Albion Monitor

One of the oddest things about American culture is its love of celebrity.

News simply isn't real to many unless there's a famous face involved. Rock Hudson's death brought home the horrors of AIDS to Main Street America, although many thousands had earlier died. The pounding nightsticks seen in Rodney King's beating may have been disturbing, but it was the O.J. Simpson trial and Mark Furman's foul language that first proved to Joe Citizen that racism flourished inside the Los Angeles police department.

Thus it was through Kathie Lee Gifford that America discovered sweatshops. If you haven't already read Santa's Little Sweatshop, I'd encourage you to scan the part about Gifford, at least. It's a sad tale.

As pointed out there, it's sad not just because children are working long days for slavery wages. It's saddest because the media focus never strayed from Gifford's embarrassment. We saw Kathie Lee cry on the nightly news. We saw her testify before Congress. We saw her smiling alongside the New York Governor and the President. We wallowed in her public shame, then exulted in her equally public redemption.

Funny thing, though; in the excitement over Kathie Lee, the press seemed to have forgotten about the people suffering to make those clothes.

It's easy to see why the sweatshops were overlooked in the hubub. The cameras stayed on her weepy appearances for the same reasons helicopters followed O.J. in the Bronco. Would the football star blow out his brains when the car stopped? Would the talk show host blubber while testifying before Congress? Would she wear sackcloth and ashes? Stay tuned and find out!

That's much more dramatic stuff than the comments of Wendy Diaz, the 15 year-old Honduran girl who made Kathie Lee clothes. Diaz told a few members of the press and later Congress that she started working at the factory at age 13 and earned 34 cents an hour. And she named names: Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, K-Mart, Wal-Mart, were the companies that she slaved for.

But you didn't see Wendy Diaz on the evening news, and only New Yorkers read about her in their daily paper. The same day Diaz spoke, Kathie Lee had her own press conference. "We're looking to shed light on the cockroaches," Kathie Lee said. There were no soundbites on TV news from the girl who dared to name the cockroaches. There were no photos of the child transmitted across the wire services that day -- although there were pictures of Kathie Lee and Governor Pataki.

And just like it was easy to see why the cameras loved the Kathie Lee melodrama, it was easy to see why the reporters avoided Wendy Diaz. What if her remarks condemning Wal-Mart were immediately followed by a Wal-Mart commercial? That would be darn embarrassing for the network. Better to ignore her completely.

As I was finishing the sweatshop story over Thanksgiving weekend, I was also struck by the similarities of how the press covered "Buy Nothing Day."

The brainchild of Vancouver, B.C. artist/activist Ted Dave, Buy Nothing Day is an attempt to draw attention to what many believe is the primary environmental problem in the world: overconsumption by people in the affluent, industrialized West. If Wendy Diaz and everyone else in the world had lived the U.S. and Canadian lifestyle, we would need the resources of three Earths to produce it all, promoters say.

If you heard about Buy Nothing Day, it was probably because of a Washington Post story that ran on November 29, Buy Nothing Day itself. Writer Don Oldenburg did a fine job; he plainly told the story without bias. But the story's impact was diminished because it appeared on the day after Thanksgiving, with the newspapers predictably crammed with holiday ads.

Still, it was good that Buy Nothing Day received the coverage, right? Yes and no.

The Washington Post article was widely reprinted -- it appeared in both the SF Chronicle and Press Democrat. Oldtimers will tell you these are called "sourpuss" stories; the more recent term is "mechanical balance." It means that no matter how one-sided the story, you've gotta find somebody who disagrees. As an example, imagine that ex-terrestrials land a spaceship and offer solutions for poverty, cancer, and every other human woe. You can bet that there would also be a short article about someone unhappy: "'I don't care who their parents are -- alien kids are banned from California schools,' orders Governor Wilson."

The nonprofit Vancouver group behind Buy Nothing Day, Media Foundation, tried to buy ads on the TV networks, but only CNN Headline News agreed, according to the group.

In refusing to sell airtime for the 30-second ad, Richard Gitter, Vice President of Advertising Standards at NBC said: "We don't want the business. We don't want to accept any advertising that's inimicable to our legitimate business interests," according to Media Foundation.

ABC told the group, "Promotion of this event would be in violation of our policy on advertising of controversial issues." Likewise the Foundation quoted Matthew Margo, CBS Vice President of program practices, as saying, "We can't run your ad. It's an advocacy ad."

In both the case of Wendy Diaz and Buy Nothing Day, the same thing happened. The press refused to embarrass their advertisers, even if it meant altering the news itself. Had the Buy Nothing Day stories run a week earlier, as most events are publicized, maybe consumers would have bought less. Joe America might have realized the sweatshop story was really about Wendy Diaz and not Kathie Lee Gifford if her face was broadcast just once on the evening news.

It is the same moral that I've made in more than twenty editorials, here: News and advertising do not mix. Your interests weren't served by the way these stories were reported. But the sponsors and advertisers were pretty happy, I'd imagine.

The world changed a little bit because you didn't hear Wendy Diaz, or news about Buy Nothing Day. Wide coverage of either story may have made consumers more sensitive this season about who made those bargain Christmas presents, or the consequences of shopping till we drop. But heck, you don't need to hear that message, now do you?

Only the Albion Monitor is going to produce a shocking story like Santa's Little Sweatshop during this time of year, and only because we're non-commercial. And we can produce these features only because of reader support.

If you live outside Sonoma County like our many readers in New York City, you can get a Monitor subscription for just $9.95 a year. Readers in Sonoma have free access by having a Internet account.

Starting this month, we're proud to say that we'll be carrying weekly columns from Alexander Cockburn and Norman Solomon -- but only for subscribers. We'll also have shocking news stories about children with AIDS, and the impact of new drug policies voted into law last November. But these features will only be available to subscribers -- sorry.

We're also proud to say that search options are finally available, where subscribers can read any of the approximately 1,000 stories we've published since August, 1995.

There's lots more to come. We hope you'll join us as our publication schedule accelerates after January 1, and we bring you even more of the news you're missing.

Hope to see you then.

Jeff Elliott, Editor

Albion Monitor Issue 22 (

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