This week, we’re sharing stories from Jane Mayer, David Zax, Christopher Glazek, Farah Stockman, and Alex Mar.
At The New York Times, Farah Stockman profiles manufacturing employee Shannon Mulcahy during her last year at Rexnord, a bearing plant in Indianapolis, Indiana that moved to Mexico for cheaper labor. As Mulcahy trains the Mexican men who will eventually take her job, Stockman posits that American workers are not only losing their livelihoods but also their identities — the pride and self-esteem accrued from the specialized manufacturing knowledge accumulated over decades at work.
Men had come and gone. Houses had been bought and lost. But the job had always been there. For 17 years. Until now.
Shannon and her co-workers had gotten the news back in October: The factory was closing. Ball bearings would move to a new plant in Monterrey, Mexico. Roller bearings would go to McAllen, Tex. About 300 workers would lose their jobs.
The bosses called it “a business decision.”
To Shannon, it felt like a backhand across the face.
For months, Shannon kept working as the factory shut down around her. She struggled with straightforward questions: Should she train workers from Mexico for extra pay or refuse? Should she go back to school or find a new job, no matter what it paid?
And she was forced to confront a more sweeping question that nags at many of the 67 percent of adults in this country who do not have a four-year college degree: What does my future look like in the new American economy?
She had always been proud of her job. When she ran into friends from high school, she told them she worked at Link-Belt, conscious of the envy it incited. Shannon was a legacy hire. Her uncle had worked at the factory since before she was born. Her sense of self-worth was tied to the brand. The bearings she built were top of the line.
She held onto that. “I still care,” she said last March. “I don’t know why. It becomes an identity. A part of you.”
For workers like Shannon, the factory’s final months were a time of reinvention and retribution. Of praying that Donald Trump would save them and arguing about why he didn’t. Of squabbling over whether to train their Mexican replacements or shun them. Of vowing that one day, the corporate bosses would realize that making bearings isn’t as easy as they thought.
Shannon could have given Tad the bare minimum of training, answering a few questions and collecting her pay. But just as Stan Settles had passed on his knowledge to Shannon, Shannon trained Tad as if he were one of her own.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Ronan Farrow, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, Vivian Ho, Christopher Goffard, Kaitlyn Greenidge, and Alex Pappademas.
This week, we’re sharing stories from John Woodrow Cox, Danielle McNally, Matt Richtel and Andrew Jacobs, Michelle Dean, and John Knight.
What year were we taught the difference between facts and opinions in grade school? Was it an election year?
To review: The bar for an opinion is low. The bar for a fact is higher. Statements of fact need to be verifiable, substantiated, and proven. An opinion doesn’t need to meet any standards at all. The bar for what constitutes an opinion — sans corroboration, sans evidence, sans proof — is, indeed, low. The bar for who will listen to it is somewhere else.
A published opinion doesn’t need to meet any particular standard, either, other than an editor deeming an opinion piece worthy of publication. In opinion journalism, the publisher sets the bar. And no publisher’s bar placement comes under more scrutiny than The New York Times’.
At Splinter, David Uberti asks: “Who Is The New York Times‘ Woeful Opinion Section Even For?” If the paper of record is to remain any kind of standard-bearer in our current political moment, what should its opinion section look like? How rigorous should its standards be? Uberti advocates for raising the bar, preferably one or two notches above the denial of facts that have been painstakingly reported on the other side of the Times‘ news-opinion firewall:
In his initial column, in late April, Stephens questioned the predictions about the effects of climate change that the Times has reported on extensively. This slickly branded “climate agnostic” approach stuck a finger in the eye of both the Times’s readership and its newsroom. It risked mimicking the pundit-reporter dynamic seen at CNN, where in-house bloviators are paid to spout opinions that at times directly contradict the network’s own news reporting. Bennet defended the column as part of a “free exchange of ideas,” in what Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple described as a “Boilerplate Kumbaya Response to Public Outrage.”
The op-ed page—opposite of the editorial page—was unveiled by the Times in 1970 to foster a true “conflict of ideas,” as onetime Editorial Page Editor John B. Oakes put it. Points of view clashing with the Times’ institutional perspective or biases would be especially welcome. Names floated as potential contributors ranged from Communists to members of the John Birch Society.
“They really wanted diversity when they came out—they really prized it,” said University of Maine media scholar Michael Socolow, who authored a 2010 paper on the origins of the op-ed page. Its debut contributors included a staff column on the need for super-sonic air travel; a Chinese novelist describing Beijing during the Cultural Revolution; a political scientist and former LBJ aide analyzing U.S. policy in Asia; and a New Republic contributing editor slamming Vice President Spiro Agnew. It was a radical expansion of the Times’s opinion offerings that other newspapers soon emulated, and it hasn’t fundamentally changed since then besides expanded publishing space and formats online.
“In general, we’re looking to challenge our own and our readers’ assumptions, and, we hope, put people who disagree on important questions into conversation with each other in order to sharpen everyone’s thinking,” Bennet wrote to Splinter.
Some recent attempts to do so, however, seemed to trade intellectual rigor or true diversity for the appearance thereof.
From door-to-door deliveries to influencing politics, companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s spend big bucks to enmesh themselves in third world markets, and their processed, packaged foods bring obesity and health problems with them.
In the first in a The New York Times series about global obesity, Andrew Jacobs and Matt Richtel report from Brazil, where low-income, isolated residents who once suffered from hunger now suffer from diabetes and heart disease. To impoverished people, the allure of packaged Western food is obvious: it’s inexpensive and more readily available. Although access means more people are getting fed, this sweet, fatty, salty food is not only destroying traditional foodways and changing local agriculture, it’s harming those who subsist on it. One nutrition professor describes the situation in Brazil as “a war between two food systems,” but it’s a war where “one food system has disproportionately more power than the other.” Just as religious missionaries replace indigenous culture with European culture, now we have Western corporations replacing local culture and regional identity with a homogeneous global identity of Coke and Kit-Kit and pudding. To me, the loss of regional identity is as tragic as the increase in obesity.
Dr. Gibney, the nutritionist and Nestlé consultant, said the company deserved credit for reformulating healthier products.
But of the 800 products that Nestlé says are available through its vendors, Mrs. da Silva says her customers are mostly interested in only about two dozen of them, virtually all sugar-sweetened items like Kit-Kats; Nestlé Greek Red Berry, a 3.5-ounce cup of yogurt with 17 grams of sugar; and Chandelle Pacoca, a peanut-flavored pudding in a container the same size as the yogurt that has 20 grams of sugar — nearly the entire World Health Organization’s recommended daily limit.
Until recently, Nestlé sponsored a river barge that delivered tens of thousands of cartons of milk powder, yogurt, chocolate pudding, cookies and candy to isolated communities in the Amazon basin. Since the barge was taken out of service in July, private boat owners have stepped in to meet the demand.
“On one hand, Nestlé is a global leader in water and infant formula and a lot of dairy products,” said Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina. “On the other hand, they are going into the backwoods of Brazil and selling their candy.”
Dr. Popkin finds the door-to-door marketing emblematic of an insidious new era in which companies seek to reach every doorstep in an effort to grow and become central to communities in the developing world. “They’re not leaving an inch of country left aside,” he said.
In a collaboration between The New York Times and The Marshall Project, journalist Eli Hager recently published an investigation into Harvard University’s eleventh-hour flip-flop on its acceptance of ex-convict Michelle Jones to its doctoral program in history. Jones, who spent more than two decades in prison for the murder of her four-year-old son — conceived non-consensually when she was 14 — became a stellar academic and published scholar while incarcerated. She was set to attend Harvard this fall, but after her acceptance, two professors questioned whether she had adequately portrayed her crime in her application — something that was not required — and also whether the former prisoner was up to the challenge of an Ivy League environment.
Jones was supposed to be released in October, but received a two-month reduction of her sentence so she could start a Ph.D. program on time this fall. She applied to eight, with Harvard her first choice because of historians there whose work on incarceration she admired.
While those historians embraced her application, others at Harvard questioned not only whether Jones had disclosed enough information about her past, but whether she could handle its pressure-cooker atmosphere.
“One of our considerations,” Stauffer said in an interview, “was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”
Alison Frank Johnson, director of graduate studies for the history department, dismissed that argument as paternalistic.
“Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard,” she said. “Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying?
“We’re not her priests,” Johnson added, using an expletive.
Jones will be attending New York University instead.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Eli Hager, Bryan Curtis, Terry DeMio and Dan Horn, Alexander Nazaryan, and Ellie Shechet.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Steve Kolowich; Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg; Taffy Brodesser-Akner; Carolyn Murnick; and Jamie Lauren Keiles.
Four days before the 1947 Broadway opening of A Streetcar Named Desire, the New York Times published an essay by Tennessee Williams on the depression he’d experienced after the success of The Glass Menagerie summarily ended life as he’d known it.
Fame had turned Williams into a “public Somebody” overnight, a crisis that ultimately landed him in the hospital, “mainly because of the excuses it gave me to withdraw from the world behind a gauze mask.”
The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last.
I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed.
After spending three months witnessing inequities that felt wrong in a luxury hotel, let alone in a functioning democracy, Williams sought salvation from fame’s spiritually-bankrupt life of leisure, hoping to distance himself from a toxic setup he believed hurt everyone it touched:
The sight of an ancient woman, gasping and wheezing as she drags a heavy pail of water down a hotel corridor to mop up the mess of some drunken overprivileged guest, is one that sickens and weighs upon the heart and withers it with shame for this world in which it is not only tolerated but regarded as proof positive that the wheels of Democracy are functioning as they should without interference from above or below. Nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess in this world. It is terribly bad for both parties, but probably worse for the one receiving the service.
Williams suggests we should let machines take up some of humanity’s unwanted tasks, then takes a poetic detour into the consequences of that automation. Removing work from the equation of living, he observes, creates a void of paranoid inertia. Just as he concludes that outsourcing this work to fellow humans breeds depression, he notes that advances in technology designed to lighten the load often render the average person fearful of struggle itself.
We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip, who has the canoe and the tent and the fishing lines and the axe and the guns, the mackinaw and the blankets, but who now, when all the preparations and the provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey but remains where he was yesterday and the day before and the day before that, looking suspiciously through white lace curtains at the clear sky he distrusts. Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt.
The essay is available online as part of The New School History Project, a site where students curate a trove of recovered archival material to provoke critical and informed discussion.