This American Life: What kind of ideology?

Dear Ira Glass and This American Life staff,

I look forward to This American Life every week, but a recent episode really upset me. I heard statements go unchallenged that I knew just weren’t true. I felt the program irresponsibly misled listeners about profoundly important issues. “Don’t they have to fact-check this stuff?” I griped to friends. I’m not writing about the Mike Daisey episode that has gotten so much recent attention, but about the March 2 episode called “What Kind of Country.”

The show, you’ll remember, was about whether we Americans want a country with worse-funded government services and lower taxes, or better-funded government services and higher taxes, an unusually political topic for This American Life. I work as a union organizer, and to me this show played as an attack on working people from start to finish.

Act One focused on cuts to police and other services in Trenton, New Jersey. The show uncritically accepted Governor Chris Christie’s explanation that the underlying problem is that “three out of every four dollars” in the public budget go to payroll, including “cushy contracts” and “Cadillac health benefits” for public employees. This basic framing of the problem was repeated by various voices throughout the hour. No one ever really clarified why it was bad to spend a majority of the city budget on labor, or which costs they felt should be proportionally higher. City services, after all, are generally fairly labor-intensive. Nor did you ask any economists about the economic impacts of spending on payroll, which are pretty good. When you pay wages to local people, they tend to spend it again soon and locally. By contrast, if you spend more of your city budget on, say, purchasing capital equipment manufactured elsewhere, or enriching private companies whose profits flow elsewhere, that money is lost to the local economy for good. This was not mentioned.

Act Two was an interview with anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who claimed that public costs could be sharply reduced, as in Utah, by switching from defined-benefit pension to defined-contribution retirement plans like 401(k)s. You didn’t fact-check that, but seemed to assume it was true, calling it a “very sensible-sounding reform.” In fact, though, it isn’t true. As Connecticut State University professor James Russell explained in a recent interview (“Retirement Savings Ideology,” Against the Grain, November 23, 2011), defined-benefit plans do not necessarily cost more than defined-contribution plans. Briefly, this is because defined-benefit plans take advantage of the pooling of risk that is the basic idea of insurance. A defined-benefit plan (such as the popular Social Security) guarantees you a particular sum only until you die. Some people end up dying soon after retiring, and the savings on their benefits help cover the cost of benefits for people who live out long retirements, just as the healthy subsidize the ill within a health insurance plan. This is as efficient and fair as can be, especially since none of us knows what fate has in store for us personally. With a defined-contribution system, on the other hand, even if you die soon after retirement, the amount that has been allocated to you goes to your survivors instead of helping pay for others who will outlive their benefits and face impoverishment. It is an inefficient system designed to produce winners, losers, and scarcity. You seemed to take for granted that the facts lined up with Norquist’s ideological stance.

When Norquist claimed that, because organized labor is so strong in the public sector in New Jersey, you can’t “lay off the ten percent incompetent guys on the police force. No, you lay off the most recently hired guys, who may be the most competent,” host Ira Glass said, “In fact, this is exactly what happened in Trenton.” It sure sounded like Glass was saying Norquist was right that they laid off the most competent cops. After I re-listened to the passage a couple times, I understood you were simply saying that the least-senior cops were laid off first, but you followed it up with “it was pretty ham-fisted,” further supporting the impression that the best cops were let go. You didn’t ask any cops. You didn’t follow up on why seniority is commonly factored into layoffs in union contracts. (Without seniority protections, of course, employers have a financial incentive to lay off the most senior people because they make the most money. It is not going to be the “incompetent” employees who are laid off in any case, and indeed if bosses find some of their employees “incompetent” they can always fire them without waiting for layoffs to come around.) You gave Norquist quite a platform for his anti-union propaganda, but you didn’t ask even one union member’s opinion the whole hour. I kept waiting for the other side of the story, but it never came.

Act Three was the worst. This act told how the CEO of a luxury hotel in Colorado Springs persuaded the city to enact sharp cuts to its public programs. Reporter Robert Smith fawned so much over the Broadmoor Hotel as a “Shangri-La” whose CEO should be trusted about the correct way to run a city because “who wouldn’t want to live in a world like the Broadmoor?” that I googled it to see if I was missing something. Nope. It’s just a very fancy resort hotel with a large grounds and a famous golf course.

This apparently gave CEO Steve Bartolin the authority to opine, for instance, that it was unreasonable for the city to employ a computer staff of 81 people when the hotel’s computer staff numbered only six. Do the hotel and the city perform even vaguely similar functions with their computer systems? He, too, compared the city’s 70% labor cost unfavorably with the hotel’s 35% labor cost, although again there is no reason to think that the city’s budget and the hotel’s budget should be comparable, except that each is, in Bartolin’s words, a “service-delivery organization.” Would you expect the city to spend as much on such non-labor costs as food, laundry, and golf balls as the Broadmoor must? Does the hotel’s staff include building inspectors, social workers, or public records clerks as the city’s probably does? When Bartolin claimed, “You can’t run an organization with a 70% payroll. Any business person can look at that and say, Jesus, we’re going to be out of business in 2014 at this pace,” why did no one note that a business is trying to turn a profit each year, while a city is not? And even setting aside the ridiculous comparison between city and hotel, when Bartolin recommended that the city lower starting wages, cut spending on employee health care, pensions, and sick days, and contract out more work to private companies, why didn’t it occur to you to go interview some housekeepers or caddies at the Broadmoor to find out how Bartolin’s stingy spending priorities were working out for them?

Later in Act Three we met former city employee Roland Hawkins, who got ten raises in five years when he worked in the city’s parks department. Smith exclaimed that this “sounds extreme,” but two raises a year don’t sound extreme to me. Many union workers receive two raises a year: one an annual cost of living adjustment to cover inflation, and the other an annual step raise on a wage scale, to reward experience and longevity. Hawkins apparently wasn’t a union member, but it still seems like a reasonable policy for a responsible employer who wants to retain a stable work force. Smith was incredulous that Hawkins was earning an annual $42,000 after five years. Is that such a princely sum? Shouldn’t city parks workers be able to buy their homes, take vacations, and save for their kids’ college funds? Why are wages and benefits always scrutinized while profit is held sacrosanct? I noticed you didn’t interrogate CEO Bartolin on how much he takes home each year, and why he doesn’t cut back his profits so he can provide more sick time and better benefits to his employees, the way the city used to do. Why an intrinsically inefficient concept like profit-making is considered the benchmark of efficiency I may never understand.

After Hawkins’ job was contracted out to a private firm, and he ended up rehired doing the same job, you pointed out, the city spent about $12,000 less, or 21% less, on his wages and benefits. You acknowledged that the city couldn’t say whether it saved any money at all on this deal, since the savings were offset by increased costs of new equipment and profit for the private firms. But you didn’t quite finish connecting the dots for listeners: what this means, essentially, is a direct transfer of public dollars from the paychecks of working-class people like the affable Hawkins into the profits of CEOs like this private parks contractor. The taxpayers saved nothing, but wealth was redistributed from the poor to the rich, from the 99% to the 1%, in the middle of a recession. That’s the story, but it’s not the story you told.

Look, I know there’s been a lot of agonizing (so to speak) over Daisey’s show, and I understand how his theatricalizations didn’t meet journalistic standards, but in all the important ways the story he told was true. Whether or not Daisey met the n-hexane workers, those workers exist as he described them. Even if he hedged on the number of workers he met who were organizing unions, it was most important that he included the union workers in the show. Too often, the initiative of workers themselves is erased from stories about foreign sweatshops, and solutions are reduced to paternalistic outside monitoring and the exporting of U.S. legal standards, our own union history ignored. Had Daisey left the unionists out of his show, he would have painted an inaccurately passive picture of how Chinese workers are dealing with manufacturing industry standards. The show would have been, in an important way, less true. It’s great to have a public conversation about truth and responsible journalism, but the uproar over Daisey’s piece and the silence over “What Kind of Country” reflects, I think, a failure to see the forest for the trees. Small errors of fact can be dangerous, but misleading narratives and covert ideological frames are far more widespread and stand to do much greater damage. This program, in important ways, was untrue, and I think it stands to do much more harm than the other program possibly could.

 

Sincerely,

Alexandra Bradbury

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About Al Bradbury

Labor journalist by day, singer-songwriter by night, Odonian at all hours.

25 comments

  1. Great post. I love your writing.

  2. Hollis

    Well said, Al!

  3. RK

    Fantastic criticism. It’s so important, and it really strikes at something central when you question whether Daisey’s show or this one was the more distorted. Is pretending to have met labourers, and respected and reflected their experience, actually worse than pretending they don’t count at all? The answer should weigh heavily on all journalists.

  4. Sarah

    Great, great post. Thank you!!!!

  5. Astrid

    Love the comment about the golf balls. I haven’t listened to TAL since I stopped driving (i.e. no car radio), but I feel quite angry about the details you’ve illustrated herein.

  6. Gav

    Thank you. I felt the same frustrations. I’ve only been an uber-fan of TAL for a year or so, but it did seem oddly out of character. So odd that they’d chose a topic like this, much less frame it the way they did. Really insidious reporting.

  7. Pingback: Oh, This American Life « The Great Whatsit

  8. Peter

    You know, I heard that episode, too, but my take-away was different. By allowing the right wing to really express themselves, I felt TAL gave me some real insight into how the world really looks from their point of view. And the final point of Act III, where the guy in Colorado Springs says yes, he really would rather pay $300 to light a single street light outside his house than pay a $200 tax increase to help the whole town . . . well, now we know. They really will cut off their nose to spite their face. And say they like the new noseless face better. Maybe if any of them hear this program, they will begin to look in the mirror. The show took a long way around to make this point. But if TAL just knocked down their arguments the minute they were stated, it would just end up in another I Say/You Say argument, which never helps to really educate anybody.

  9. D

    at the end of the episode, I felt the same way that Peter did, but I certainly see Al’s original point too. You can give them an entire period of time to present their point uninterrupted, but showing the flaws in those points at the end seems pretty reasonable — the way they tried (and failed) to do with the original Daisey show on Apple’s factories.

  10. I am certainly aware that most public radio programs, and everything on NPR, push a corporate line. Some, like Democracy Now! are exceptions, and I would have thought This American Life might been untainted as well. Thanks for setting me straight.

  11. starwarsmodern

    Great post. I could not agree more – especially with the final paragraph. Thanks for putting this up.

  12. Elism

    I appreciate the spirit of this response, but I’m surprised you didn’t notice TAL’s pushback against the conception of the luxury hotel as model for Colorado Springs. The program specifically addresses the idea that city works very, very differently than a hotel. Sure they quote Steve Bartolin. Then they point out many weaknesses with his philosophy, and quote Jan Martin, the city councilwoman – she described herself as a fiscal conservative and she’s defending the size of city government and workers’ pay. She has this great line where she points out that government’s job is to serve everyone, not just the wealthy. Having the right-leaning person in the story make that argument rather a voiceover from the putative liberal reporter – I think that’s an invaluable way of giving the message credibility to more conservative listeners.
    To me, this program was a good first examination of much of the I-got-mine-and-devil-take-the-hindmost mentality. I think the very fact that we don’t perceive it as especially progressive could give it real legs.

  13. Excellent post! Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and well-argued response. You rock!

  14. Well done. Thanks for taking the time and care to post a well-informed and lucid correction to yet another lopsided radio piece. Someday I’d like to see an equally-well-written and thoughtful defense of your assertion that profit-making is inherently inefficient. Would that critique depend upon point of view, defining as ‘inefficient’ the failure of a particular financial arrangement to redistribute money to workers? Or would it deal with the mathematics of inefficiency?

  15. dyannne

    I will listen to this show with a critical ear. Thank you. And I will most likely be writing to Ira Glass with my take on it.

  16. Agree with all of this and then some. I am not puzzled that the Mit Romney’s of the world and many others of great wealth have tried to perpetrate these kinds of lies. But I am truly and increasingly puzzled by the wide array of folks who buy into these ideas– sharply against their own interests. Keep writing. And keep organizing.

    Laura

  17. Steve M

    Peter got it and Al Bradbury didn’t. It was excruciating to listen to the ridiculous characters in the interviews but also scary to realize there are people who think this way. I found it very troubling and raised it my awareness of points of view very that are different to my own. And that is a very good thing to do in journalism. TAL knows it’s audience. They got me to listen to people I usually don’t have much time for. Al Bradbury, thank you for your hard work and obvious commitment to changing hearts and minds.

  18. Phil Kaplan

    While I appreciate the lucidity of your analysis I would suggest your perspective is a bit narrow. I am an old guy who spent most of his life in advocacy. Seventeen years of my life was spent lobbying in Olympia on behalf of a wide range of low-income constituencies from farm workers to welfare recipients. My responsibilities included working with the media. For example, when the Restaurant Association tried to reimpose at tip credit, the year after the 1988 initiative was passed I was able to bring the story to a reporter
    who had worker as a waiter in his past. His story brought such attention from the public we were able to beat back the Association’s efforts. I was able to work with the reporter because the press corp cover the legislature knew I would never try to bullshit them.

    Subsequently, I found myself in Saipan where I founded and staff the Office of Human Rights for the Catholic Church. I worked provide direct advocacy assistance to over 1000 international contract worker who were subject a wide range of horrific abuse, including garment factory worker from the Peoples Republic of China.

    When I left Saipan in 1995 I had a mission to raise draw the attention of the media and our government as to the issue of human rights abuse. Because I has the trust of a number of reporters with the Seattle Times I was able to get them to publish the first expose the Preston Gates/Jack Abramoff connection. That story led to further coverage by the DC press corp.

    The outrage expressed by Ira Glass for the lies the Daisey told them was real and justified. I should point our 15 minutes of the show was devoted to validating the substance of the argument the Daisey was making.

    I worked directly with garment workers who were subject to abuse far greater then has been reported by those working for Apple and the other high tech companies. I am grateful to Daisey for using his gift as an artist to raise international attention the plight of Apple’s workers in China and just what a son of a bitch Steve Jobs was.

    But by disrespecting the responsibilities and the values that journalist who are trying to operate in a fashion that meets standards of professional integrity, he undermined the enterprise that gave him a platform to speak his truths. The media outlets that are available for truth tellers have been steadily diminishing. Those working in outlets are having a hard enough time getting stories covered. To expect those outlets simply voice the opinions of advocates without applying journalistic standards is misguided.
    By not trying to appreciate the realities that journalist worker under does nothing but insure the the truth will not be reported on the outlets that can reach enough people to bring change.

  19. Victor Willis

    Thanks for such a well-reasoned reply to an apparently one-sided show on the “liberal” NPR. Are you suggesting that they presented a conservative show on labor issues here as a response to outcry over a “liberal” piece on labor in China? Could this be because the Republicans are always trying to defund NPR?

  20. annette

    great work. this very flawed show reminded me of Planet Money, they have similar shortcomings: supposedly presenting an objective take on an economic question, but usually just reciting standard main-stream econ line.

  21. I listened to the show with a bit more reserve, although the fawning over Grover Norquist was a bit much to take. Five minutes with the guy is like a century with anyone else, because he has been such a one-note performer — and I do mean, performer. I don’t recall much discussion of who pays for the roof over his head or the fare to be anywhere, anytime the monied reactionaries need him.

    The city stories were more nuanced, a bit, but still crazy-lopsided — not in minute-by-minute tallies of who-said, whom-said, but rather in their degree of despair. We know how to fix many of the problems besetting our cities, beginning with reasonable taxation by government. To quote former UK Labour MP Chris Mullin, author of the startling 1988 novel decrying emerging Murdoch/Thatcher/Blair-like politics, A VERY BRITISH COUP, later made into a BBC hit mini-series about class warfare* of all things (to be be screened as an updated new film this fall): “Stop talking about the tax ‘burden.’ … The new leader [of Labour] should say loud and clear that taxation, fairly raised and efficiently used, is the subscription we pay for a civilized society.” This was in 2010. So although our own President won’t say it, the fact that reasonable taxation — not the unreasonable, lopsided, unfair taxation schemes we endure today — is one ingredient in fixing our cities has been known for at least two years. We have no excuse if we aren’t working every day to fix this. It’s as important as excoriating the bankers and holding them accountable (which also unlike Obama, Mullin also does quite well).

    The other thing missing from the city stories was hope. There are actually a lot of people not just in Trenton and Colorado Springs who are going against the grain of acceptance and trying to come up with new ways of urban governance that part with past practices in a humane fashion, honoring equality, diversity, new forms of energy and utilities to match, sustainability — that word, which is in danger of becoming hackneyed in common parlance, didn’t come up once in the city sequences (or Norquist’s, for that matter) — and civic pride. Where was civic pride? Oh, I get it, Ira was trying to make the point, we have no pride. We are bereft. In deep. The problem is, Ira has often been trying to make that point often of late, and it’s getting old. Okay, so there are problems. Report them honestly. Then report the solutions, the one’s that work, often novel (often harkening back to past values), often threatening to American conformity.

    There was a time when one tuned in This American Life (and NPR, if you’re old enough to remember when it came alive in the 1970s) not to be depressed but to be informed, educated, even edified regarding people, individually and collectively, at home and around the world, confronting life with bon vivant, esprit, innovation, even if they had very little to work with or had screwed up before. Now it’s all about reification, featuring for the most part news and cultural drudge that’s been manufactured for us mostly by people who are rich, mean, and powerful, and those who toe their line because they are ill-informed, fiscally dependent, or self-deprecating and abusive. We know the exceptions because they are notable. TAL was one. Here’s hoping it’s one again.

    ————

    * A VERY BRITISH COUP is reviewed on IMDb (8.3!): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094576/.

  22. Matt

    Yeah, like cops and school teachers, TAL is the problem.

  23. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » The Passion of Mike Daisey: Journalism, Storytelling and the Ethics of Attention

  24. Glen

    Interesting…

    I had the complete opposite reaction to the story. I thought TAL was too soft when confronted with our financial mess. When Ira glass said that taxes are relatively low, historically, he omitted the fact that government spending is conversely at an all time high, the difference being made up by the deficit: borrowing. We are broke. And looking at the statistics, its not defense spending which is ballooning, but social security and medicare.

    I found this blog because I though the TAL coverage was weak, and wanted to see if others agreed. Reading the responses here, I was completely shocked. I guess that shows what a difficult position TAL is in. This blog’s audience thinks that TAL is right wing, and I think they’re liberal softies.

    While I do have great sympathy for public sector employees, I do believe that the current situation is untenable. France is in the process of imploding under the crushing weight of its public sector, and I fear that we are following closely behind. There will be little left for my young daughter when she is old: our generation will have spent it all.

  25. I will link to your site. Good content material along with a nice design.

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