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.”

The purgees were identified, a former regional manager explained, every week at corporate headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, during a conference call held specifically to critique photographs taken that week by the chain’s hundred or so district managers of all the “brand representatives” they had encountered in visits to their stores. The photos were uploaded onto some sort of company intranet, but my source told me his boss preferred printing them out on paper, so he could circle flaws, draw mustaches, scrawl racist epithets, etc. The source said braces, minor breakouts, the faintest possibility of weight gain, showing up to work in a prior season’s ensemble, wearing shoes that had not appeared on the list of authorized footwear for that season, and/or belonging to an ethnic minority could all be grounds for immediate dismissal from the ranks of Abercrombie & Fitch’s minimum-wage cadre of demand creators.  

I went to great lengths to corroborate the facts, which is where I fucked up; I e-mailed a draft of the piece (a decision inspired by a respected journalist I’d read about who said he did this all the time) to a trusted source, and he e-mailed it to someone else, and eventually it made its way to Abercrombie’s corporate offices and in turn to the company’s fearsome New York “crisis PR” firm. And because Wall Street Journal investigations are the sort of thing that affects the stock prices of companies, this was a fire-able offense. In retrospect, as much as I felt like a failure and a fuckup, I didn’t actually mind being liberated from the constant, insane pressure not to fuck up. All year I’d been variously accused of being “in the pocket” of one company or its rival by analysts, money managers, publicists, lawyers, etc., and I’d found it preposterous. What did I care who prevailed in the sneaker wars or the doll wars or the Japanese-hipster-credibility-halo-effect wars?

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?

Maureen Tkacik is (still) a writer who lives in New York.