Sep 1 1996

The Celebrity and the Sweatshops

Kathie Lee's "Star Power" outshines child workers

Kathie Lee Gifford was caught off guard when labor rights ac­tivist Charlie Kernaghan and his team at the National Labor Committee revealed the unperky truth: The Wal-Mart clothing line that bears her name (and picture) was partly made in sweatshops by Central American kids.

But before the month was out, Gif­ford’s “Scramble to Save Face” (New York Times, 5/24/96) had been trans­formed into a crusade: With help from damage-control king Howard Ruben­stein (PR consultant to Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump), Kathie Lee became a “committed labor activist” (New York Times, 6/13/96). Suddenly it was Gif­ford, not Kernaghan, who had “called for a crackdown on sweatshops.” (New York Times, 7/3/96) And all without giving up the profits from her lucrative “Kathie Lee” line of clothes.

To get the story of sweatshop ex­ploitation into the U.S. limelight, Ker­naghan and the NLC went where the media torch shines most sharply: on the rich and famous. Journalists joked about their industry’s celebrity-centric proclivi­ties: “Star Power. There’s nothing like it to get people’s attention,” admitted USA Today (6/12/96).

Ted Koppel (Nightline, 6/19/96) adopted the defensive tone that he perfected during the excesses of the O.J. Simpson era, absolving himself for routinely ignoring labor rights stories that came fame-free: “We would not be paying as much attention to the issue of child labor…were it not for the fact that celebrities rent out their fame to help sell the items that are produced under those conditions. That’s a given.”

L.A. Times reporter Barry Bearak blamed the audience (6/14/96), quoting a historian who said the fascination with fame was cultural: “To get Ameri­cans to engage in a difficult subject there has to be some entertainment value….That’s the nature of social issues and politics these days.” No word from Bearak about the nature of commercial media and what it takes to get most journalists to engage in critical cover­age of issues touchy to their sponsors.

Disney to the Rescue

Conveniently equipped with a live, na­tional, daily TV show—syndicated by Disney, which also reaps profits from child labor—Gifford launched her de­fense in person (Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, 5/1/96). “I started my cloth­ing line to benefit children …Up to 50 percent of the profits go to the little children. Now, if anybody is calling that into question, this is all verifiable.”

With no TV program of their own, la­bor rights activists couldn’t immediately contradict the uncontrite Kathie Lee. In fact, only $1 million of the reported $9 million-$10 million profits from the Kathie Lee line goes to children’s charities; the rest Gifford keeps. “One for the kids, nine for Kathie Lee,” Kernaghan told FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin (5/31/96).

When the accusations against Gifford continued to catch attention, Disney’s ABC News came to her aid, airing a PrimeTime Live segment (5/22/96) that gave Gifford plenty of time for an­guish: “I felt like I was being… kicked in the teeth for trying to help kids,” she complained through tears.

Only when she was connected to a scam at home—a sweatshop subcontract­ed to make Kathie Lee clothes just a few blocks from the ABC studio where she tapes her show—did Gifford start her conversion. Her husband, ABC Sports personality Frank Gifford, burst into the Manhattan factory with $100 bills for un­paid workers, and an eager press corps. “I have the money to pay them,” he said (New York Observer, 6/3/96). “I just need to know who the hell they are.”

Public: Enemy

With the spotlight off Gifford’s profits, a safer scapegoat emerged: the public. According to the L.A. Times (6/14/96), “the great beneficiary” of  “filthy fly-by-night rag shops” that pay sub-minimum wages is “the consumer, grown used to bargain shopping at national chains.”

ABC‘s Nightline (6/19/96) devoted a whole show to the issue of exploitation of Third World workers, including children, but their starvation wages were blamed on consumers: “Those of us who buy the products… pay very little attention to where and how those prod­ucts are manufactured, as long as we feel that we’re getting a bargain, which is, of course, what encourages the man­ufacturers to search out the lowest-paid hourly workers.”

Nightline mentioned that its corpo­rate parent, the Disney Corporation, uses subcontractors in Haiti that pay workers the unlivable—but legal—wage of 28 cents an hour. But the producers shied away from any mention of the corpora­tion’s profits. In the first quarter of 1995, Disney’s soared to half a billion dollars. Big profits can be reaped from Disney’s clothes and dolls when the purchase price is roughly 100 times what the workers are paid.

Koppel noted the absence of rep­resentatives from Nike, Reebok and other manufactur­ers on his program: “We invited [them] but they won’t be joining us.” He did­n’t apologize for the fact that his in-studio discussion failed to include a representative of a labor group. Had such a person been included in the debate, she or he might have pointed out that it is corpo­rate profits, not consumer pockets, that are swollen by sweatshop work. Wages could be quadrupled without raising prices and profits would still be huge.

Feeling Her Pain

Instead, Kathie Lee’s “pain” made bigger headlines than that of the workers as­sembling clothes for Wal-Mart: “Mrs. Gifford… has become Exhibit A in proving that what you don’t know can hurt you after all,” the New York Times reported (6/27/96). Close on Gifford’s heels in the victim parade came bewildered investors and the companies themselves. In “Investing Abroad with a Conscience: It’s Not Easy” (New York Times, 6/2/96), re­porter Ken Brown referred to compa­nies—not workers—with “problems.” “No matter how careful an investor tries to be,” he concluded, “the potential for an error is great.”

One could say that such obfuscation was an improvement. The last time the New York Times did a front-page sto­ry on sweatshops, “65 Cents an Hour: A Special Report” (3/12/95), writer Jane Li went under cover in a Brooklyn sweat­shop and found that the blame for poverty lay with the poor: “Week in Sweatshop Reveals Grim Conspiracy of the Poor.”

But, like that story, which mentioned the effects of NAFTA only in its penultimate paragraph (“Federal labor inspectors say they have eased enforcement since the passing of the North American Free Trade Agree­ment because they do not want to dri­ve jobs out of the United States”), most Gifford-relat­ed reports focused tightly on women— the celebrity, the buyers of dresses, the workers—and kept off the big picture: internation­al trade policy, or the (male) CEOs.

Women’s Empowerment?

There were some exceptions, like syndicated columnist Bob Herbert, who hammered corporate heads (New York Times, 6/24/96). Re­porting on the tremendous wealth of Philip Knight, Nike’s founder and chief executive, Herbert condemned Nike’s move from repressive Indonesia to even lower-paid Vietnam: “What’s next? Employees who’ll work for a bowl of gruel?” And he used similar straight talk to describe Nike’s advertising strategy: riding a “so-called women’s empower­ment campaign to new heights of wealth while at the same time insisting that most of its products be made by grossly underpaid women stuck in ut­terly powerless and often abusive cir­cumstances.”

The LA Weekly (5/10/96) illustrated the wealth of Disney CEO Michael Eis­ner with the help of a diagram of an 18th Century slave ship. In 1993-95, the Weekly reported, Eisner made an aver­age of $292,871 per day, or just about 100,000 times the daily wage of the Pocahontas pajamas tailors and seam­stresses in Haiti. At a density of 291 peo­ple per slave ship, the paper noted, “it would take 344 deckfuls of Haitians to approximate Eisner’s earning power.”

But if readers are looking for the last­ing impact of the Kathie Lee saga, there’s not much to celebrate. Though the Gif­fords have made much of the fact that Wal-Mart moved its operations out of Honduras, the move was to Nicaragua, where workers are paid less, not more.

As for celebrities who cash in on product endorsements, Entertainment Weekly (6/14/96) wrote: “Fearful of tarnishing their images, will luminaries stop vending their names? Three words: Are you kidding?” Sacrificing none of her profits as she morphed, with the media’s help, from “ignorant” exploiter to hero of the working poor, Kathie Lee showed that media chivalry can be a wonderful thing—for wealthy celebri­ties, that is.