Saturday, July 17, 2010

For all of Timoney’s messianic zeal, his efforts instilled little faith in the loose confederation of addiction counselors and rehab providers I met in the Badlands. Their budgets had been gutted by some technicality of welfare reform, the heroin seemed to be getting purer and more noxious every week, and they could not handle the drastic influx of court dates and bail demands they faced as a result of Operation Sunrise’s indiscriminate sweeps. A distressing new book on the drug war called The Fix illuminated their struggle; although numerous studies had estimated that every dollar spent in the attempt to constrain the demand for drugs—especially if those efforts focused on drugs’ most conspicuous consumers—was worth ten spent trying to stamp out its supply, the supply-siders had won the debate again and again. 


What I couldn’t understand, though, was why they killed the story. Sure, it wasn’t Blackwater, but this was a store that at least half our readers’ kids would have killed to work for, and it was being run by some racist, frat-boy cult, and the suburban teenagers it hired and fired so mercurially were going to grow into adults who thought this was . . . normal? That in the modern American workplace, this sort of Lord-of-the-Flies management strategy was just par for the fucking course?


The stranger thing about phone sex, though, was that the training program was more rigorous and extensive than any I’d encountered in journalism. There was a day and a half in a classroom learning such phone-sex fundamentals as the “hot statement” and the “ego stroke,” daily feedback sessions with supervisors who listened in on calls, a mandatory creative-writing contest for the best Halloween-themed fantasy scenario, refresher courses to hone fluency in more exotic proclivities, individual binders in which we recorded our progress in this stuff and collected, as per instruction, magazine clippings—Penthouse letters, perfume advertisements, etc.—whatever we found erotically inspiring. When my supervisor’s boss learned I was writing a story, he unfurled all the usual legal threats, but when it was published, the company ordered hundreds of reprints to dispense to new hires at orientation. They did not expect you to be some innate phone-sex genius, but they had full faith that you could get immeasurably better, especially if you wanted to, and they genuinely seemed to take it as a given that people wanted to become better at things they did.

Maureen Tkacik at Columbia Journalism Review

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