Journalists, by and large, had so little appreciation for their dependence on the larger engine of artificial demand that they were mostly blindsided when the Internet happened and they lost the benefits of that engine. A lot of them seemed to take it personally. They got insecure. Some started writing “trend” stories and giving over their column inches to celebrity newswires and sincerely talking about bylines (and politicians and everything else) as “brands.” They sold Time Warner to an absurdly overinflated dot-com. It’s not fair, of course, to blame only the journalists; there were mostly avowed capitalists in the corner offices of these places, and it is the fiduciary responsibility of capitalists to be as cowardly and uncreative as possible in times of fear and change.
This existential angst tormented even the commerce-savvy staff of the Journal, where I was assigned to the “youth” beat—which is to say, and it very much went without saying, youthful consumption trends. I was too young to realize that this was one of the few subjects about which young reporters, particularly the female ones, were trusted to cover with any measure of authority—because really, who gives a shit? I embedded myself on the front lines of the brand wars as if posterity really cared whether a popular new celebrity-endorsed offering from Nike or Adidas or Mattel or Urban Outfitters had yielded a noticeable market-share loss or gain that quarter. (To be fair, some hedge funds cared about this.)
Despite the superficiality of this beat, the people who inhabited it—the brands that were in demand—had money, power, and an attendant sense of entitlement that could be intimidating. At twenty-three, I felt sufficiently ancient and uncool to be consistently alarmed when, say, a sixteen-year-old small forward from Akron wrote me an angry two-way pager message when I respectfully declined his invitation to party in his hotel suite following a high school basketball tournament, or I awoke from a minor sneaker brand’s after-party to find a nineteen-year-old San Bernardino skateboarder attempting nonconsensual sex with me, or even when young celebrity stylists seemed sincerely to want to be my friend. I did not really identify with the cool-hunting, brand-building, sneaker-collecting generation of professional consumers I worked over for trend-story ideas, but neither did my colleagues in the bureau seem to identify with the megalomaniacal talent agents and casino magnates or the disgruntled aerospace engineers and short sellers they talked to all day.
So it wasn’t a total surprise that, amid the horror and sadness of September 11, I had also a sense of professional relief. I got to drive to San Diego to track down acquaintances of two Flight 77 hijackers who’d lived there, and generally conduct research on the local Muslim community. For the next six months, the paper was buoyed by a freak surge in demand for real journalism and its dusty byproducts—like collaboration, curiosity, a common sense of purpose. Of course, looking back, I also remember a lot of hysterical turf-warring, baseless speculating, and an overall atmosphere of humorlessness. (When I was dispatched to New Jersey to assist the “anthrax team” in attending the daily round of alarmist press briefings, for instance, a joking inquiry as to what sort of gas mask I ought to bring drew an earnest e-mail advising me that a preemptive course of Cipro might be more comfortable.) And so when the time came to resume the regimen of inquisitions into whether Barbie dolls could reclaim supremacy from the insurgent Bratz, or rappers could be convinced to switch sneaker brand allegiances from Nike to Reebok, and was the preeminent patron saint of pre-adolescent sartorial taste Britney Spears or Avril Lavigne . . . well, that was something of a relief, too. The biggest relief, though, would come when I was fired.
There were real stories on my beat, of course. It alarmed me, for instance, to learn that one of the companies in my “youth” sector, the mall chain Abercrombie & Fitch, made a weekly practice of purging its stores of hourly sales associates it deemed to be less than, in corporate parlance, “brand positive.”