Dateline: 43rd Street


Come September, when the New York Times Company launches its 150th birthday celebration, expect the pages of the Times to be filled with stories congratulating itself for 15 decades of groundbreaking work.

But here’s one self-referential story you won’t read in the newspaper of record: In recent years, the Times‘ news pages have become a silent promoter of globalization, specifically, the view that American progress in foreign countries could be hindered if we place too much emphasis on fostering fair working conditions, human rights, and the rule of law.

In an interview on Monday, Times foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal said that his job is not to take a stance on the issue. But he acknowledged that “the responsibility of American companies for the working conditions in countries where they manufacture or import products for consumers is a huge political question.” He said the Times has addressed this question in recent stories about Mexico and El Salvador, but “one of the problems is that American consumers rarely, if ever, object to the source of the products they buy.”

For a case study of the Times‘ ambivalence on globalization, consider Norimitsu Onishi’s July 29 front-pager about child labor in the Ivory Coast. The issue caught fire in the U.S. on June 24, when Knight Ridder published a series revealing that young boys are “being sold or tricked into slavery” on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast.

In the grand muckraking tradition, Knight Ridder’s Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee used simple language and anecdotes to trace the journey of the cocoa bean from the innocent hands of child workers to the maw of U.S. manufacturers.

The series identified root causes, including police corruption, the shortage of resources to prosecute the traffickers in child labor, the region’s poor economy, and the depressed price of cocoa. Given that the U.S. spends $13 billion a year on chocolate, the series implied, we should take some responsibility for the children’s fate.

At the end of the series, Knight Ridder urged U.S. chocolate manufacturers and consumers to take action, and voilà!: In late June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill asking manufacturers to voluntarily identify the origin of their chocolate—and to ensure that “no child slave labor” was involved. The Senate plans to hold hearings this fall.

The Times took a skeptical view of the issue, reporting that the incidence of “slavery” in the Ivory Coast has been exaggerated and suggesting that child labor there is inevitable, impossible to quantify, and ultimately beyond our control.

The Times‘ conclusions were so contrary to Knight Ridder’s that some KR employees are wondering if the Times deliberately tried to knock down a competitor’s exposé and reduce its chances of getting a Pulitzer. While the Times story referred to “reports of widespread abuse,” it made no mention of Knight Ridder’s series.

Rosenthal denies that the Times was attacking Knight Ridder. “I had no idea that Knight Ridder had published anything until after Nori had written his story and filed it, and I don’t know whether Nori read it,” he said. “Any suggestion that the Times went into this with the intention of knocking down Knight Ridder is ridiculous. . . . I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about their series. They have their audience, and we have ours.”

Once he got that off his chest, Rosenthal added, “I knew we were going to get some heat, because of the very widespread belief that there is child slave labor in the cocoa fields.” In the past few months, he says, “The British press went bananas,” suggesting that “every time you bite into a Snickers bar, you’re whipping a slave on the Ivory Coast.” But when the Times sent Onishi to investigate, he found no “examples of outright slavery,” Rosenthal says, just, well, “child exploitation on a very serious scale.”

To introduce the issue, the Times told the story of a teen from Mali who had been sold to a cocoa farmer, then cheated out of a year’s worth of wages. Exploitation? You bet. But Onishi soon dropped the boy to introduce his true premise: During a weeklong investigation, the Times had found “only a handful of children” smuggled into the country by traffickers. Instead, most of the children were working in the Ivory Coast with their parents’ consent.

The Times adopted the stance of the Ivory Coast’s agriculture minister, who has called the abuse “marginal” and has shunned the term “slavery”—too reminiscent of whips and chains. The Times used a different term: “the bondage of poverty.”

The paper was also skeptical about the utility of the proposed labeling. Such an effort would be “meaningless,” the Times argued, because investigators would have to traipse through the forest for hours to find the children and determine whether or not they were slaves.

But wait: Just before Knight Ridder published its series, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association agreed to fund a study of child labor on 2000 cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. I asked Rosenthal why the Times had not reported on the proposed study.

“It’s the first time I learned of this,” he said. “We weren’t ignoring it. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing, trying to do an empirical, exhaustive study of every farm on the Ivory Coast.” After suggesting that such studies can’t be trusted, he conceded that “the only possible way to get a change is to bring public scrutiny on this.” Then he switched gears, noting that “the globalization fanatics will tell you that [launching a social crusade] is just hopeless American baloney.”

The Times‘ attitude about crusades can also be detected in its coverage of paramilitary massacres in northwestern Colombia. First, consider the view from another paper: On August 3, The Washington Post reported that the Colombian government has abandoned efforts to stop the paramilitaries from killing civilians in a region that lies north of Medellín.

It was a dire story, and by the fourth graf, Scott Wilson had made it clear that the U.S. bears some responsibility, considering all the money it spends on Plan Colombia. “The absence of government has left a vacuum in which armed groups flourish across the country. The state’s abiding weakness is an element of Colombia’s war often overlooked in Washington.”

Five days later, the Times ran a similar story by Juan Forero. Like Wilson, Forero traveled to a region where paramilitaries “have stepped up the killing.” But whereas Wilson focused on families of the massacre victims, Forero interviewed the ranchers who have paid off the right-wing paramilitaries in exchange for protection.

On August 11, the Times ran another Forero story, this one promoting the same ranchers’ plan to begin exporting their beef to the world. There was no mention that the ranchers are in bed with the murderers, but then, that’s something Americans apparently don’t care about. At heart, Rosenthal may be more pro-globalization than he is letting on.