Reversing ER#3: J-School Background Checks on E-Waste - Benson Released, Rowe Fired?

Here's an interesting statistic on "e-waste" (like most, made up on the spot).  Four out of five journalists who contact me beforehand decide not to run the story on "e-waste" at all.

Reporters are initially attracted to the Basel Action Network's press release or photo opportunity (exotic brown child perched on familiar looking old electronics).  That BAN press release has, for 15 years, triggered interest in reporters and college researchers. An easy story to write, as BAN served "facts" up on a platter.

But Jim Puckett is no Upton Sinclair. He wrote about Agbogbloshie in chilling text - before admitting to me he had never been there at all. He had never even read a peer reviewed article.

The "ewastehoax" says junk in cities across the globe is the fault of "sham recyclers"... if only we use a USA recycling company that pays dividends to Jim Puckett, we will quickly clean these places up.

The Ewastehoax promises a moral lesson of "environmental injustice", and triggers three Steven Pinker-esque cognitive biases:

1. Nurture. We actually care about the poor child.
2. Greed. We suspect someone else's actions were driven by it.
3. Fear.  We are afraid of our own liability for our "stuff".

It's an easy recipe.  BAN isn't the only organization to use it. Annie Leonard, Blacksmith Institute, StEP, R2 (SERI), E-Stewards, CBS 60 Minutes, The Guardian, etc. all followed the trail on these instincts.

If you are a good photographer, that is all you need to put some guy like Joseph "Hurricane" Benson of BJ Electronics behind prison bars.  You can be the reporter that made him sell his house, that cost him his business and his retirement.

You are so cool.  You no doubt picked up all kinds of dates interested in your brave reporting.  Did you tell them about Joe Benson, the Nigerian TV repairman who shipped a TV with a GPS tracker to Ghana? Did you describe the satisfaction of Benson going to jail, like Raphael Rowe of BBC's Panorama did?

Oh, wait.  News flash.  Raphael Rowe got fired? (According to this article, "Pushed Out", but there's still some uncertainty as I research this, he's still on BBC 2 local).  And Interpol has pulled the plug on Project Eden.  All since Fair Trade Recycling's 2015 trip to Agbogbloshie, where we saw a city slum near a dump full of tires, cars, and junk appliances - all once owned by Africans, from a thriving city of millions of consumers.  Even the dozens (not thousands) of (adult) orphans there all carry cell phones, and can send photos of where they collected the scrap... at Accra homes and businesses, which had millions of TVs in the mid 1990s.

Benson may have the last laugh on Raphael Rowe. Though he has suffered, journalism students once attracted to "environmental justice" stories are increasingly documenting "environmental malpractice", "friendly fire", and "collateral damage" to Africa's Tech Sector.

Whether or not Raphael Rowe stays on at BBC, he's still know for having been racially profiled.  As will be Joseph "Hurricane" Benson.  As Rowe said in an interview "bitterness never leaves you".

Documenting Bitterness:

Data Journalists can disprove the "wastecrime" theory with a simple desk audit. The number of households in Ghana which had televisions in 2002 must be related, somehow, to the story of stuff at the largest city dump fifteen years later.

They don't have to take the word of one white guy over another. E-Stewards has the financial gain of selling certification that "saves" Ghanaians without sending a dime there, but you don't have to take my word, either.  The Ghana Tech Sector is completely wired, and able to estimate the date of import of every TV in the junkyard.

The decent editors see there isn't a story, and don't run one. They have not yet actually called out the photo-journalists who put Joe Benson in prison, or impugned other business partners overseas.  But academics are now digesting the data, and reporting on it.

Spanish journalist Paula Camara Esteban was researching Agbogbloshie in Arhus, Denmark's school of Journalism, had a chance to interview one of Joseph Benson's chief accusers, BBC Panorama's Raphael Rowe, last month. She did her homework (if not English lessons).

Rowe was apparently let go at the BBC in 2016, the year after this blog confirmed that his Agbogbloshie story was 90% hoax.

According to Rowe, it wasn't the background data in his #1 story that led to his demise. It was the "lack of diversity" at BBC.

BBC's Diversity is the worst thing Raphael Rowe has ever known? Listen, I tried to warn him.  I contacted him repeatedly, sent him links to the SBC Ghana E-Waste Assessment, on Twitter and through BBC's ombudsman, in 2011, 2012, and onwards. If he didn't trust me personally, I offered him introductions to Ghanaians and university researchers.

But it was a Bob Dylan song in the making.  "Hurricane" Joe Benson was falsely tried in the UK Press.  And if not for his original reporting, Rowe deserved to be sacked for failing to acknowledge the evidence that BAN and Greenpeace had misled him.  His third clue should have been that he had to buy the sabotaged (wire cut) TV back for 40 Pounds Sterling, a couple dozen times more than the copper was worth. But the Tech Sector guys who imported the TV and sold it back to him could also have been worth an interview - they usually speak excellent English.
Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are driving around Number one contender for the middleweight crown Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road Just like the time before and the time before that In Paterson that’s just the way things go If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street Unless you want to draw the heat
Fresh eyes are finding this blog and interviewing Tech Sector and Scrap Sector workers in Ghana. In addition to Paula Camara Esteban, researchers like Dagna Rams, Vero Johannes, and forthcoming "Clean Hands" documentary makers PalmAndPlay are shocked not by the pollution, but by how obvious its sources are.

Agbogbloshie, and the fate of Raphael Rowe, should be taught in new journalism classes that mandate "background data" as an antidote to poverty porn.  Even the original 2002 Exporting Harm report in Guiyu, China, failed to measure toxins in the river upstream of the waste site, and failed to document tanneries, textile dye mills, and smelters which could be discovered in a desk audit.

The Watchdogs bark at companies that don't pay them. That's a problem if your reporter is relying on the Watchdog for background.

Young researchers see movement of goods based on supply and demand forces. The "first", "second", and "third world" older reporters grew comfortable writing about have all undergone massive increases in wealth and well being.  The wealthier the African country, the sooner the households can electively upgrade, and the higher the rate of discard.  Same thing documented in Massachusetts in the 1990s.

Ghana's Techies and Scrappers are separated by 15 years of consumer ownership.  The repair shops do provide a nexus between them.  Don't take my word for it. But certainly don't take Jim's.

Young researchers see that the movement of cell phones from rich countries to poor is much better explained by the cell phone towers - erected in Africa at popcorn speed - than by the desperation of Africa's poorest children.

Awal, tire burning star of Placebo's Sasha Rainbow film, on his own iPhone 2016

The best-written article (by me) on the subject in the last 10 years - 2011 blog picked up by Motherboard Vice. - doesn't have to beat Jim's Place Called Away.  We are happy to call it a tie. Joseph Benson was released from prison, and Raphael Rowe has been fired, because someone decided the burden of proof lies with the prosecution.

There is no question that Joe Benson can fix the devices he exported.  The issue now is how to repair the journalism.

While BBC let Raphael Rowe go, the question is why they never actively retracted the e-waste export (dumping) story once they eventually knew the truth (below). The junk they photographed in Agbogbloshie was for the most part imported in the 1990s, when most Accra Ghana households already owned TVs. The CRTs CBS showed in Hong Kong were either generated by Hong Kong (wealthier per capita than USA) or imported for legitimate reuse and remanufacturing.

Young photojournalists like Kevin McElvaney and Sasha Rainbow didn't know any better. They don't deserve to have their careers destroyed, like Raphael Rowe's.  They have time.  Time to stop covering their behinds, and to see the data that's out there. Don't report about Joe Hurricane Benson without interviewing him.

That's Journalism 101.  Thanks Paula.

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