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Investigative Journalist Recalls Leaving CBS After Encountering Fierce Resistance to Re-Air Expose on Nike Labor Practices

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We play a speech by Roberta Baskin, the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. For years, Baskin was an investigative journalist working for CBS. She eventually left after she encountered fierce resistance to re-air her story on Nike’s labor practices in Vietnam. And we hear response from a senior official of CBS’s owner Viacom. [includes rush transcript]

As we continue today’s special broadcast as part of Think Global, public radio’s week of special coverage focusing on globalization–we end today”’ show with a look at the media.

Last week, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hosted a conference entitled “Can Freedom of the Press Survive Media Consolidation?” Among those speaking at the conference was Roberta Baskin, now the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. For years, Baskin was an investigative journalist working for CBS. She eventually left after she encountered fierce resistance to re-air her story on Nike’s labor practices in Vietnam. Interestingly, a top official of the company that owns CBS, Viacom, was on the same panel as Baskin.

  • Roberta Baskin, speaking in Urbana, Illinois.
  • Dennis Swanson, COO of Viacom Television Stations Group, which owns CBS.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hosted a conference entitled “Can Freedom of the Press Survive Media Consolidation?” Among those speaking at the conference was Roberta Baskin, now the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. For years, Baskin was an investigative reporter working for CBS. She eventually left after she encountered fierce resistance to re-air her story on Nike’s labor practices in Vietnam. Interestingly, a top official of the company that owns CBS, Viacom, was on the same panel as Baskin. After she told her stories about Reebok and Nike, I asked him to respond. First, former CBS producer Roberta Baskin.

ROBERTA BASKIN: When I was at the network — this was when I was at CBS — I had a secret professional goal to do an international story every year; and I was able to do it, but it was very challenging, because it was at a time when the networks were closing down their foreign bureaus. More and more were being closed down, and I was begging to do, you know, these foreign stories and told that, you know, 'Who cares about what's going on in other parts of the world? What we care about is what’s happening in America.’ And I would argue that the world is getting smaller all the time and that we do need to understand each other. And I was able to do, you know, some stories that I was very proud of. One that I did was on soccer balls, about our children who are playing with soccer balls; I noticed on my daughter’s teams that all the soccer balls were made in Pakistan and wondered, you know, why. And the guys in New York were saying, 'Well, you know, what are people going to say over there, you know? I mean everyone's going to be speaking Urdu. How are we going to understand them?’

I said, ’We’ll get it interpreted. You know. We’ll have translators and …’

'Well, is that really relevant to us? Who, you know …'

And I was able to do the story and found child labor and bonded labor in all of the stitching workshops that I went into, including Reebok, which had a code of conduct that said that they didn’t use child labor and they didn’t use bonded labor. While I was looking for these children who were making soccer balls, I found children who were hunched over these grinding walls manufacturing surgical instruments; and I found one place that was — where the children were making them for UNICEF — stamped right on it. And I went back to UNICEF and asked, you know, 'How could this be?' And they said, 'Oh, we knew about it but — We heard about it but when we went, you know, we went with a delegation, and we didn't find any children making these surgical instruments.’ They got the 'chamber of commerce tour.'

That story, you know, Reebok was very upset about it, and the fax machine was running out of paper. And the executive producer of the show wanted to take out the whole Reebok section. And she was arguing about it, and I’m arguing about it, and it was time to go into the screening to look at it, and the president of CBS News was sitting there. I thought, 'What is he doing at my screening? This is, like, not ordinary procedure.' And the executive producer said, 'Well, you know, this is a great story, but there's this whole section at the back end that we need to take out on Reebok. It doesn’t really belong. It doesn’t work with the rest of it.’ And I sat there fuming while they watched the piece; and then, when the lights went back on, I jumped out of my chair and said, 'I just have to put in my two cents that I would argue that the Reebok section of the story is the heart of the story because it's a major company that has a human rights code, that advertises itself on that, that gives out a human rights award; and, you know, they deserve some accountability here. And, you know, we have a bonded laborer, we have child labor, we have the bonded laborer, you know, with the ball.’ And the president of CBS said, 'Ok, that's enough.’ He said, 'I agree.' He said, ’We’re not going to buckle under all of these faxes that we’re getting from Reebok,’ and it just went the way that it was. It kind of depends on the personalities involved. But it’s — the personalities involved are making it more and more difficult.

The last real challenge that I got into at CBS was when I did a story — and this was where my heart broke in terms of the network journalism. I was able to break the story on Nike in Vietnam and the sweat shops where women were making sneakers that we buy for $135. They were getting less than the minimum wage in Vietnam, less than $40 a month for a six day work week; and I found many items of — many times physical abuse, having their mouths taped shut for talking on the line or being forced to stand with their — to kneel on the ground with their hands in the air for poor sewing.

I came back and did the story and, of course, Nike objected to it; which is, you know, you could fill a filing cabinet with letters of complaint about me. But in this particular case, it was one of those stories that resonated where — on college campuses. Right, in fact, down the street they were handing out copies, transcripts of the story and organizing picketing of Niketowns, and organizing boycotts, and Nike’s stock went down. I mean, it was something that — I can never tell when that’s — when it’s going to really click , but in that case people did care about it, despite the fact that back in New York I’d been told, 'Who cares if these women [Inaudible] It' s better than working in the rice fields, or rice paddies, you know. This is — these are better jobs. This is progress.’

The story was supposed to be re-aired in July because that’s what you do; you amortize the cost of an expensive story like that. And when it came time when it was supposed to be re-aired, I was told that the president of CBS News had taken it off the schedule — the now president of CBS News, Andrew Hayward; and when I asked why, I was told that a deal had been made between Nike and CBS News for the upcoming Winter Olympics at Nagano. And when I said that I wanted to talk to Andrew about that, I was told, 'No, don't tell him that I told you that. You know. You can’t know that.’ I asked for the letter that Nike had written to CBS and I couldn’t get hold of it. And I was just told to move on.

Then an Ernst & Young report was leaked to me and to the New York Times that corroborated everything I found and things that I hadn’t found that were worse; and I said, again, 'Please let me do this story. We have the women — their voices, their interviews — we have the — the fact that they were being paid less than minimum wage, their pay stubs, and if we don't do it, The New York Times is doing it this Saturday.’ And they said, 'No, you're not doing it. Just move on.’

So, I’m watching “48 Hours” the night before the opening of the Winter Olympics, and I see my colleagues, four of them, wearing CBS jackets with big Nike logos on them. That was the deal that was made. And I wrote a memo to the president of CBS News saying that this was the — you know, we’re used to seeing athletes swooshed from head to toe, but this was the first time that a network has turned its correspondents, its journalists, into billboards for a sponsor, and that it’s a violation of CBS News policy, and that people would not trust us in covering sweatshop stories. You know, to me, the shine was off the Tiffany network at that point. The response from the president of CBS News was that I had — that it was a “breach of professional etiquette” that I had written this.

So I was put on — I was demoted, put on the morning news and realizing that, you know, I’d been marginalized. My producer had been taken away. I asked out of my contract finally, and he was delighted to see me go and said yes. I went across the street to “20/20,” to ABC, and I went off the air and took a huge pay cut with pleasure because I had lost respect on the other side of the block, and I hoped that in the back rooms as a senior producer in management at “20/20” in charge of investigations that I would be able to have an impact on the kinds of stories they selected. And on a good day I could, but there were not enough good days. And if you want to know just how representative in terms of the corporate culture of these places — you know, going over to Disney — my first day on the job, I got an email from the C.E.O. of Disney. And I thought, 'Hmm, why is he emailing me?' and opened it up and fell off my chair. It said: “Dear fellow cast member.” I was, you know, part of a Disney movie or something. I mean, it was just, you know, journalism is just a tiny, tiny blip on the bottom line of these big companies.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberta Baskin, describing her experiences at CBS and ABC. She was on a panel with Dennis Swanson at the University of Illinois last week. Dennis Swanson, the chief operating officer and Executive Vice President of Viacom, which owns CBS. I asked him to respond to Roberta Baskin’s story of censorship at CBS.

DENNIS SWANSON: Roberta worked for me, and I have a high regard for her, and if she says that what happened, I have no reason to dispute it. On the other hand, Andrew is not here to tell his side of the story. As I say, I have nothing to do with CBS News. I don’t work for them, and I didn’t work for them then. And I worked across the street at NBC at the time. So it is hard for me to give you an intelligent —- I’m not trying to duck the question, it’s just if you want to ask me something -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, your thoughts on the reporters, and then ultimately the sports reporters, wearing the Nike —

DENNIS SWANSON: I’ll tell you what the policies are in the Viacom television stations division, which I do have some control over. And there was a recent recall by Ford Motor Company and those were stories that were broken in our division. The lead story out of that was broken by WCBS in New York, and it ran throughout our division. Ultimately, you know, Ford Motor Company wasn’t thrilled with it, obviously, and it cost us some advertising, but ultimately Ford Motor Company had to come to grips with the fact that they had a problem, and subsequently the recall occurred. We deal with stories of this nature all the time, and this is — you know, when I started in this business — one of the reasons that I came back to Champaign today — I have two degree from this university —- and the people like Harry Skornia and Frank Scully and John Regnell and some of these people taught me about community involvement, community service and good news. So it is something that I have tried to practice throughout my now 46 years in the business. I also came back because I was basketball manager for four years, and I came back for the anniversary date in January when we whipped up on Minnesota, and so this university is part of my life. I don’t know, most of you wouldn’t know, I serve on the Foundation Board for this university, and you should know I’m on the Development Committee, and you can figure what that means. But -—

AMY GOODMAN: But on the issue of the Nike swoosh, do you approve of the sportscasters wearing it?

DENNIS SWANSON: I think if they had it on, I would find that regrettable. I don’t think that should be a practice. It’s certainly not a practice in our division. I don’t know who the four were that Roberta was making reference to. I don’t know if they were in the sports division, the news division or who they were.

ROBERTA BASKIN: Actually, they were “48 Hours” news journalists.

DENNIS SWANSON: Then that would be regrettable.

AMY GOODMAN: Then, last question, if Roberta has a question for you since you’re both on the same panel?

ROBERTA BASKIN: Well, you know, that to me was the — I mean, there were other things that happened when I was at CBS over a course of eight years of being there. That was kind of the final, you know, sad turn of events, and I think that what I worry about the most now from — because I became radioactive and a lightning rod for having written this memo. And so people would, producers for instance, would write to me and say, 'I want to do a story on, for instance, AOL parent controls, how they don't work, the parental controls.’ But there is no point in even suggesting the story because CBS has a relationship with AOL on its website. And so one of the darkest things that is not talked about very much in journalism right now is self-censorship. More and more is being asked of journalists. News divisions are shrinking, there’s fewer reporters to do more work and, you know, I just wonder — you having been my boss back in the Chicago days, where investigative reporting was taken so seriously by the television station and the public, and to this sort of sad situation that we’re in now, I wonder, you know, if you could just reflect on what you have seen.

DENNIS SWANSON: Well, I’d like to think, and I use the Ford Motor Company as an example — there are others — that we would still practice investigative reporting. In fairness to CBS News, it was “60 Minutes” that broke the Abu Dhabi story. So I don’t think they shy away from investigative stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Abu Ghraib.

DENNIS SWANSON: And this will be a disappointment to you, Roberta, but I’d been driving down here from Chicago this morning, and Macauley Culkin was the lead story today, because he testified on behalf of Michael Jackson for the —

ROBERTA BASKIN: That’s a perfect story. I will add one very sad thing, and that is when “20/20” came and closed down the Washington Magazine’s “20/20 Prime Time,” the exact line from the executive producer who flew down from New York was “We don’t want Washington stories anymore.” From now on we’re going to do, (quote), “personalities, pop culture, and big gets.”

AMY GOODMAN: Roberta Baskin, former network producer. She worked for CBS and ABC, speaking with Dennis Swanson, who is the Chief Operating Officer of Viacom, owner of CBS.

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