Advocating Sweatshops

“On the Media” with Brooke Gladstone in the anchor chair at NPR is always a good deal more than a diversion while cleaning the garage or running week-end errands; she explores many topics that you won’t see covered, or didn’t even appear to one as problems, opportunities, etc. But, when you do an interview with someone like Nick Kristof – whose audience dwarfs your own – you ought to be especially prepared to “afflict the comfortable.” She needn’t have searched too long to find controversy in this man’s last decade of columns and, no, it is not because he practices “advocacy journalism” unless – and here’s the point – he’s advocating for sweatshops.

He “flinches” when he hears his work called advocacy (I believe that he meant “wince” or “cringe” but, hey, who gets the big bucks for putting words together?); she countered by pointing out that he often directs readers to his favorite charities when riding his Sudan hobby-horse. This is certainly not to say that we hear enough about Darfur or even to denigrate the notion of journalist-as-advocate, but there is a back-story here.

The brutality of the global, outsource-everything economy was being covered very well by Kristof’s colleague, Bob Herbert. In nearly ten searing anti-sweatshop columns in the mid-Nineties, he captured Americans’ disquietude about corporate-led globalization while pointing out the tone-deaf callousness of Bill Clinton’s team; the latter was summed up nicely by James Carville when asked about his Nike deal (by another journalist, not Herbert): he berated the reporter for deigning to ask, snarling, “I own stock in Royal Dutch Shell, too.” This was just like saying that any Democrat who was internationalist and concerned with human rights ought to just get with the program; just go get “yours” and don’t worry about the other guy. Carville dismissed concern about abused workers as “protectionist.”

So, it was clear that Herbert was out of step – especially the trenchant truth-telling which left the named shoe and toy brands with nowhere to hide. When Phil Knight (Nike’s prickly CEO, at the time) asked for a meeting with the New York Times’ editorial board in 1998, the multi-billionaire was accommodated. Herbert never wrote another anti-sweatshop column and Nick Kristof reformulated the Times’ editorial page position to “pro-sweatshop.”

What do you think would happen if a consumer or anti-sweatshop group would demand a meeting with the Times’ editorial board to complain about Nick? This is the type of question one might ask to get down to the nitty-gritty (which OtM usually does). An additional quibble: Kristof explains his work as “reporting” and he is not challenged on it. In fact, he is an opinion-monger – with no need to apologize for advocacy, quite the opposite!

JEFF BALLINGER is completing a Laborers-funded doctorate fellowship at McMaster University near Toronto. He can be reached at: jeffreyd@mindspring.com

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