Dateline: Wed 15 Dec 2010

"Always be yourself. Unless of course you happen to be a creep. In that case, be someone else." Archie Andrews from Archie Andrews Comics, circa 1960-1964

My friend Abdul Hakim Shabazz last week wrote about his successful efforts to land a job, thus proving, as he explained, that this economy isn't so sucky after all. So why do we need to extend jobless benefits, his argument ran, since "if you’ve been out of work for 99 weeks, then maybe the problem is you"?

Maybe not.

Here was the set-up: he applied for a customer service rep position at ACS in Anderson, acknowledging his undergraduate degree (communications, journalism) but not his master's in public speaking, his law degree and his extensive abilities as a phrase-maker and emcee around town, GOP foot soldier, etc. He did allow that he had "other jobs" (taking calls from mostly irate people, as he coyly explained). Lo and behold, he was offered a position at the call center at ACS, with a starting pay of $9 an hour and the potential to earn $13. He was to work 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., thus allowing him the free time to pursue his myriad of other interests.

He dismissed concerns that some less-fortunate job-seekers might have -- "child care, transportation, education, etc." because his grandma taught him, "All God's children got problems."

Well, OK, but not all of them have the poise, verbal skills, nice threads and multi-faceted background of an Abdul, or even, necessarily, the wheels to get to Anderson, which is about an hour from Indy, and it's a brutal drive. Plan on leaving the house by 5 a.m. -- good luck getting a sitter at that hour, and better hope that car is in good shape.

My friend Gary Welsh at Advance Indiana immediately denounced Abdul as "a total fraud" who, Gary said, was pulling a publicity stunt. he further argued that ACS was in on it; the company has ties to the GOP administration, and it was all in the bag, argued Gary.

Abdul's producer Brian Moore assured me this was not a set-up, but rather an honest experiment.


Here's my point: media people, or people with resources, generally do the poor and disenfranchised and in this case unemployed a terrrible disservice when they fake it and go slumming -- pretending to be homeless, jobless or one of the unwashed.  As someone said, "the rich are not like you and I..." and neither are the comfortably middle-class like the men and women who have been jobless for 99 weeks.

I happen to believe, like Abdul, that there are indeed jobs to be had -- and most of them are grueling and/or unlike the job that a person might have held in another life. And if you're an ex-con, or someone without a degree -- well, work ethic may not help you much.

To me, the notion that someone can "simulate" a job-seeking experience and apply it across the board to the unemployed is ludicrous.

Cases in point: years ago, a recent IUPUI graduate with a master's in social work went undercover on the mean streets of Indy, pretending to be homeless. (A girlfriend went with her). I interviewed the MSW and her pal afterwards, for a features story, and I will never forget the MSW telling me that every morning, she used IUPUI facilities to take a shower, style her hair and apply makeup before hitting the streets to scour for aluminum cans -- "but don't put that in, about the shower and makeup." Didn't then; just did now. 'Bout time, too.

Second instance -- my friend Hal Wiley, a features writer at the Indianapolis Star, was persuaded to pretend to be one of those guys who carry the cardboard signs, "I'll work for food." The mission was to share his first-person account with readers and give real insight into -- what? I forget.

He wandered around, collected a fair amount of money (ultimately donated by the newspaper to charity) and wrote about his life as a guy scouring for bread. Except, of course, he wasn't. He had decent shoes, a place to sleep at night, and good teeth; it just did not compute. Yet people -- mostly women -- laid money on him, sometimes lavishly.

Don't like it. Not ethical.

Journalists and others should avoid pretending to be something we are not. That, at least, is what my grandma said.

To read more perspective on this, here are links to Abdul's blog and Gary's blog:

And if you ever faked it and want to come clean, shoot.



hendy [Member] said:

Never faked it, but have an appreciation for those that went undercover to write about what was under the cover. Is Abdul wrong? Sleazy? I think: probably so. The question surrounds did he really need that job, and was that for real? If he needed it, then the exercise was well-served. If it was a scam, then he did us all a disservice.

2010-12-15 11:37:16

ruthholl [Member] said:

Going undercover, I suppose, has a storied history -- Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and other exposes that escape me now. You're right, intent has to be considered, and the depth of the reporting as well.
Year ago, in the 1980s, the Star ran a series of classified ads for an abortion clinic (new to town, on Meridian, south of 38th) that were unusual, in that it was a real come-on and bold for those times: THINK YOU'RE PREGNANT. WE OFFER FREE TESTING. COME AND GET IT. (or words to that effect, hard sell).
It rang false to me, and I went in, gave a fake name, got a urine test and it was negative. I had suspected they were telling women the tests were positive and then doing "procedures" to collect fat fees..just a hunch. That same year, the Chicago Sun Times -- a woman reporter -- won a Pulitzer for exposing exactly that plot line; the abortion provider was based in Chicago, where he was raking it in. Apparently he was more tentative in INdy, or his nurses not yet wise to his scheme, or whatever.
I always intended to find out how that reporter did her research, etc., but time and family and life interrupted....

2010-12-15 13:26:57

Pasquale [unverified] said:

I don't think Ralph Ellison had any reason to go undercover to write "Invisible Man."

I assume you are referring to John Howard Griffin and "Black Like Me."

Really enjoy your blog, by the way.

2010-12-15 14:04:32

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

I think Abdul was a dissembler in this case. He applied to arguably the most politically fixed outsourcer for a job, using his best job seeking skills: I have no doubt he was articulate, dressed well, displayed good credentials and said there were no obstacles to performing his tasks. His most egregious sin was his assertion that anyone "really" wanting a job could find one.

2010-12-15 14:06:52

Matt Stone [unverified] said:

It's ironic you mention the "life as a panhandler", Ruth, because Abdul did that too.

2010-12-15 15:19:43

Gary Welsh [unverified] said:

I heard from a state worker who said there was an additional concern about Abdul's job search at the ACS call center because they are funded with public funds. Our taxpayer dollars were either being wasted wilfully by ACS by playing along with Abdul's demonstration or by Abdul, who was duping them into believing he was a serious job seeker. It is hard to believe ACS management was not aware of Abdul's publicity stunt since he made the point of broadcasting each step of his job search there on Twitter, his blog and on his radio show and because Abdul calls ACS lobbyists his friends. ACS had been under fire for laying off employees during the debate over the city's parking meter lease deal at the same time it was promising to add new jobs. His publicity stunt could be viewed as a way of ACS touting jobs it had available at its call center.

2010-12-15 15:44:46

ruthholl [Member] said:

I want to thank Pasquale for correcting me on "Invisible Man."
"Black Like Me" is the one I read in the 60s...the one I meant to reference.
I love it when readers catch me in an error and take the time to say so. It's always nice to know people who are well-read are reading the blog.
I also appreciate the info from Matt -- did not know that -- Tom's comments and the updated insight from Gary, Gary, by the way, is where I first read about Abdul's stunt. We all know talk radio is a lot about entertainment, especially the sort of show Abdul runs, but I think Gary raises more ethical concerns that warrant an explanation...
I mean, why not go to Goodwill and get a job? Or IUPUI? Or Lilly? It does seem perhaps a tad transparent or manipulative or ???

2010-12-15 20:00:14

Jason [unverified] said:

I'm wondering whether or not this whole thing is playing into his hands. After all, what are we talking about, 99 weeks of unemployment benefits or Abdul?

I wouldn't have had a problem if it hadn't resulted in a lot of people wasting their time and resources.

2010-12-15 22:23:39

Write Man [Member] said:

Why not go to IUPUI or Lilly (or even Goodwill) indeed. Likely because none of them are hiring, and if they are, chances are good it's either not a position he'd qualify for, or there would be 10 other candidate whose credentials were as good as his -- or better.

My wife has been out of work for 2 years now, a project coordinator-type in marketing. That position has been decimated by the recession. She's applied for jobs she's far-over qualified for, but employers have a name for people who are willing to take a lesser job: flight risks. If a better job comes along, the thinking goes, "flight risk" employees are gone.

I'm not convinced we have any idea of how long we're going to be in this thing, or how far-reaching its effects will be. Perhaps Abdul could spend some time uncovering what efforts are being made at the state level to bolster job creation.

2010-12-16 00:57:11

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

I listen to Abdul whenever I can. Read his blog a lot, too. He has changed the way news is reported in this town--he is aggressive, and he basically has no shame.

He's often a Republican mouthpiece, so you've got to filter that. He is not consistent when he calls folks out. He's still better than 90% of the reporters in town.

But verbally talented? Are you kidding? Every time I listen to him, I think, My God, he stammers, he says "uh" all the time...he got that job because he was relentless, not because of any verbal skills. He picked the lowest-rated radio station in town, sold himself to them, and it's evidently profitable. I don't know how, but I don't run their books.

In any high school speech class, he'd get a hard C for speech pattern, style and delivery. And that grade would be a gift.

This stunt was just that. Kinda cruel, too.

2010-12-16 07:58:04

JL Kato [unverified] said:

My beef with Abdul's stunt is that he did not go far enough. He should have accepted the job and tried to live off his $9/$13 an hour. It's far more different when no safety net is there to catch you.

2010-12-18 09:50:25

whosear [Member] said:

While Abdul tends to argue that jobs go to the prepared and aggressive (if you do everything you have to do to get a job, you will); his approach mirrors his analysis, simplistic and shallow. A good policy wonk he is.

If he did any background (like read the unemployment claimant handbook; he might be a bit introspective and ask himself if he were in another's shoes if he would collect $390/wk (-!0% federal tax withholding) while he was job hunting or if he would take the job, fore go the insurance and job hunt. So he's an unemployed architect engineer for HP who made $90,000/yr? Go for $9.00. A senior VP of the largest bank in the US? go for the $9.00.

Abdul's gigs? As the saying goes in the 30's, it's good work if you can get it.

And to think, our national policy is to have let job competition for those call center jobs either by export or importing the children of immigrants. Why is it that we don't open up the professions to competition to foreign labor? Would Abdul go back to school to learn Napoleonic legal code?

Like many of his radio stunts, cheap, sensationalistic and meaningless.

2010-12-23 22:47:46

whosear [Member] said:

I missed another important point: doesn't Abdul teach? At least at the GEO academy. I worked at call centers through the 80's with 2+ years of college (it wasn't required)

So the value of an undergrad degree from IUPUI in journalism and communication these days is $9.00/hr with high hopes of $13.00/hr.

There goes those increased high school graduation rates.

2010-12-23 22:56:08

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