Last month, a couple of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, Donald Barlett and James Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer, unleashed a passionately written 10-part series, “America: Who Stole the Dream?”
Their work has elicited brutal criticism from some economists and raised serious questions among journalists about how to cover business issues.
The book-length series focused on the frustrations of Americans who have seen their wages squeezed and jobs threatened in recent years. The stories help explain why so many people still feel insecure while the unemployment rate stands at just 5.1 percent.
In one example, Barlett and Steele write about Warnaco Group Inc., a company that owns a shirt-making plant in Waterville, Maine.
The 450 workers there make average pay of $16,640 a year. According to the story, production at the plant increased from about 2,000 dozen shirts per week to 3,000 dozen, and the cost of production fell almost in half from 1995 through May 1996.
That month, however, the boss stunned the workers by announcing the plant would be put up for sale. The full-time employees were told that until a sale is completed, their work hours would be cut to 30 a week, reducing their pay to an annual average of $12,480.
So, amid such hard times, what happened to the boss? Warnaco’s chief executive officer, Linda Wachner, received a compensation package of nearly $11 million in 1995. Her pay far exceeded the total wages of all 450 people toiling at the Waterville plant.
This story is worth telling. Too often, journalists, economists and politicians talk to one another and don’t listen to what people are saying on the factory floor. Millions of hard-working Americans are slipping toward poverty while top executives keep hauling in the loot. Resentment is building among people too long ignored.
It sounds, then, as if Barlett and Steele did what journalists are supposed to do: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
So why the big controversy?
Because the reporters didn’t stop at telling particular stories about certain individuals. They went on to make up villains: immigrants, lobbyists and free-traders. In Part 10 of the series, the reporters provided a “road map for reform,” spelling out how to get rid of these bad guys.
Unfortunately, Barlett and Steele’s ideas weren’t labeled as opinions but as “conclusions.” They didn’t write columns or editorials; instead, they dressed up opinions as facts and put them on the front page.
Reporters shouldn’t try to reach “conclusions” about current economic policy because history still is being written. A century from now, historians still will be struggling to understand exactly what happened to the U.S. economy in the 1990s.
Barlett and Steele conclude that we must “scale back” immigration immediately to save the economy, even though we won’t fully understand the impact of today’s immigrants for decades.
While some immigrants may be taking jobs away from some Americans, many are reviving parts of inner cities and creating new jobs. Here in Atlanta, immigrants are helping solve labor shortages at restaurants, construction companies and many other businesses.
Do Atlanta’s immigrants hurt the people interviewed by Barlett and Steele? For example, would a laid-off machinist from Pennsylvania really move to Atlanta to open a nail salon? How is a Vietnamese woman filing fingernails hurting some middle-aged man who has lost his factory job?
If immigration were stopped, would Warnaco’s chief executive pass up her $11 million to help her workers? Would engineers stop designing new machines that eliminate factory jobs but boost productivity and lower consumer costs?
The United States is a big, complicated country. Figuring out how to fix its economic problems requires lots of discussion among voters, their elected representatives and experts, such as economists and labor historians.
And reporters can help those conversations by providing balanced presentations of facts.
But when reporters proffer their opinions as facts, they undermine confidence in the media and make informed discussion less likely.
As a columnist, my job is to put forth ideas and opinions. As front-page reporters, Barlett and Steele are supposed to be describing what they see, not telling readers what to think.