Sunday, November 26, 2006

Chronicler of Life at the Drive-Thru

This piece by reporter Charlie LeDuff can be found in the NYT and the Dallas Morning News. Interesting that the DMN credits only the "NYT News Service" and omits the byline. Bad enough that a DMN staffer didn't do it--they couldn't give credit where it's due?

The subject is the employee at a Burger King drive-through window on a rough side of Dallas. She's a woman struggling to make it on $200 a week, putting up with drunks who throw fries at her and a cook who sneezes on the meat patties.

Yes, it's a fine piece on first read, full of colorful phrases such as this: "The night is busy, and a mustache of perspiration breaks across her lip."

But read it again. Do you detect any sense of the smarter-than-thou reporter looking down on his subject with a hint of disdain? Of pity? Of even an ounce of empathy?

Notice that LeDuff mentions in the first graf that the woman he's profiling is overweight and wears pink lipstick. Read the line about how she feeds her kids. Don't have to be Columbo to detect the air of disapproval.

What do you think of writing like this? I'd really like to know.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, realism is not going to get you the Pulitzer. It is a matter of style and also of content. Could be fiction, for all I know.

The piece you mention? I like it, it is deviced in a manner which treats the subject with respect and it does not forgets the standing point, the where, sort to speak.

That's my 2-cent reaction.

Andy

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did note a slight tone of disapproval from the author, but honestly, I found myself disapproving myself. The phrase saying that it's expensive to eat healthy is ridiculous. Sandwiches and veggies cost much less than fast food everyday. Although I pity this women, I can't help but disapprove of how she feeds her kids....

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you have Gloria Castillo feed her kids soy burgers or traditional Honduran cuisine instead of fast food? I don't think LeDuff's attitude is the problem here. He's reporting the facts of her life in the context of complex immigration issues. I liked it, pink lipstick and all.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tone is actually rather subtle compared to how you discuss your former students.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Freudian Slip said...

I also picked up on disaproval from the author. At times almost sarcasm. I wonder what exactly LeDuff was trying to accomplish here.
Matt

3:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to me that the piece is a really well written example of what I used to call the Jane Goodall approach to beat coverage, back when I worked a little paper in South Texas. We’d get a lot pedigreed kids fresh out of school wanting to “do something that matters” as reporters. They’d come and live among the savages for a two-year stint, eat the menudo to prove they were of the people and then write these stories about those people that were a lot like this one. The thing is – it’s clear to the people they are writing about that they really aren’t respected as individuals by their esteemed visitors.

These kids sometimes grow up into newspaper management back east, or work at large metro dailies, or even sometimes teach at colleges. They key to stories that contain all the elements of their stereotypes of Texas, the things that justify their beliefs. All it takes to get the attention of those big papers is to play up to those stereotypes. Call it the Redneck Minstrel Sideshow. And the beat goes on…

Ernest Scribbler

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to offer a different reading.

First, I'm happy this article got published at all. The facts that I glean are these:

---She thinks she's nothing special.

---She works hard at jobs she doesn't like.

---She spends most of the rest of her time taking care of her family.

---She gets four hours of sleep per night.

---She's married to the father of her children.

---He works hard.

---She and her husband coordinate their schedules tightly, for the benefit of their children.

---On the weekends, she goes to school to qualify for better work.

Despite their incredible accumulated labor, they have no health insurance from any of it.

To me, it's a pleasant surprise to read this profile in any newspaper, anywhere.

I don't like the writer's immediately pointing out that she's overweight, but if I'm looking for the best instead of the worst, here's now I read the first two paragraphs:

We know that overweight people are reviled in this culture. She's overweight and therefore gets all the messages, and the writer knows that we know that. Still, she wears pink lipstick: she claims a little bit of brightness and femininity nonetheless (despite the horrible uniform she has to wear.) She **tells** us she thinks she's nothing special.

Then the rest of the article shows us that she is in fact brave, strong, selfless, responsible, and clear-thinking.

Maybe I'm laying this on a bit strong . . . but it's what I see in her (and in the structure of the article). I honestly think the writer could have intended this kind of slow revelation of who she truly is -- after what we'd see initially if we saw her in real life: an overweight young woman with pink lipstick, and probably an expression that says, "I'm nobody special."

Now, do I have stars in my eyes, or could you see the article this way? (Regarding the kids' food: how much food shopping and home cooking could you do on four hours' sleep per night? Me, not so much.)

1:15 PM  
Blogger War Bride said...

I like it.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Having moved from working and managing fast food to being a tenured academic, I think it is fair.

Sure, there is a hint of distain, but most of that comes from her and her disgust for her life.

If you haven't read Barbara Eherenrich's books, you should. She discusses the problems of the working poor.

I think that the author hits on the two aspects of life that it is ok for people to look down on, people who are poor and/or overweight.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kaleidoscope of thoughts here. The woman is very obviously aware of her situation. She knows her job blows goats. How glamorous can fast-food be?

Yes, I thought there was more than a hint of condescension (is that a word?) in the author's voice. Especially by pointing out that she is overweight (what does that have to do with anything, anyway?) AND wearing pink lipstick. Whatever he's trying to say there isn't positive: pink lipstick instantly brings up images of no fashion sense, makeup overkill, etc. It's as though all he sees is pink lipstick and obesity... not a PERSON underneath all that.

All the while I kept thinking that at least she has a job, has a husband, and is trying to provide for her family. The guy almost made it seem okay that people threw things at her or expected their food for free... like she deserved it or something. I don't get that.

Furthermore, he's really stereotyping: she's a minority who got pregnant in high school and ended up in a dead-end job, living in poverty. There's very much a "here we go again" air to this story.

But... lots of images stick with me based on his descriptions: that the windows at McDonald's lock. Burger King pays better. An hour and a half to clean the bathrooms. Having to translate for the (illegal) Hispanic workers.

I don't know. Does the author disapprove of fast-food wages and working conditions, or the people who work at those places? Hard to tell.

SUPERHOLMIE

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that ya'll are being too harsh. I didn't pick up condescension at all. I think that the approach that the author was taking was to describe everything in as flat, neutral, and non-judgmental a tone as possible. That way the reader feels sorry for the subject on their own, rather than being led to feel sorry by the author pulling strings. If the reader generates the sympathy, it will be more genuine adn heartfelt. That's how I saw it.

2:40 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home