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Bitchbox Revisited

Two years ago, a young Hearst editorial assistant sent mb's "Bitchbox" an anonymous rant about her job—which, after a Hearst investigation, she didn't keep for much longer. Now she's unmasking herself and explaining why she did it.

- April 7, 2004

I have survived in anonymity for two years, but now I'm finally ready to out myself. Remember that Hearst editorial assistant who vented about her frustrations on mediabistro.com? The one who Hearst then tracked down and fired? Whose story made the lead item in "Page Six"? That's me.

In case you don't have perfect recall of your media tempests-in-teapots, let me refresh your memory. mediabistro.com used to run an occasional feature called "Bitchbox," in which media people could anonymously rant about their frustrations. Another assistant in my office had sent a harmless email about maintaining a clean kitchen; I changed it into a snarky rant on dead plants and footing the office candy bill. "Hey editors! Get off your f*ckin' high horses and come down and smell your trash," it began. "We are your editorial assistants—not your maids, your mothers, or your personal assistants." When the gals around the office had a good chuckle-chuckle, I thought there might be others toiling away on their iMacs who felt the same way. So I submitted it to mb, hoping others could share in our good laugh.

Then my rant showed up on mediabistro.com's homepage. With a blaring, red headline. And that's when I freaked. It's really easy to talk the talk, but once that talk was public I realized I might be forced to walk the walk. I was terrified. But most people who'd read it seemed to think the piece was well-written. So I wasn't too upset.

Well, not until six days later. The column was meant just for laughs. I didn't name names—unlike the angry Martha Stewart employees, fuming over an over-pampered bulldog. I didn't spit in anyone's lunch—unlike Bonnie Fuller's minions. I didn't say I hated my job. Simply, I was bored—I wanted more responsibilities and a chance to write full articles—and this was a way to entertain myself (and others). Instead, I wrote myself into the unemployment line.

I had submitted the column on a Thursday. It was posted Friday, unbeknownst to me. By Monday, all my coworkers had seen it, though I still hadn't. I never thought it would actually appear on mediabistro.com; I expected it would be like writing a letter to someone you're angry at, then tearing it up to save your sanity. Finally, I checked the site. When I saw the huge "Memo From The Hearst Corporation" headline, I emailed the editor at mb, and he agreed to move my piece out of the neon spotlight. Tuesday afternoon was still uneventful at work; I left early for a class at NYU. But Wednesday morning the shit hit the fan. I started paying attention to the buzz around the office, and I realized there was a very weird vibe. Then an editor came to my desk and told me off to my face. A few minutes later, I was called to the managing editor's office where HR told me I was terminated, effective immediately. Not entirely surprisingly, Hearst had checked the email system to figure out who'd sent the anonymous submission to mediabistro.com, and I'd come up red-handed.

Half an hour later I was packing my stuff in a box and heading for the 2 train home. Technically, I was fired for violating the email policy of using the company system for personal email. It's bad form, I assume, for a media company that counts on the First Amendment to fire an employee for voicing her opinion. Even so, slamming those who sign your checks is also a great way to be shown the door.

The next morning I found my tale spread atop "Page Six." My phone started ringing from other editors who had been ousted from our magazine during cutbacks. I started calling everyone I knew in hopes of landing a job. I told my parents I had been laid off. Then I did what any 25-year-old transplant New Yorker would do when she thinks her career is in the toilet and the entire city hates her: I bolted.

God bless Mike and his miniscule hometown in Michigan, where he took me in but didn't let me wallow, and instead thought it was the funniest getting fired story he'd ever heard. If I wasn't so convinced my parents would disown me and I would soon be selling my hair for food, I would have lightened up. Then Mike showed me the mediabistro.com bulletin boards. It seemed like anyone who had ever collected a paycheck had something to say, regardless of what business they worked in. Some people said I was on my own high horse, full of entitlement, but the majority of people agreed with what I said. When I got back to New York, my roommate dragged me out to a book party, where I discovered that fellow assistants were gushing. One girl even kept asking to touch my arm. Apparently, my seemingly career-ending editorial had become a very popular email forward. Even better, many of these still-employed assistants told me their bosses were suddenly worried that they might feel the same way. The morning my firing was announced on "Page Six," I found out, assistants all across Manhattan were treated to bagels and "spontaneous" kind gestures from their bosses. Thanks to me, apparently, "Fax this, now," had become, "Fax this, please." And, to the extent I made any other assistants' lives better, I was proud to have taken that bullet.

That's probably part of why I'm finally throwing off my mask. It's probably also because I now feel more secure in my career, and maybe it was from watching Donald Trump give Apprentice Jessie the "you're fired" hand jab because she didn't stand up for herself. Or maybe it's because reading How To Lose Friends And Alienate People made me realize I never want to be that guy. Whatever the reason, I know I spent too long sitting back and watching my satire be discussed on those mb bulletin boards, in the pages of The New York Times, in Salon.com, and I realized I should throw in my own two cents.

Very simply, I'm not—and I never was— a bitch or a brat who thought that the brass ring would just be handed to me, nor did I think I became some kind of martyr. But that doesn't mean I'm not ambitious, and, after two years at Hearst, while I recognized promotions weren't entitlements, it would have been nice to at least have the opportunity. I understood that being an editorial assistant meant answering phones, faxing pages, and many other menial tasks, but I also figured it would be a learning opportunity. For my first boss at Hearst, who listened to my crazy ideas and encouraged me, I was more than happy to go the extra mile, even volunteering to bring her coffee or lunch. I even helped pick out her wedding dress.

But not all bosses treat editorial assistants with such respect. Though my snide comments weren't directed at anyone in particular, they were definitely a response to what assistants see every day from bosses who fail to recognize them as human beings. For every higher-up who took what I wrote personally, it likely meant that they recognized themselves in my mocking words. And that's their own fault, not mine. Hopefully, they started looking a little differently at the person answering the phone, and maybe now change the copier paper themselves every once in a while.

I thought getting fired was the worst thing that could happen to me. It was two weeks before my birthday, and those first few days were probably some of the darkest I can remember since moving to New York. But now—hindsight always being 20/20— I realize that getting fired was the best thing that happened to me. I realized that I could do more than fax and answer phones and fill candy jars or toss dead plants, and now I work as the managing editor of a national magazine of an entirely different sort, but I'm much happier. I still fax and make copies, but I also do interviews, edit columns, and pitch ideas. Now I'm excited every day I go to work, because I'm making a contribution to my company beyond making sure we don't run out of paper clips.

Do I regret that column? For the hurt and embarrassment I caused a few special people, yes. For the person it has made me today—not a word of it. In fact, today it's taped on my refrigerator, by the boyfriend who read it long before he met me and realized the sauciness of the writer. After all, some of the great success stories were launched from some monstrous failures. If Toby Young can get a bestseller out of it, I can only imagine what I can do.

Jill Sieracki is the managing editor of Playgirl magazine.



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