Jan
01
1991

The GE Boycott

A Story NBC Wouldn't Buy

When I got a call from NBC's Today show in June 1990, telling me they were interested in airing a story on consumer boycotts, naturally, as the editor of National Boycott News, I was enthusiastic. But I suspected there might be a problem when Amy Rosenberg from Today asked me for "the biggest boycott going on right now."

I already had a good idea, but I wanted to do a little more research before I gave her my answer. When I looked at major boycotts in terms of visibility, effectiveness, scope and public support, one stood out: the boycott of GE products led by the group INFACT, prompted by GE's leading role in the production and promotion of nuclear weapons.

The only trouble was, GE has owned NBC since 1986, when the company bought RCA. Would NBC News be willing to discuss a boycott against its own corporate parent?

When I next talked to Rosenberg, I broke the news to her: "The biggest boycott in the county is against General Electric."

"We can't do that one," she responded immediately. "Well, we could do that one, but we won't."

She asked for some other major boycotts, but she didn't seem too interested in any of them--most of which were against major corporations with large TV advertising budgets. She thanked me and said goodbye.

Three weeks later, in July, she called again, saying that the show was now interested in doing something about "small" boycotts. We had a couple of conversations, the upshot of which was that Today might do something about the boycott against shrimp producers provoked by the killing of sea turtles.

In September, Today told me that I was scheduled to be on the air Oct. 5 and that a plane ticket would be sent. When I called on Oct. 4 to say that I hadn't gotten a ticket, I was told that it had been rescheduled for Oct. 15. When I hadn't received anything by Oct. 12, I called again, and learned the segment had been canceled.

I had a few more conversations with Amy Rosenberg, where I learned that Today was looking for a boycott that was "small," "local" and "sexy." By this point I seriously doubted NBC would ever do a segment on any sort of boycott.

But on Friday, November 23, Roland Woerner, a Today show producer, called me and told me that "the bottom fell out" of the next Monday's show, and that I should immediately book a flight -- NBC would reimburse me. He told me the idea was to have a table with some of the products that were targets of major boycotts, and he wanted to know what they should feature.

When GE came up as one of the most important boycotts, he sighed audibly. "You guys," he said.

"I had to say it, it's a major boycott," I said.

"OK, tell me about it," he said.

I gave him a brief description of the INFACT boycott, which is promoted by a grassroots network involving hundreds of organizations nationwide, and is supported by an estimated 1 percent of U.S. consumers. I added that I had heard that David Letterman's producer got in trouble after comic-book writer Harvey Pekar was brought on as a guest and said some unflattering things about GE on the show.

"Yeah, I'll be looking for a new job on Tuesday," he said.

As it turned out, his job was in no jeopardy. The boycotted products that Today selected were Marlboros and Miller beer from Philip Morris, which supports homophobic Sen. Jesse Helms; Spam and Dinty Moore stew from Hormel, involved in a bitter labor dispute; tennis shoes by Nike, criticized for not supporting the African-American community; California grapes, which are boycotted for both labor and environmental reasons; and canned tuna, some producers of which continue to kill dolphins. There was not a GE lightbulb to be found.

Finally, after months of waiting, I was interviewed live by Deborah Norville. She asked me briefly about the featured products, not dwelling on the reasons for any of the boycotts. My interview lasted all of three minutes.

When I left the studio, heading out into the hallway to catch an elevator, I was finally asked about the GE boycott -- by an NBC janitor. "So how is the INFACT boycott of GE doing?" he asked, apparently having seen the segment on a monitor. I told him that GE had reportedly lost $60 million in sales because of the boycott, largely from hospitals refusing to buy their medical equipment. "That's the way to hit 'em," he said.

That night (11/26/90), the NBC Nightly News had a segment on the Japanese corporation Matsushita buying MCA, which owns Universal Studios and MCA Records . The NBCnews correspondent focused on whether the new Japanese owner would "interfere in content." He expressed no concerns about U.S. corporations doing the same.