How to Reward or Man-Handle Reporters?

The Journalist's heroin is the byline.  When the journalists themselves become emotionally or physically involved in a story, it's fodder for awards and support of fellow interviewers and cameramen.

Gold Scrap Buyer Pushes Journalist - My joke Polk 
I just saw the interview of the journalist who worked on this story (NY Channel 4 NBC Local News) on a crackdown on gold scrap buyers in the NY area.  They were accused by regulators of not displaying their prices and scales, and probably some of them were being "shady" with consumers who don't know scrap prices.  Hey, not as bad as buying from crackheads who break into homes. But these are typically used by people in some desperate situation, selling jewels from a departed relative, or trying to raise money for surgery, and the consumer has to rely on the "professional".  We need regulation and investigation.

As a former regulator, I also understand that while the real problem is burglary and theft, that you pressure the regulated if you crack down on something lower key - advertising and buying.   It's similar to the "no graffiti" policy, if you enforce that little things are done right fewer big things go wrong.

Anyway, from one of these rather routine local enforcements on gold and silver scrap buyers in New York, a "NBC Local News Team" decided to go Scott Pelley 60 Minutes on their asses and take a camera to the scrap guy's store, put his storefront on camera as a centerpiece to the "fraud" headline.

And the younger scrap guy pushed the cameraman's camera into his face.  Sound familiar?

infamous "tidy little shop" purporting to be "other side" balance
It could happen anywhere...

The interview I just saw had this video footage in the background, but the interview was really of the reporter.  (uh-oh).   He describes how it's normal, businessmen should expect to be interviewed, you don't like it but it's how the game is played.  He described how his cameraman is his homie and how he spends more time with the cameraman than he does with his family, and how an eye socket could have been injured by the push of a camera, and how police came to the scene and a report of physical assault on the cameraman is now added to the enforcement on price display and scale visibility.

I'm not saying that this is the same as CBS in Guiyu.  But what I saw in the CBS 60 Minutes story on computer monitor recycling in Hong Kong was familiar in this NY Channel 4 news story.  And the reaction of the scrap dealers to having news cameras in their lots is familiar.

Two years ago I followed up my critique above with a more detailed shot-by-shot dissection of the CBS 60 Minutes Wasteland episode.   I never get a call back from CBS news crew, who took an hour of my time doing background on the story.   The lesson I took is that when the reporter has a choice between a story which is much more complicated and less exciting but more accurate than the one he set out on, or a story where he/she is a "hero" defending an assault on "their own" cameraman with footage that proves the businesspeople have "something to hide", that the latter story is easier and will appear "above the fold", so to speak.

The real "tidy little shops" fixing used electronics
What I do not understand is the decision to give a George Polk Award to these people.  Well... I do understand it.  The awards people didn't know anything about the SKD (semiknockdown) factories in Asia which were buying back CRT monitors for refurbishing to new-in-box condition for sale to Egypt, India, and Africa.   The Polk is a JOURNALIST award - that is, a reward to a single individual who is chosen to symbolize bravery, integrity and courage in journalism.  The Peabody Award is different, it recognizes a journalism organization (so I understand).

In either case, if it is discovered that a journalist did something in Guiyu China which was actually about as brave as NBC Channel 4 local news on gold and silver scrap buying, and that the exotic locale of China and Americans willingness to believe that the bottom of China's normal curve is "the truth" and that the factories which actually purchased and refurbished most of the monitors in Hong Kong harbor were defamed in the process...

Here is the formula:

  • Ingredient 1:  Something people don't understand completely (plastic, circuit boads, display devices) but which they feel familiar with, feel first hand experience with.

  • Ingredient 2:  Cognitive Risk word, "fraud" or "toxic" or "children" or "sex"

  • Ingredient 3:  Reporter with microphone shot in "exotic" locale, especially surrounded by brown skinned people in physical poverty.

Presto:  All the ingredients for a journalistic excellence award.   And as journalism rewards this, it breeds copycats.  The "we buy gold scrap in NY" expose above.  The "Fair Trade Cotton Victoria's Secret" where photos of the "mud hut" of the worker demostrate the "bravery" of the reporter.   The trembly-voiced Mike Daisy surrounded by ficticious machine guns at (the wrong) contract assembly plant (he was in Shenzhen, the iPhone worker poisoning happened at a different Chinese factory, literally hundreds of miles away, he was stealing a story from another reporter).

Idea... Hey, there are lots of reporters in China, working for cheap wages.   Maybe we can mass-produce these stories?  I'm thinking of the South Park Family Guy Manatee method, combine ju-ju technology words (polymer, flame retardant, megahertz, microwave) with a cognitive risk word (cancer, uterus, babies, negro), put a reporter in an untrained PR environment (shopping mall, scrap yard, battlefield) and voila.  If people with consciences care about it, it's difficult to understand, it has "profit" and "fraud" and "sex" and "race" ingredients, and a human nature ("get offa my lawn") reaction from the engaged businesspeople, we could go to town, and start minting these Peabody and Polk and Pulitzer puppies.

These stories are aimed at people who care, at people with consciences, who are actually trying to do the right thing by recycling their e-waste, by buying fair trade cotton, by selling grandmothers jewels on behalf of the berieved widower.

Balancing Thanks with Raised Eyebrows:  On behalf of Agents of Conscience everywhere, we appreciate that Reporters and Journalists are keeping the vendors honest.  We really don't want cowboys and snake oil salespeople taking advantage of our dollars and goodwill.  I'm not attacking journalism, it's easy for me to monday-quarterback and second-guess, especially when it's a subject I've been passionately invested in for over a decade.

My business, which is set up around Fair Trade Recycling, and improved ethical trade with emerging markets ("third world and second world" countries), owes a debt of thanks.  If there were no focus on the worst actors, there would be no incentive for recyclers to search out a company like mine.  We are trying to help our employees do well by doing good.  And the Colorado recycler is a sleazeball in my book for using the "fear of gooks" in his own recycling marketing while sending what looks like aweful materials in his own container.  He looks like he abused both the buyers and the sellers, and legitimate e-waste recyclers should be relieved that the reporters played gotcha on the lowest common denominator.

I appreciate journalists.  But just as I appreciate a doctor, I want the doctor to be humble, to know his stuff, to follow up on questions, and to tell me when they need a second opinion.  If CBS 60 Minutes finds itself as the tool of a lynch mob which thinks that Chinese people aren't generating their OWN piles of CRT monitors and TVs and find photographic evidence I've supplied of actual factories, and see actual Africans being arrested and actual, human, real Egyptians having working equipment seized as "e-waste" and see Indonesians who boostrapped back from a Tsunami to create sustainable glass-to-glass recycling factories... there should be something in journalism... call it Ombudsman, to coin a word... which actually does background checks AFTER the story is aired.

We forgive you for making the call of which story - or a nobody in Vermont - sounds most reasonable and going with it at airtime.   But as your story begins to look less and less like George Polk (killed doing wartime coverage in Greece) and more and more like Local Channel 4 News gotcha in China, you need to air the "second opinion".  We need you.  Please.  Please, I'm begging you to take another look at the devastation being done to reuse and recycling in the name of environmental stewardship.  Go back to the playbook, the other "ingredient".  FOLLOW THE MONEY.   There is not enough money in scrap CRT glass to support the theory BAN sells in their E-Steward insurance (insurance the recycler won't be attacked by the insurance company) campaign.

CRTs are over, the story leads are going cold.   Someone in Long Island University (LIU) should have an Ombudsman to check awards they've already given, just to keep well-meaning journalists, like Pelley, Solly Granatstein, Michael Rey, and Nichole Young, conscious of the leads they don't follow up on.  If there's a reason to believe that an innocent Chinese refurbisher, African importer, Indonesian recycler, etc. was harmed by their reporting, they should see it the way Ira Glass saw Mike Daisy- as an opportunity to do a whole 'nother mea culpa expisode.   Like a call from your doctor saying "I was looking up what I prescribed to you, and wanted to make sure of this and that".   I'm going to tend to Yelp that doctor in a good way.

If CBS 60 Minutes actually revisited their story and followed up how they may have gotten their Polk award wrong, I'd nominate them for a second award.  They have the footage of the CRT contract manufacturing refurbishing factory.  And they have my phone number and email address.  But I understand, there are bath salt zombies and shark attacks daily to compete, and running a story as a ho-hum correction probably sounds like a Joseph Heller Catch-22, making the reporter the center of a story about reporters making themselves the center of a story.

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