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  LIFE AS A LOSER #175: "THE BIG RED TAG."  
   
   
 

Sixteen is far too young an age to have even the most rudimentary concept of what you’re going to do with your life, but nevertheless, there I was, with my freshly minted drivers license and pink tie, right after church, sitting at the dinner table, steadfastly avoiding the brussel sprout my mom was making me eat, telling my parents I was going to major in journalism at the University of Illinois.

That was what Roger Ebert had done, and he was my hero. All I wanted to do at 16 was watch movies and make out with my girlfriend, not necessarily in that order, and Ebert, who had grown up in nearby Champaign, was the ideal role model. He had escaped the endless cornfields and American flags cycle and had made something great of himself, and he had done it simply by

 
 

being devoted to what he did, and being very good at it. Ebert watched movies all day and wrote about them all night, and everyone on the planet knew his name. Sounded like a plan.

My parents are incredibly supportive of my sister and me, sometimes to a fault. But when I said the word "journalism," it was impossible to miss their attempts to hide scowls. Journalism? Weren’t journalists the people who invaded the privacy of your home? Didn’t they make up stories to sell newspapers? Weren’t they always the bad guys in movies? Weren’t they the people who, rather than learn a trade of their own, just sat back and criticized everyone who actually bothered to? Weren’t they, like, the most unappealing profession around? Even worse than lawyers? And they don't make any money, right?

My dad shut his eyes for a second, exhaled overdramatically and whistled. Between gritted teeth, he said, "That’s great. I hope you know what you’re doing."

****

This’ll come as a shock to you, but this column does not pay for itself. I have a day job, as a reporter, covering investment brokerages, like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. As you would probably expect, when you’re writing about people who handle other people’s money, you learn quickly that the people you have to talk to for your stories rarely have any desire to speak with you at all. If the media didn’t exist, the corporate scandals of the last couple of years would have remained covered up, and everyone would have got along and gone along, making their millions, and no one would have been worse for the wear. If there is an industry that is distrustful of the media, it’s mine. Reporters are seen as uneducated meddlers, sticking their nose in where it does not belong. Want to know the quickest way to be sent straight to someone’s voice mail? Tell their receptionist that you’re a reporter. I am the enemy.

But my job is to keep bugging them, nevertheless, a constant irritant, olive oil in a paper cut. When I finally get whomever I need to talk to on the phone, once my story actually is printed, they’re inevitably upset with something or another. There’s a reason our country’s attorney general only speaks with television reporters; he gets to control exactly how he comes across. He’s writing the story. Print journalism is always trying to stir up trouble and make people look bad; best not to even deal with it. This is not a profession for those who value being liked and respected.

Oh, and we don’t make any money either.

The worst part is that we don’t really mix anywhere. If you go to a party and see a guy sitting alone in the corner flipping through the host’s CD, chances are, that guy’s a journalist. We are by definition snoopers, and therefore we are viewed with suspicion, or, at the very least, we aren’t invited to join the personal conversations. That guy’s a reporter; you have no idea what he might write. He could use anything. Best to just keep your distance.

Just so you have this straight … reporters:

a) make less money than schoolteachers

b) make everyone around them nervous by their very presence

c) are viewed as troublemakers

d) aren’t considered knowledgeable by those they write about

e) tend to be ugly.

This is a strange way to live your life, and it’s even stranger that we love it. For something that’s considered by many to be an unskilled profession -- journalism school was considered a complete waste of time even by many of my classmates; you should figure out what beat you want to cover, they reasoned, and major in that -- you won’t find a single journalist who can imagine doing anything else. We’re hated, we know it and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Find a journalist who truly values being liked by the people he writes about, and I’ll show you someone who will be working in public relations within three years.

A story. When a company is introducing a new product, they will invite members of the press to see the unveiling, often plying them with free food and alcohol to help seal the deal. (One of the most frustrating parts of being a journalist: Nobody wants you around unless you can help them with something, and then you’re the most popular person in the room. When you have served your purpose, you are then cast aside and easily ignored. Come to think of it, that’s one of the most frustrating parts of being a human being.) These soirees are self-congratulatory affairs, an excuse for the hosts to drink free booze, snipe about their office mates behind their backs and schmooze with people whose names they forget the second after their read their name tags.

Your garden-variety member of the corporate world is well-rehearsed at this game, but I, frankly, am not. I was invited to one of these the other day; some technology firm servicing the brokerage industry was showing off their new whatzits and thingamajigs, and they wanted me to write about them. On a short deadline and a need for a quick and simple story idea, I slapped on a rarely used tie, made a cursory attempt to comb my hair and schlupped to midtown.

I was greeted by a perky PR woman. All PR women are perky. I don’t know where they find these people. Actually, I do know where they find these people; they find them in journalism schools. (They’re the ones who wear nicer clothes than everybody else, are in a sorority, can’t wait to move to the suburbs and actually show up to class.) She was wearing the classic salesperson smile, the happy to see you, really, honestly, now try not to smell up the place, you swarthy miscreant … that smile. She was impeccably dressed, with perfectly chiseled hair and stylish but classy dress suit. The room was full of old white men in suits and perky PR people. I noticed no one lurking around, looking grumpy. I was clearly the first journalist to arrive.

I moved to the main foyer, where most people were gathering, swiping little party treats of trays, drinking white wine, but my perky host stopped me before I had a chance to soil the place.

"Oh, you’ll want to grab a name tag." The name tags were spread across a welcoming table, in two separate immaculately stacked rows. To the left, names like "Paul Fisher, Morgan Stanley" and "Josephine Stallings, Wachovia" were printed in black lettering on white background. To the right, there were six name tags. They were bright red, with screaming block blue letters, in all caps. "WILL LEITCH." Right above it, in type twice as large: "PRESS." If they could have printed them in blood, they would have. There would be no mistaking me for an ordinary person; the mingling boundary lines had been drawn. Warning, warning. This guy’s PRESS. Watch what you say.

"You’ll want one of these," she hissed. I think she hissed. I imagine her hissing.

After I put that thing on, boy, the die was cast. I walked through the room like my penis was hanging out. The second I walked up to a circle of old white men drinking wine, they’d notice my name tag and get very, very quiet. Their group would disperse within seconds. An attractive woman carrying wafers with spinach on them walked up to me and handed me a napkin. She noticed my tag. The next time she made the rounds, she passed right by me. The CEO of the company, busy glad-handing without regard, came up to me, introduced himself and saw the tag. He said about three words before finding someone else to talk to. The best part was when they did the product demonstration. They had us in little seats, and I was one of the first to sit down. Everyone converged in the row farthest from mine, commiserating together, away from my row, and I sat there, alone with my notebook, the contagious leper. I was the kid at lunchtime no one wants to sit next to.

After about an hour of this, I went to grab my coat. The perky PR lady caught my arm as I was on the way out the door.

"Here, we’ll take your name tag. You don’t exactly want to go outside with that on."

I chuckled, attempting to make a joke to salvage the evening. "Yeah. People see me with this on the street, they’ll probably punch me."

She didn’t laugh, or smile, or budge. She just took the tag and sent me on my way.

 

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