The Plank

When Journalists Play At "real Jobs"

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There's a first-person piece in today's WaPo by a reporter who spent a day working at Sam's Club to get a sense of what it's like to be a holiday retail employee. The unsurprising answer: It sucks. 

All things considered, this particular piece is likeable enough: faintly amusing if not terribly enlightening. But more broadly, this genre of journalism is a pet peeve of mine. Yes, it's lovely that reporters want to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. But there's a big difference between pinch hitting for a day and working at something for even a couple of weeks. (Haven't there been countless sit-com episodes and even feature films illustrating this very point?) And I don't just mean that, as a real employee, you have to deal with the tedium and hopelessness of your lousy job. I also mean that, in most cases, people who work at a job--from slinging hash to selling lawn mowers--for even a few shifts actually learn how to do it better (at least until they've done it so long that burnout sets in). Especially in a field like retail, where you're dealing with obnoxious customers all day, a competent salesperson is much less likely to get flustered and then chewed out by a fire-breathing holiday shopper than a novice one who doesn't know a cable knit sweater from a HDMI cable. 

Since this reporter was looking at the trials and tribulations specifically of temporary holiday workers, she at least was operating on a similar plane as many of her poorly trained subjects. Far more tiresome are writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, who a few years back went "undercover" at various unskilled jobs, such as a house cleaner, to experience the horrors of domestic labor--including how incredibly nasty the ladies of the house could be if Ehrenreich didn't scrub their toilets just so. Obviously, no one should shriek at their employees (though let me say that even the oh-so-white-collar field of journalism is awash in editors and top reporters who consider shrieking at junior staffers to be a particularly fulfilling sport.) But as I read Ehrenreich's stuff, I couldn't help but think: Maybe you are a lousy domestic worker. Maybe if you were a pro and knew some of the tricks of the trade (which veterans most certainly do) then you wouldn't catch quite so much grief. 

Also, unlike the WaPo scribe, Ehrenreich was writing about people indefinitely stuck in these low-paying, no-future jobs--meaning they approach their work from a slightly different perspective than, say, a famous writer known for having more than her share of 'tude. Not to suggest that Barbara didn't learn a great deal from her play dates in blue-collar land. I just don't find her investigations nearly so insightful and revelatory as she does. 

Through venting now. Carry on with your holiday good will and merriment. 

--Michelle Cottle

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