Two weeks ago in this space, I chastised ABC, CBS, and NBC for dereliction of journalistic duty for neglecting to shed light on disturbing conditions in factories making Nike and Reebok shoes in Vietnam–conditions made visible in an hourlong documentary in early April by ESPN that put the big three TV networks to shame. The more I look into this story, the more interesting it gets.
I’ll nibble on one wing of a crow first. Since I was concerned with the absence of the sweatshops-in-Vietnam story from the evening news, I mentioned only in passing on April 27 that there was one conspicuous exception to the networks’ neglect of the sneaker story, a long-running saga of poisonous fumes, physical abuse, unpaid wages and mandatory overtime in Communist countries, which, if they know nothing else, know how to control a work force. The exception that deserves much credit was a 10-minute CBS 48 Hours piece that aired Oct. 17, 1996, and prefigured the ESPN report. In the 48 Hours piece, longtime investigative correspondent Roberta Baskin reported that at one plant under subcontract with Nike Inc., after company officials tried to bar her, she found that 45 women had been forced to kneel on the ground for 25 minutes holding their hands in the air, and 15 workers had been beaten with shoe parts.
Various oddities followed Ms. Baskin’s exposé, oddities suggesting to several people at CBS News that the network was displaying unusual sensitivity to Nike.
The 48 Hours piece wasn’t rebroadcast during the summer, as some select 48 Hours pieces are, although its ratings were strong. Those who know why won’t say why, at least for publication. But this much is known: After the piece aired, Ms. Baskin set out to do a follow-up. In March 1997, she supplied a video camera to a New Jersey businessman named Thuyen Nguyen, himself a 1975 refugee from Vietnam. Mr. Thuyen traveled in Vietnam and shot five on-camera interviews with sneaker workers, including two at Nike’s subcontractor, the Sam Yang factory. These workers made the complaints that have now become familiar: physical abuse, mandatory overtime, no pay. Most complained they were having trouble breathing, given the toxic fumes. Mr. Thuyen came back and returned the camera to 48 Hours producer Diane Ronnau.
More footage was shot in both Washington and New York, and the segment was included on the 48 Hours in-house listing to air on July 24, 1997. It didn’t run. According to 48 Hours executive producer Susan Zirinsky, “If there had been exclusive information to add, I would have felt it made sense to put the piece on the air. It’s not like we had this exclusive update. Remember: We ran the story.”
One thing that did happen between March 1997, when Mr. Thuyen was sent off to Vietnam with a CBS camera, and July 1997, when the resulting piece was canceled, was the publication on May 12 of a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece by a trade journal publisher named Greg Rushford under the headline, “Nike Lets Critics Kick It Around.” Mr. Rushford’s main concern was that Nike was botching its public relations, but along the way, he had a paragraph charging that Ms. Baskin had “trashed Nike” and claiming that the company “actually dealt with the abuses [that Ms. Baskin had uncovered] before the U.S. journalists showed up.”
Ms. Baskin prepared a response, but as she later told the enterprising Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, CBS News president Andrew Heyward refused her permission to send it. Mr. Heyward confirmed to Mr. Kurtz that “he vetoed Baskin’s proposed response to the Wall Street Journal because of its ‘tone of advocacy.'” Mr. Heyward also said that Ms. Baskin’s original piece was “thin,” that “we weren’t happy, it was difficult to bring to air,” and that the piece was not rebroadcast because it was not “strong enough.” This was not the only judgment at CBS, and the same piece was nominated in July 1997 by the network for a du Pont-Columbia University TV journalism award–an award that Ms. Baskin has won twice before.
Ms. Baskin, who spent six years on CBS magazine shows, was defended by Mr. Heyward in the past when her reporting on child labor in Pakistan stepped on some toes. She is the very same person whose in-house memo last February protested Nike logos appearing on the jackets of CBS News people covering the Winter Games at Nagano, Japan. When Mr. Heyward saw those on air, he told them to tape them over, and they did. But there’s more.
According to a CBS News producer who was at Nagano to cover the Olympics–call him Deep Focus–”Everybody at CBS was issued a full bag of Nike gear. The correspondents all got a complete package in blue and yellow; producers and production people got black with orange piping; drivers got orange with black piping; correspondents got blue with chartreuse, all with the swoosh over the right breast and over the left breast, the initials CBS and the words Winter Games.” This bundle of goodies, passed out to roughly 1,500 CBS people from sports and news alike, consisted of “a hat, a headband, a scarf, two turtlenecks (one black, one white); long pants, full ski pants, a vest, a jacket, a long-sleeved coat, a full parka, gloves, and boots. This is several hundred dollars’ worth of clothes, to keep. People were wearing them around for weeks afterward.”
These were not one-size-fits-all clothes. According to Deep Focus, CBS staff members, from news as well as sports, had provided their sizes long in advance. They had filled out forms supplied by the company. “Nobody didn’t know that they were going to get this stuff,” said Deep Focus, who has worked at CBS News for more than 20 years and spoke to me on condition of anonymity.
And what does a snuggly relationship between Nike and CBS have to do with the question of whether or not a 48 Hours piece got rebroadcast? Quite possibly nothing, at least not directly. There are apparently no smoking memos. What does Nike’s reported $800 million expenditure on promotion last year have to do with network reluctance to rebroadcast that piece? Possibly nothing, either, although Nike communications director Lee Weinstein did tell Howard Kurtz that Nike gave out the freebies “in exchange for commercial air time.” And that the correspondents’ use of them “helps us build awareness about our products.” The famous wall between commerce and news may well still be intact–for now.
But the appearances are troubling, and ill serve CBS’s hope to be seen as a beacon among networks. The atmosphere is such that lots of people at CBS News are worried about whether the wall is any steadier than those brick facades that keep collapsing around the city. The fact that Roberta Baskin was moved off 48 Hours to float among various shows, including CBS Morning News , may have nothing to do with her efforts, not always diplomatic, to worry aloud about Nike. Deep Focus doesn’t know quite what’s going on, either, but said sagely: “With news the way it’s going, there’s a potential for meddling.”