Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A brush with the media

In my job as a math professor, I've had a bunch of different experiences with the media, some of it more different than others.  I've been interviewed for the nightly news, quoted in newspaper articles; I even (this is the "different" one) made it into the New York Times magazine fashion spread once, all togged up in "Gucci boots, a Proenza Schouler coat, Dries Van Noten dress and necklace, and a Marni belt".  None of those clothes were mine, of course.  The magazine had something it wanted to show people, and I was just the body they put the clothes on.  (They weren't really as much fun to wear as you might think).

You might wonder how reporters find all the people they write about.  Sometimes, they look for "experts". (If they want to know the chances of winning the lottery under various circumstances, it makes sense to call the local math department).  But sometimes, they just put out an email to local PR (public relations) people, called a "media query".

Here's a query my husband got last week.  This was query #21 in a list that was 38 questions long.
The Search For America's Most Frugal Family 
We're looking for the thriftiest people in America! Is it you, or your husband, or mom? Do you have binders of coupons? Will you only buy something if it is on sale? Do you find every opportunity to cut costs, pinch pennies, and stretch a dollar? Have you been accused of being cheap? Do you buy clothes, wear them, and then return them? Do you frequently "re-gift" items you've received for free? What's the most embarrassing, innovative, or outrageous thing you've done to save a dime? If you are a proud penny-pincher, or want to tell us about someone in your life who is, the [Name-withheld] Show wants to hear from you.
My husband suggested the reporter contact me, even though he knows this list doesn't perfectly describe me -- I don't do many coupons, for example.  [Note:  I think buying something with the intention of using it and returning it is reprehensible:  don't try this at home!]  The reporter called me up, and she was very, very interested at first . . .

. . . but we figured out that she was really looking for people who embarrass their families, whose penny-pinching is so bad it requires "intervention".  It took a while to figure that out.  For example, she told me her mom used to water down their juice so they'd use less.  I told her that I just make my boys drink water straight up. They get one glass of juice and one glass of milk a day, and the rest of the time it's water.  "Are they okay with that?" she wanted to know.  I pointed out that most kids, if you asked them, would be happy to have 5 Twinkies if you let them, but they accept the fact that they can't eat that much junk food.  In the same way, my kids would happily drink juice all day if you let them, but they accept the water rule as normal.

"Do you do that to save money?" she asked.  I said that this saves money both on juice and also on long-term health bills (fewer cavities, for example), but she shut me down quickly with "this isn't a story about health."

She was briefly interested in my getting clothes for cheap, but lost interest when she realized we look normal (no embarrassing skirts made out of umbrellas).  She asked if we do all this because we're living close to the financial edge, but once again I had to disappoint her and say, no, we do this so we can share with others.  She finally told me, "You're just too up-lifting.  That's not the story we're writing.  I might call you back during the holidays when we're doing up-beat stories."

When you see tightwads on TV or in the paper, they're seldom the people you want to be like.  They hoard so much stuff the neighbors complain, or they drive their families nuts, or they are dishonest cheaters.  That's because conflict sells, and contentment doesn't.  

I don't think the reporter was a bad person; she's just doing her job.  But I do think she's painting a bad picture of what "frugality" really means.  It's as false a picture as that photo of me in the Proenza Schouler coat and Gucci boots.

A cute follow-up story:  When I was describing this conversation to my family, including my answer to "are your kids okay drinking water?", my younger son asked, "What's a Twinkie?".  We realized that neither of my sons have ever eaten one.  I tried to tell him that it's a sponge with sugar on it, but I think my husband is going to do an intervention after all.


  1. Your son should definitely have a Twinkie, cause then he will NEVER want one ever again! I was going to say something condolences-y about not being on TV. Then I realized that saying 'so sorry you are too uplifting and not crazy' was rather a stupid thing to say.:)

  2. @ Meredith: The boys did get Twinkies after all. One of them disliked his so much he couldn't finish it; the other would have eaten 5 if he could!