There are two newspapers in the United States worth writing for professionally--The New York Times and the Washington Post. Volunteer Slavery, by Jill Nelson is primarily the author's account of her tenure at the latter. It is also a story about Washington and the heavy price it exacts from those who heed its call.
Before her time at the Post, Nelson worked as a freelance writer for a number of notable left-wing publications, including The Village Voice. She considers herself to have earned her left-wing credentials by protesting and writing about encroachments on civil liberties.
Nelson says she tries to live according to what she characterizes as "an authentic Negro experience" ...as if such a phenomenon exists. Her formulation of the requirements for this experience includes adhering to a dogmatic view of liberal politics which accepts no divergence.
Nelson is recruited by The Post for its Sunday Magazine in 1986. She claims her hiring was a cynical attempt to comply with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decree that "the paper make 'a good-faith effort' to hire more women." Tired of the financially precarious lifestyle afforded by her activism, she accepts the Post offer with its attendant security.
But from the beginning, Nelson considers the Post to be a hostile working environment for minorities and makes no attempt to toe the corporate line. She explicitly states her intention to not become a member of the black bourgeoisie, which she claims has abandoned the less fortunate blacks who have no strategies of exit from poverty.
In Volunteer Slavery, Nelson tries to cling to her ideals about journalism and the truth. She tries to discuss the important issues of who gets to define the news and of how it is represented, raising important questions regarding how the news room should be made more representative of its target community.
Nelson renders in detail the texture of life at a news room, especially the factional warring which dominates the Post. Deep bias can be detected in much of her analysis however, and she often speculates on others' motives without documentation.
Accustomed to the easygoing life of the feature-writer, Nelson is reassigned with disastrous results to the Metropolitan Desk when the Post Magazine folds. She considers this assignment a banishment to professional purgatory, since it is staffed primarily with minorities.
During her tempestuous ride at the Post, she alienates several co-workers and, fatally, members of management. There is a frank recounting of a minor ethical lapse which contributes to her decision to leave the Post.
Most revealing is Nelson's stark depiction of the huge disparity between her pre-Post free-wheeling lifestyle and the staid corporate life which replaced it. She tries to present this as a titanic struggle between principles and filthy lucre. In reality, it just shows that she fails to understand the basic tenets of capitalism as practiced in the United States.
The book is about more than her professional life. Nelson's devotion to her daughter is absolutely unquestionable. Nelson also explores her deep emotions toward her family and her trouble relating to her mother.
Particularly moving are passages describing the beauties of Martha's Vineyard, where her parents own a house in Oak Bluffs and where she retreats after suffering from a nervous breakdown, brought on by the stress of her job.
Ultimately, Nelson decides that she is too unhappy with the Post's status quo. Unable to create change, she quits, returning to what she considers a less-stressful lifestyle. With such an outcome Volunteer Slavery reads as a cautionary tale about the demands of life in the nation's capital.
Of course, few people, except Ralph Nader, go to Washington hoping to change it. Many think that their pilgrimage will be brief. Often they stay and become fodder for the press or are spat out in this place where, as the late Vincent Foster put it, "ruining people's life is considered sport."
Washington used to be Anita Hill's town too--at least until a combination of gross incompetence, naivete and vindictiveness caused her to flee and plot revenge against a mentor who had callously discarded her.