Sunday, October 11, 2009

“Fear and Loathing” in the American Workplace

By Susan Older

Fear of being fired or laid off in this harsh economy is creating an environment that has all the trappings of what I would call, borrowing a phrase from the late Hunter S. Thompson, "fear and loathing" in the American workplace.

I just gave up my livelihood rather than work in a climate of fear and degradation. I feel for my co-workers who don’t have the financial means to do the same.

I wonder: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the rising unemployment rate in the United States? Most likely, it’s the sad plight of workers who’ve lost their incomes, health insurance, retirement accounts and, most likely, a big chunk of self-esteem.

And, there is no question about the fact that the unemployed grapple with these losses on a daily basis. Many rise early to jump on job boards, write cover letters, and perfect their resumes, only to be met with rejection. Many of them are anxious, depressed and suffering increasingly from related physical illness.

But what about the ranks of the still-employed who live in fear of being tapped for the next layoff or becoming the target of managers who can fire them – in most cases – at will?

A study at the University of Michigan shows that people who constantly worry about losing their jobs report poorer physical health and more symptoms of depression than those who have actually been laid off.

Researchers analyzed nationally representative samples of surveys from more than 1,700 adults over age 25 who were asked about their physical and mental health, as well as their feelings about the security of their job.

"The negative effect of being persistently insecure was more significant than the unemployment itself," said study author Sarah Burgard, a research assistant professor at the school's Institute for Social Research.

People are working overtime without being paid for the extra work. They’re putting up with lower or no increases in compensation as a reward for excellence. They’re scared to speak up to or against management. They’re undercutting one another in the belief that it’s better to see a former workmate fired than to be fired oneself.

"By no means am I trying to belittle the stress of job loss," Burgard said. "But the negative anticipation of an event can be more stressful than the event itself. People feel they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, but they can't exert any control over the situation."

And it’s not just the slackers who are worried. It’s been my observation that the most productive employees, those who show the most talent, are often targeted by managers whose own insecurity drives them to harass or oust top performers, people who could challenge them for positions in management – possibly for lower salaries, saving the company money.

It’s not just a battle between employees and their superiors. This rampant fear creates hostility between equals at all levels: manager on manager, worker on worker.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this climate of fear and hostility is that this is precisely the time when people at all levels in the workplace could be finding solace in a mutual dedication to survival of the best.

They could be banding together to ensure that the hard working among them will weather the economic storm. Instead, it’s every man for himself.

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize win: Nobody said it better

I tried, without success, to write my feelings regarding the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. I just couldn’t get it down – at least not to my satisfaction.

So, now, I'd just like to say:

What he said:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" quote: That's not the news

I’ve been putting off starting my Real World Media blog, but I came across a news peg today that left me anything but speechless.

I watched "Meet the Press" this morning, as I do every Sunday. David Gregory led with a terrific segment from an interview he conducted Friday with former President Bill Clinton.

The piece covered a broad range of topics, and Clinton was, as usual, on point. He answered Gregory’s thought-provoking questions with characteristic eloquence, commenting on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear plant outing, Obama’s performance in his nine-month “honeymoon” period, health care, the economy, the Clinton Global Initiative and even a one-liner on whether he still has political ambitions.

Now, I’ve been a journalist for 35 years. I’m old school in the sense that I have ink flowing through my veins, Watergate and Vietnam still in mind, and Hunter Thompson in my heart. My grandfather’s uncle, Fremont Older, was a San Francisco institution as editor of the city newspaper that rivaled William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner.

I’ve been a founding editor of USA Today, managing editor of the Gannett New Media Group, founding editor of Inter@ctive Week (the tech magazine that's now called eWeek), editor-in-chief of United Press International, and chief content editor for quite a few online news operations.

I love the Internet. I love to read my news online. I don’t think online journalism is inherently bad. And I believe there are still some great journalists out there. NBC's Richard Engel, for example. I feel proud every time I watch him and listen to him, and I worry about his safety as he jumps from war zone to war zone to keep us informed. They don’t get any better.

So when I hit on CNN this afternoon and saw the lead story: "Bill Clinton: 'Vast right-wing conspiracy' as 'virulent' as ever," I thought to myself: OMG. I mean, really? If you haven’t seen the interview, go to MSNBC’s site and watch it for yourself.

Choosing that minute and relatively insignificant question and answer as the lead story is shoddy, lazy, and dirty journalism at best. And it was CNN. It wasn’t even Fox News.

(Wait, hold that thought while I check out the Fox news site.)

Okay, I’m back, and, yes, Fox has it, too. At first I didn’t see it. What I noticed first was a rather repulsive and large ad -- in the right-hand column in the "above-the-fold" position – for a tooth-bleaching product.

How could you not notice giant yellow teeth with braces on them in a place you used to read your news? I finally spotted it, though, below and to the left of the yellow teeth. The headline: “Bill Clinton: Obama Focus of Right-Wing Conspiracy.” Now NPR is running it on its site, having picked up an AP story titled, "Bill Clinton Speaks of Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy."

This makes my blood boil. That interview was full of fascinating quotes from a highly respected former president. And although I did find it interesting to hear Clinton’s take on whether Obama has been the object of a right-wing conspiracy, I can tell you one thing: That most certainly was not the news story in the interview. In fact, I’ll bet the editors who edited those stories and wrote those headlines are too young to know the origin of the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.” I seriously doubt they could discuss “Whitewater” or the death of Vince Foster off the top of their heads.

This isn’t the kind of "news" I signed up to report, write and edit in the 1970s. And I know there are plenty of good journalists – either still working or laid-off – who feel the same way. Journalism isn’t in trouble because we’re reading it online instead of on paper. It’s in trouble because of poor judgment on the part of sloppy, clueless, and often angry, people who handle carelessly the precious gem we used to call the "news."

There’s still reason for hope, though. Look at how NBC played the story on the network’s MSNBC website: “Clinton talks poverty, climate on "Meet the Press." David Gregory didn't even mention the "conspiracy" comments in his breakout box of highlights from today's show.

That’s how the late Tim Russert, veteran moderator of “Meet the Press,” would have played it, too.