Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stories of The Times

Shortly after my tenure as a full-time employee ended, I compiled a to-do list. Among the half dozen or more projects I mapped out were starting a blog (done) and reading a book a week. Sadly, I have been excessively negligent in fulfilling the book-reading objective. I’ve started several books, and I’m just a few pages short of completing a book I should have read years ago. It’s Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America.

I’m reminded of her book, and shamed into reporting my literary failing, by an article in the SundayBusiness section of the NY Times. Entitled “My Initiation At Store 5476,” the article detailed reporter Stephanie Rosenbloom’s experience working in a Wal-Mart supercenter in Deptford, NJ. It’s an interesting peek into the culture of Wal-Mart and some of the logistics behind running the largest retail enterprise in the world (

But like most reporting, Rosenbloom’s depiction only touched on reality. Perhaps we can’t expect more from most journalism as practiced by newspaper, magazine, TV/radio, and Internet reporters. They usually have only limited exposure to their subjects and often are steered by PR pros to focus on what the subject wants, not necessarily what the public needs to know. I’ve been victim of the same scam. It’s rare reportage that reveals more than a skin deep look at politics, business, sports, you name it.

Written in 2001, Ehrenreich’s 230-page book is advocacy journalism. Unlike Rosenbloom whose assignment was approved by Wal-Mart and whose identity was known to store associates, Ehrenreich went undercover to reveal how workers on the lowest rung of our economic system, those working minimum wage, often without health care or any other type of benefits, manage to survive. She didn’t just work at Wal-Mart. She also toiled as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner and nursing home aide. She investigated conditions in three states: Minnesota, Florida and Maine. To create even a meager lifestyle from her working-class wages, a true paycheck to paycheck existence, she often had to hold down multiple jobs at the same time.

To read Nickel and Dimed is to be reminded that most people reading this blog are years removed from making a decision on what’s more important, buying food or medicine. Most probably never had to make that choice. One of the saddest stories I can relate occurred about six years ago, when the economy was vibrant. During a cocktail party I listened to friends complain about having to juggle their lifestyles on their middle-class incomes. They lived paycheck to paycheck, they lamented. When I pointed out that middle-class income usually topped off at $80,000 to $100,000 and that they were earning multiples of that yardstick, they shrugged and kept on complaining.

Yes, they probably did live paycheck to paycheck, but only because they created a lifestyle that required a new luxury car every two to three years, multiple exotic vacations every year, and other perks of the wealthy. I don’t begrudge them their choices, just their insensitivity to the realities of those whose lives truly are dependent on this week’s paycheck.

The Big Little Book: Also in this week’s SundayBusiness section was a report on efforts to resurrect the bankrupt Reader’s Digest Association (

When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, my home was a repository for Reader’s Digest. Not only did the diminutive, perfect-bound magazine arrive each month, but my parents also indulged in buying the magazine company’s condensed books three or four times a year. I enjoyed reading jokes in the Life in These United States, Humor in Uniform, and Laughter pages and other short features inside Reader’s Digest. These was pre-People days, and the Digest served its purpose, if you get my Big Chill drift.

I never considered the Reader’s Digest anything more than a condenser and regurgitater of other publication’s prose until I went off to journalism graduate school at Syracuse University. One of my professors had been an editor at the Digest. He told a remarkable story I haven’t been able to independently verify but worth telling, nonetheless, though I will leave out some of the identifying details to protect potential innocents.

He said sometime in the 1950s he was assigned to report on the increasing popularity of trading stamps given out by supermarkets to shoppers. His investigation uncovered massive fraud at one trading stamp company. Prior to running the article he confronted the chief executive of the company who asked him not to print the expose. He refused. The executive subsequently committed suicide.

He related this story in soft, hushed tones, meant to convey the power of the press and the heavy burden every reporter has in balancing the public trust and right to know with the private lives of those illuminated in black and white newsprint. He left the Digest shortly after that incident to become a journalism professor.

True or not, the story obviously left a lasting impression with me.