ESPN Runs the Sneaker Story That Bigfoot Networks Eschew

ESPN, the cable sports network, has proved itself far more serious about reporting labor conditions than the so-called big three, those magisterial dinosaurs whose news divisions have been awfully busy lately exposing Monica, Kathleen, Linda and the Oval Orifice gang. You give them a keyhole, they’ll give you a whirl, but when it comes to Vietnamese workers poisoned in the quest to put some ultracool leather-plastic combinations on your feet, just forget it.

The good news is that TV journalism lives on a sports network. On April 2, with a rebroadcast April 11, ESPN ran an hourlong documentary–remember those?–on conditions in factories that make sneakers just outside Ho Chi Minh City. To shoot Made in Vietnam: The American Sneaker Controversy , it sent a production team to Vietnam for three weeks and then sent anchor Bob Ley for 11 days to join them. Reebok permitted them entry to all three of its factories. Nike officials agreed on one of their five plants for one day of their own choosing. Adidas didn’t return phone calls or letters.

On the day the ESPN cameras showed up at the Korean-owned plant where Nike shoes are assembled by women under a subcontract, the reporters witnessed a supervisor slapping one worker on the forearm, and another throwing a sneaker part at a second worker; this, on a good day, after the company had advance notice that the reporters and cameras were coming. Little assaults, actually. ESPN also interviewed a woman who’d been grabbed and slapped on another occasion. (The guard was fined.) They reported the company systematically cheating on minimum-wage pay. They reported compulsory overtime.

ESPN’s biggest story, though, is that the shoes are put together with ferocious chemicals like toluene and acetone. Toluene causes damage to the central nervous system. It causes birth defects and low birth weights–and this in a plant where an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the workers are women between 16 and 28 years of age. As The New York Times reported last year, the levels of carcinogens in some Nike factories were up to 177 times the local legal limits–limits such as those found in worker’s states not exactly renowned for devotion to workers. According to Dr. Howard Fromkin, a physician in occupational environmental health interviewed by ESPN, the cloth masks that the plant issues (and that workers don’t always wear) are worthless. Toluene is absorbed through the skin. An ESPN camera caught a worker touching it with her ungloved hand, thus transferring the chemical directly to her skin. Only charcoal filters and impermeable gloves would help.

At one of the three Reebok plants, where work is subcontracted to a Taiwanese company, the team spent time with a young worker named Lieu, who said, “We are sick all the time.” All the women on the line with her had sinus and nose complaints, including pain and itching. For the privilege of breathing this chemical haze, she and her co-workers are paid the Vietnamese minimum wage of 23 cents per hour, or barely half what the Pepsi-Cola Company pays its own workers in Ho Chi Minh City. A Reebok official told the ESPN team that the company would now increase ventilation at its plants and is looking into charcoal filters. The day after the visit, the subcontractor told Reebok they were making changes. Lieu told ESPN she was threatened for having cooperated with the interviewers; when Reebok was told of the threats, it gave assurances there would be no retaliation. That may or may not come to pass, but what’s evident is the power of the spotlight. When networks itch, giant companies scratch. As Prof. Debora Spar of Harvard Business School pointed out in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs , when multinationals move their assembly lines, they willy-nilly take the spotlights with them. ESPN’s, anyway.

The ESPN anchor Mr. Ley does not sound like a knee-jerker, only a journalist. He told a reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch , “It’s not as bad as some of the activists say, and it’s not as good as the companies would have you believe. I give Nike and Reebok a lot of credit for letting us through. We found some things that weren’t perfect.” Yet this is the story that isn’t ready for Primetime Live , Dateline , Nightline or any of the other lines–with a single exception. In the main, the high-priced talent has been otherwise engaged. During the calendar years 1996, 1997 and thus far in 1998, ABC, CBS and NBC devoted exactly zero minutes each of evening news to shoe factories in Vietnam. That is, as Dan Rather might put it, zero, zip, nada. As for news at other times of the day, CBS’s 48 Hours ran a serious 10-minute piece in October 1996. CBS devoted about 100 words total to the subject last year, and that was in early-morning or late-night broadcast. ABC and NBC, nothing morning, noon or night. On PBS, The News Hour With Jim Lehrer ran a serious piece by Charles Krause a year ago. Not being attached to a celebrity, the issue hasn’t made it to Meet the Press or Face the Nation , either. Nor have Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts and their gang troubled themselves to chat. No news value, evidently.

Surely if Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings lifted the phone to tell Nike, Reebok or Adidas that he and a camera crew would be catching the next plane to Ho Chi Minh City and humbly requesting admittance to the factories in question, he would stand a good chance of getting in. Might Michael Jordan or Spike Lee work a Vietnam stop into the busy schedules they maintain on the Nike tab? Come to think of it, any of those worthies could probably parachute into any workplace he likes, camera over his shoulder. But in an age when celebrities own the airwaves, the main parachutes that interest them are the golden ones.

As for the networks, they have Nike and Reebok where they want them–in the till. The money that Nike and Reebok save on labor they lavish on advertising and promotion. Nike last year reportedly spent $800 million on marketing. Boston-based New Balance Athletic Shoes Inc., which (as ESPN pointed out) produces a substantial portion of its shoes in the United States, said it spent $14 million and, while its market share is tiny, its profits are growing. The networks like “solutions” these days. They like news with consumer implications. Work-shirted American executive David up against offshore Goliath–sure sounds like sidebar material, if anyone at a major network cared to notice.

ESPN Runs the Sneaker Story That Bigfoot Networks Eschew