Parachute journalism and rural America’s revenge

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Below is an essay I first published for The Ochberg Society, a now-defunct grassroots group of journalists who cover trauma, upon the publication of FACTORY MAN in 2014. I’ve been thinking a lot about the people featured in my essay and in that book recently. Last week on Election Day, I traveled back to Bassett, Va., to talk about my just-out book, TRUEVINE, a nonfiction narrative about race, exploitation and greed.

In the front row sat a 63-year-old white man, a trucking company owner named Jerry Hatchett, decked out in “Make America Great Again” regalia — red Trump hat that matched his red suspenders. To his left sat a septuagenarian former sharecropper and furniture factory worker named Janet Johnson, who is featured in TRUEVINE. Janet is black, and the title of one of my chapters,  “White Peoples Is Hateful,” was a direct quote from my  interviews with her. After my talk, which centered largely on racism and its tentacles, the two had a pleasant exchange.

Hatchett, who still lives on the dairy farm where he grew up in rural Sontag (just three miles down the road from the rural crossroads of Truevine, Va.), bought five copies of “TRUEVINE” at the event. When I called him up later to ask what he thought of the election results he told me, “I run a small business” with 20 employees. “The regulations passed in D.C. are killing small businesses,” he said, citing studies that truck-related deaths have decreased greatly in the past 50 years, and yet the regulations keep tightening.

Hatchett assured me he was not racist, and I believe him. “I’ve got a lot of black friends, and I’d rather have them in my house than about three-quarters of the white people I know.” But he’s concerned about soaring health insurance premiums, which he blames on Obamacare. He’s concerned about the growing number of people in his region, black and white, who can’t pass a drug test. “People out here are hurting, and nobody in Washington has done anything about it.”

Time will tell whether president-elect Trump, who has a long history of outsourcing his own products, will actually do anything about joblessness, soaring disability rates and food insecurity in places where “the China shock” has decimated the livelihoods of so many. In places like Bassett and Truevine, where factories once hummed, I believe people want their dignity back, not painkillers. They want jobs.

More than anything, I believe Donald Trump won the election, despite just about every pollster prediction to the contrary, because Democrats and journalists failed to grasp and report on the aftermath of globalization in small towns across America. I fielded a number of reporter phone calls during the campaigns, asking for my “Factory Man” sources and their phone numbers and wanting to pick my brain, from The Wall Street Journal to The Guardian. I helped the reporters, based in Washington and New York, because that’s what members of the journalism tribe do for one another.

But what I really wanted to say to them was this: Why are you just now getting around to writing this story? NAFTA was signed in 1994; China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Across America, dying factory towns held unemployment-rate records for more than a decade. What took you so long? And why were so many of my regional-media colleagues also unable to illuminate that story? (I describe more fully the impact of dwindling journalistic resources on smaller, regional media here.)

Democrats and most of the mainstream media ignored what was happening in rural America until the morning after the election. And they ignored it at their own peril.

The former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey once told an interviewer: “Some bones broken will forever be weak. They will ache and cause pain. The best we can hope for is acknowledgment. What drives me crazy is when people don’t want to acknowledge!”

She was talking about racist events of the past, but the same idea could be applied today to the pain inflicted by globalization, when 5 million American factory workers lost their livelihood through no fault of their own. And the only government program designed to ease them into new work was an outdated Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) run by people who looked down their noses at the displaced. (My personal favorite exchange, from a TAA training session I attended: “We’re not gonna pay for you to be in school and find out you’re in Myrtle Beach,” a presenter said, stressing strict school attendance. “Who here has money for a vacation?” said the laid-off worker sitting next to me. “I’m worried about losing my house.”)

It’s wrong to name-call all Trump voters as “deplorables.” It’s wrong to discount all rural voters for “clinging to their religion and guns.” As George Packer opined recently in a New Yorker story on the psychology of the Trump voter: “If the Democrats were no longer on their side — if government programs kept failing to improve their lives — why not vote for the party that at least took them seriously?”

Further, as the lives of rural Americans grew smaller, whiter, and less hope-filled, identity issues surrounding race became harder to unpack and more fraught to discuss, giving “Trump the aura of being a truth teller,” according to Packer. “The ‘authenticity’ that his followers so admire is factually wrong and morally repulsive. But when people of good will are afraid to air legitimate arguments [and discuss sensitive issues such as sentencing reform and urban crime], the illegitimate kind gains power.”

I hope the first step in bridging the divide is the airing of such arguments. The acknowledgment of one another’s pain. 

As I write in FACTORY MAN: “The people [in trade-decimated communities] wanted their stories told. … Their world was not flat, and they wanted a witness to it. Someone to describe the creeping small-town carnage created by acronyms like NAFTA and WTO and an impotent TAA, all of it forged by faraway people who had never bothered to see the full result of what globalization had wrought.” 

Perhaps those faraway people are beginning now to see the picture. It’s not a very lovely one. At Henry County’s Community Storehouse, where a converted textile-plant conveyor belt has found new life as a food-distribution device, people still arrive two hours before the doors open, some of them leaning on canes and walkers — for a box of old food.

But I take solace in the words of the poet-singer Leonard Cohen, who died last week and whose work elevated humanity’s brokenness: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” 

I don’t presume to have all the answers for these complicated times, but I hope my essay, below, sheds a little more light on how the national media selectively ignored a wide swath of its citizenry.

And to all those daring to parachute in again, I say: Come on back. And stick around a while when you do.

At the Community Storehouse in Ridgeway, volunteers can divine what people used to do by their ailments: Women who'd been bent over sewing machines all day making sweatshirts had humps on their backs. The men who culled lumber were missing fingers. Photo by Jared Soares

At the Community Storehouse in Ridgeway, volunteers can divine what people used to do by their ailments: Women who’d been bent over sewing machines all day making sweatshirts had humps on their backs. The men who culled lumber were missing fingers. | Photo by Jared Soares

When I first met Wanda Perdue in the spring of 2012, she was studying at a community college tutoring center in rural Virginia. She had missed the technology boom entirely. When everyone else was learning about Word and Excel, Wanda was tacking trim pieces onto dining room tables and gluing molding onto dresser drawers. When Stanley Furniture laid her off in 2010 along with 530 of her coworkers — moving most of its production offshore to China, Vietnam and Indonesia — Wanda barely knew how to turn on a computer.

Wanda Perdue | Photo by Kyle Green

Wanda Perdue | Photo by Kyle Green

When I met her, she was finishing an associate’s degree in office administration. She’d struggled mightily in the beginning, especially with college math, but soon she would be graduating with a 3.3 grade-point average. Wanda was a young 58 then — trim with pretty copper hair, Southern manners and a work ethic honed by decades of standing through sweltering, eight-hour shifts, just as her parents before her had done at a competing furniture-maker in nearby Bassett, Va.

“What I want [a prospective employer] to know is, if you need a job done, she’s going to find a way to do it come hell or high water,” said Kay Pagans, one of Wanda’s professors.

And yet, over the next two years, every time I phoned Wanda for an update on her job search, the story was the same: The only work she could find was part-time, without benefits, at Walmart, where she ran the cash register and stocked shelves in the health and beauty aisle. On the phone in August, Wanda sounded more desperate than ever. Walmart had recently announced they were cutting her hours in anticipation of Obamacare, part of its new labor-savings strategy. The world had gotten flat, as columnist Thomas Friedman likes to say. But Wanda’s side of the story rarely got reported: the 5 million factory workers who’d lost their jobs to offshoring had been utterly flattened, too.

According to the prevailing media narrative, the recession ended in 2009, and manufacturing has been slowly bouncing back. Only it hasn’t really. The official unemployment rate may have declined, but the full employment picture was not quite the smiley face that economists and business reporters were leading everyone to believe. The number of people toiling at temp work and part-time jobs, and those who have simply stopped looking for work — the so-called U6 rate — is almost double the official rate.

As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson conceded not long after Wanda lost her full-time job, the unemployment stories were waning because the political will to fix the labor market had faded. “It’s hard to blame the media too much for resisting to write feverishly about nonexistent efforts to fix a static unemployment problem,” he wrote.

I’m not so sure. Even when the media was still reporting full steam on unemployment, a 2009 Pew Center survey showed the recession was largely being covered from the top down, told primarily through big business with stories datelined in Washington and New York. As if that’s where all the unemployed people live. The ratio of stories featuring ordinary people and displaced workers? Just 2 percent.

Thompson may blame the problem on the lack of political will, but I have another theory to add to the mix. With a few exceptions, the national media tends to cover the people it already knows, most of them found in the same ZIP codes and Facebook/Twitter realms where they live and work. National reporters rarely venture anywhere near the hollowed-out little towns where people suffering the after effects of globalization would practically grab a visiting journalist by the collar, ready for a witness to the carnage. Reporters out of Washington and New York rarely turn up in quirky Appalachian towns like Galax, Va., where all but one furniture factory has closed, or in the once-prosperous city of Martinsville, Va., which lost almost half its workforce to the offshoring of textile and furniture jobs.

I haven’t seen any of the major news outlets reporting from tiny Fieldale, where another former Stanley worker approached me last summer and spilled his story before I could ask a single question. Now 59, Samuel Watkins’ employment benefits had run out eight months earlier, and he’d plundered his 401K. He’d cobbled together work mowing lawns and weeding gardens for $8.50 an hour. He had no health insurance and had recently maxed out his credit card to have an infected tooth pulled. He hauled his tools and lawnmower gas around in the back of a dented 1999 Ford Explorer.

Samuel Watkins | 2013 Photo by Beth Macy

Samuel Watkins | 2013 Photo by Beth Macy

Samuel had no idea I was a journalist writing a book about the aftermath of globalization when we bumped into each other in July 2013, the same week that Hope Yen of the Associated Press wrote up new data showing that four in five American adults will face poverty during their lifetimes. It was one of the first national stories I’d read that directly connected poverty to the increasingly globalized economy and the decimation of factory jobs.

When Samuel struggled to explain to his Virginia Employment Commission caseworker how demoralized he felt asking the government for help, she told him, “Get a grip. You’re not going to be making $13.90 again.” Unfortunately, she was right.

In small towns like Samuel’s, the local press does what it can, covering job fairs and the opening of temp agencies, dollar stores and call centers. The opening of Martinsville’s call center StarTek, for instance, was touted as the savior of the dying town — only to close up operations seven years later and join the cheap-labor waltz to the Philippines. For one former StarTek worker I met, it was her sixth layoff in 18 years.

But that long view rarely gets explored in depth by small newspapers, where publishers and business leaders also tend to be entwined “like roots around a pipe,” as one civic leader told me. One analysis piece I wrote about Martinsville resulted in a worker I’d interviewed being forbidden from speaking to me again — or even responding to an e-mail or private Facebook message — for my book.

The slow burn of a globalizing economy, recession or not, is hard for most reporters to get their heads around. “No one’s really covered the day in and day out of the effects of free trade on the American public,” said Richard McCormack, the founding publisher of Manufacturing & Technology News and the editor of “ReMaking America,” a book published recently by the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “So much of the media is sponsored basically by advertising — Walmart and Macy’s, and if you’re the Wall Street Journal, it’s J.P. Morgan or Chase.”

Secondly, McCormack pointed out, sorting through the thousand-plus documents produced by a single U.S. International Trade Commission case is “really hard for journalists to put their arms around. It’s not cut and dry, it’s not black and white. And the importers and foreign producers have spent millions on lobbyists, lawyers and P.R. people until domestic manufacturers get completely overwhelmed. It’s a goddamn David and Goliath,” he said.

Since newsroom beats by tradition are organized geographically as well as by theme, it doesn’t often happen that a local reporter will follow the closing of a local factory to its replacement location in, say, Indonesia. While small media outlets and regional papers like the one I write for cover every factory closing and every new unemployment stat, we rarely claim the authority, the scope or the resources to pay attention to what’s happening at the World Trade Organization or the Department of Commerce.

That’s left to journalists at bigger news outlets, but these are reporters who usually haven’t bothered traversing the dying factory towns. From where they sit, the trend is barely perceptible.

The full picture of globalization, then, rarely makes its way into the news. No one is minding the back room of this new global store.

In fact, it took a freelance photographer, Jared Soares, driving to Martinsville three times a week for more than a year before I finally grasped the big picture myself, through his images: a textile plant conveyor belt converted for use in a food bank; a disabled minister named Leonard, biding time in his kitchen in the middle of the afternoon; a Trade Adjustment Assistance training session, where the PowerPoint resembled a seventh-grade filmstrip from 1973, and laid-off workers were scolded not to blow all their unemployment benefits at Myrtle Beach. (“The beach?” one woman muttered. “I’m about to lose my house.”)

If the laid-off factory workers wanted their stories told, Jared and I were going to have to help. His project, culminating in a forthcoming photography book, is the result, along with my book, “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town,” which will be published by Little, Brown and Company next June.

With any luck at all, Wanda will land a full-time job before she hits retirement age. She called in August to tell me she was about to have her first interview in many months, as a data entry operator for a local company. Wanda had her interviewing outfit all picked out, she enthused. She was nervous because three people were going to be interviewing her at once. “But I can handle it,” she added.

Turns out the business is just five minutes up a hill from her house, as the crow flies. “If it comes a real deep snow and I had to get there, I could walk,” she said.

A few weeks later, she called back. She thought the interview had gone well, but she did not get the job. “They said they’d keep my resume on file,” she added.

When I caught up with Samuel recently, his luck had improved. He’d been hired as a full-time temp worker for one of the last furniture-related companies in the region, a kitchen cabinet supplier, making $11 an hour. He has health insurance again, and is working hard to catch up on his electric bill, now three months in arrears.

His wife, a 61-year-old former furniture worker, is in the process of applying for federal disability benefits — another rarely reported but escalating trend in towns hit hard by globalization.

Even the economists and some Washington journalists are beginning to notice what Samuel Watkins could have told them four years ago. “If my company stays in business, there’s a chance I can become an actual employee,” Samuel said, hopefully. “Honey, it’s like everything else. There’s nothing promised to you any more. All you do is work till they say it’s no more.”

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