynamics of American Politics: Approaches and Interpretations (pp. 24-58). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Kaplan, R. (1995). The Economics of Popular Journalism in the Gilded Age: The Detroit

Evening News in 1873 and 1888. Journalism History, 21(2).

Katovsky, B., & Carlson, T. (2004). Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq. Guilford, CT: Lyons

Press.

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L. E. Hahn (Ed.), Perspectives on Habermas (pp. 259-288). Chicago: Open Court.

Ladd, J. M. (2012). Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press.

McNair, B. (2000). Journalism and Democracy: An Evaluation of the Political Public Sphere.

London: Routledge.

Monahan, B. A. (2010). The Shock of the News: Media Coverage and the Making of 9/11. New

York: New York University Press.

Pfiffner, J. P. (2009). Chapter 4: President Bush as Chief Executive. In R. Maranto, T. Lansford,

& J. Johnson (Eds.), Judging Bush (pp. 58-74). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Semonche, J. E. (1969). Ray Stannard Baker; a Quest for Democracy in Modern America,

1870-1918. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

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History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. .

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University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Crisis of Uncommon Nonsense

Copyright: Timothy Sexton

Anderson Cooper: Thanks for returning to the show and as promised tonight we’re speaking with awe to a very special guest. Direct from the 18th century, the author Common Sense and the Crisis, among others, and truly America’s forgotten founding father, Thomas Paine. Before the commercial break, we saw a montage of memorable moments in the first year of Donald Trump’s Presidency. So, Mr. Paine, I guess the real question here is: is the America of 2018 the America you envisioned during those cold winter nights when your inspirational words in The Crisis stirred a nation to keep the revolution going?

Thomas Paine: Sir, I am obliged to be brief but honest. These are the times that try men’s patience. History is the narrative of multitudes dying in the service of the lies of knaves and the fools. King George III of England was knave of ostentatious design; King Louis XVI was a fool who lent new depth of meaning to the word obstinacy. I have seen the tyranny of monarchy tower over every advantage of intellect and I have witnessed the fall of monarchy in the face of multitudes willing to die in the service of correcting the mistakes of history perpetrated by knaves and fools. I once held fast to the opinion that ignorance is not a thing that can be regained once dismissed. My assumption was that ignorance represent not the rejection of knowledge, but its absence and once a fact is apprehended, it cannot disengaged.

Your world has proven me unwise in this assumption and unenlightened on the depths of the depravity of men’s willingness to seek ignorance and the disengagement of what has been learned. The world of the 21st century—if I may be so immodest—owes a great debt to my words in Common Sense and the Crisis and the Rights for stoking the fire of revolutionary thought which is too often allowed to extinguish into smoldering cinders. Those living in these trying times can thank me in part for helping to give them a world free from a system of governance so perverse that even a child born of incestuous idiocy with a mind are predetermined to fall into premature senility could still grow up to lead a nation.

Or so I had assumed. Your America here in 2018 is evidence that this great country has arrived at a crisis of uncommon nonsense. For what other term is applicable to a democracy where an ignorance knave voted for by a minority of fools can act with tyrannical intent and not immediately be removed from office? It is with no small amount of sorrow–

Anderson Cooper: I’m sorry. We’re going to have to cut you short there Mr. Paine and go live to a rally being held by President Trump where he has just called for any kids who choose the teeter-totter over the jungle gym on school playgrounds to be immediately expelled.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Creation of "Fake News"

America’s premier writer of the supernatural, horror and detective fiction, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, arrived in New York City with just $4.50 in his pockets. The fact that a great writer was walking around nearly destitute should come as little surprise since it often seems as if only the worst writers in American are rewarded monetarily. But that’s another story. It was April 1844 and the man who wrote “The Raven” and The Fall of the House of Usher and created the entire genre of the detective novel once again found himself on the far side of the divide between those who have and those who have not. American ingenuity and the ability to fool most of the people all of the time led to one of the strangest connections between necessity and the ability to pull the wool over people’s eyes in American history. And I ain’t talking about Orson Welles’ War of the World broadcast.

Edgar Allan Poe was, like many writers, keen on making an impact on the world’s stage. Even back in 1844 the greatest way to make a living as a writer was to become a celebrity first. If you can manage to become famous it really doesn’t matter whether you can write or not; and if you can write, like Mr. Edgar Allan Poe most certainly could, then you have the chance to become Dolly Parton rich. And so that April in New York witnessed Poe walk into the offices of the New York Sun and make an audacious offer. He would write a story, entirely bogus, that purported to tell the real story of an Irish balloonist who had managed the amazing and unprecedented feat of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The New York Sun being an American paper, they quickly agreed. Why not? The greatest word in the world of journalism at the time was once you have heard in a hundred movies. Poe’s story would be a scoop. And there ain’t never been a media outlet in American history who hasn’t taken the time to juggle the thrill of getting a scoop against the downside of telling a lie. Fox News is perhaps the only media entity in America that never even has to juggle the morality of this sword of Damocles hanging over a Gordian knot. They go with the false scoop every time.

Edgar Allan Poe set his prodigious talent to work and because he was a professional he did not skimp on the authenticity. He managed to procure the actual name of a real life Irish aeronaut. The story that he produced detailed how this man set off from Wales and landed in South Carolina, the land of fantasies and eager dreams. But what made Edgar Allan Poe the genius that he was lies in Poe’s decision to add one beautiful little touch to the story that 99% of writers would never have come up with. Poe decided that his amazing story of a balloon crossing the Atlantic would have occurred entirely by accident!

Poe wrote that the original destination was Paris, France and that the Irish balloonist only landed thousands of miles off course by accident. You see, that’s the kind of little thing that makes all the difference in the world. That’s the kind of detail that those making up the ridiculous stories about Barack Obama are not nearly intelligent enough to come up with. On April 13, 1844 the New York Sun blared forth the headline and asserted that it was astounding news.

On the morning of April 13, Edgar Allan Poe was one of those people standing in the offices of the New York Sun looking down at mad crowds scrambling to scoop (there’s that word again) up the copies of this extraordinary feat. The New York Sun’s circulation jumped for a few days, but the story, which went down in literary history as the Balloon Hoax, transformed Poe into a romantic legend of some renown and did far more for his career than it did for the New York Sun.

How to Create Setting for Your Fiction

When writing fiction, setting can be surprisingly troublesome. Setting means more than just simple geographical locale and no matter how many times you may claim that your story is taking place in a specific place, unless you bring that place to life, your painstaking description will ring hollow.

Incorporate your setting into the story naturally. A piece of fiction should flow naturally and not read like a travel book. Rather than stating baldly where your story takes places, artfully describe the topography. A story taking place in Hawaii is going to be described different from one taking place in Minnesota. Allow the reader to gradually learn the geography through description rather than simply telling the reader where the story is set.

Use dialogue to reveal setting. This does not mean that you have characters talking about New England, but rather that you give them dialogue that has the nuance as well as the clipped accents of Yankees. People born in the South don’t use the same historical turns of phrase as people born in the Midwest. Take time to learn how people in different regions talk and subtly use that to reveal setting.

Don’t forget that effective use of setting also has to do with time. Setting a story in Jackson, MS in 1950 is going to mean a substantially different story than setting it in 2000. The ambiance and overall feeling of a setting can change over time as society progresses past its conservative yokes. Address these elemental aspects of setting when you write.

Resist the temptation to begin your story by revealing the setting. This is an amateur’s mistake. Another mistake is a long list of descriptions of the setting. Rather than giving two pages of description of the mountains and rivers and architectural styles, choose the right places throughout the story to pepper these items.

Utilize setting as an element of your theme. Consider the theme of alienation and loneliness. You could set your story in the middle of the desert or in the steel jungle of New York City. Two different approaches to the same theme that would be differentiated only by virtue of the change in locale.

Scrooge: One Year Later

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Scrooge was reformed to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his reformation was signed by three Spirits who had visited upon him the year before. The bright shining orb that sent its rays to the Earth has been revolved upon by the multitudes upon whom are dependent on the spinning effects of gravity and in that time the once miserly and detestable Ebenezer Scrooge had been as good as his word. Nay, he had been far better than his word, keeping in his heart the spirit of Christmas through Boxing Day and Easter and unto Guy Fawkes Day. For two Christmases, Ebenezer Scrooge had been without question from any one throughout London the very quintessence of Christmas charity. No child passed without Scrooge running after him to pay for a stick of sweet candy. No elderly woman had yet to cross his path without the assistance of Scrooge to guide her across the muddy pathway. Every single evening at precisely the time when Big Ben struck six in the evening, Ebenezer Scrooge appeared upon his nephew Fred’s step to play a game or discuss his day’s charitable activities. As soon as his clerk Bob Cratchit dragged himself into the office, Scrooge alighted upon him to inquire about the health of his lame son Tiny Tim and Bob’s good wife.

It was Bob’s wife and Fred’s wife who first proposed doing away with Ebenezer Scrooge. “He’s driving me insane,” Mrs. Cratchit whispered quietly to Fred’s fiancé. “He’s always hanging around the house. It seems like he’s here every single afternoon. At first it was pleasant enough, but even all the presents in the world can’t make up for his incessant storytelling. Why, if I hear that story about the three spirits one more time, I daresay I shall run screaming all the way to Dashforth-upon-Leith. My sweet dear, I know he’s your uncle—“

“By marriage only, Mrs. Cratchit and would it were not so. I cannot speak of how often I come to long that my sweet Frederick was a complete orphan even without so much family as an uncle.” She leaned closer to Mrs. Cratchit. “Fred and I have been married for almost a year now and we have lain together yet just a dozen times. Every time we prepare to make love, there is a ringing at the door and there is Uncle Scrooge. I often think he is hoping to find me in a state of undress.”

“Oh my dear girl,” replied Mrs. Cratchit stealing a glance at Scrooge as he was boring Belinda and the other children to death with perhaps the two-hundredth retelling of the spirits who had led him to his state of eternal charity, “were I in your place I would have run the spindly fool over with a carriage.”

“It has gotten so bad that we’ve only time to…well…perform the French arts. And I fear Frederick is becoming so inured that he is beginning to prefer this to the act of procreation.”

“Which, my dear, is the reason that Bob only receives that particular gift on this day every year. You must do something upon the nonce to restrain the old man before Frederick becomes unmanageable. Oh, dear lord, there he goes again,” cried Mrs. Cratchit at the sight of Ebenezer Scrooge running out the door to help old Mrs. MacGillicuddy across the street. Mrs. Cratchit watched as, yet again, the octogenarian caught sight of Mr. Scrooge and commenced to run as fast as her legs would carry her before Ebenezer could launch into his redemptive story of three spirits who had shown him the way.

Fred appeared by his wife’s side at that moment. “I cannot stand it anymore. I appreciate the good acts, of course, but he is driving me mad. He will not give us a moment’s peace. Always showing up at our door at odd hours of the night to discuss how he purchased a peacock for the Bennett family or how he donated 50 pounds to the Red Headed League. “

Fred clasped his wife’s hand and said, “Perhaps we should take leave of this opportunity to retire to our flat and…”

His wife and Mrs. Cratchit exchanged knowing looks. “It won’t matter. He’ll show up just as we’re….dining….and invite us to play a game of blind man’s bluff,” Fred continued.

“Mrs. Cratchit is in our confidence,” Fred’s wife confessed. “She and Bob find themselves at odds with Uncle Scrooge’s transformation.

“At odds?” said Bob. “I cannot get any work done. As soon as I arrive in the office Mr. Scrooge exits his office and appears at my desk discussing how he bought four sleigh beds for an orphanage in Manchester or how he paid for everyone’s dinner at a tavern the night before. Not a day goes by that I have not had to listen to that story about those damnable spirits showing up at his house. By the gods, Mr. Fred, I must admit though yet it pains me that those spirits had never appeared and Mr. Scrooge was as he has always been.”

“Tis better he were a miser than a master,” chime Tiny Tim from across the room. “Day after day he carries me upon his shoulders. I have gained twenty pounds in the last year and by the time ten minutes has passed he has had to put me down to the ground and make me walk by myself. My legs are as weak by the time we make it back home as old Scrooge’s good heart. I am sick of it.”

“Get away from me, you old bag of bones!” they all suddenly heard old Mrs. MacGillicuddy cry. She was trying to swat at Ebenezer Scrooge with his cane. “I don’t need your help. And for the sake of our Lord on the day of his birth, please refrain from ever discussing that absurd story about the spirits again.”

Fred and Bob, their wives, Tiny Tim, Belinda and the entirety of the enormous Cratchit clan look solemnly through the doorway as Scrooge turned slowly around and headed back to the house. Each of the assemblage shivered as they saw his countenance alight as he spied his waiting audience. Almost as if it were coming not from one of them, but rather from their collective consciousness a small voice hovered over the warmth of the Cratchit hearth.

“We have no choice but to kill old Scrooge before he drives the entire country into Bedlam.”