Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Post-Script: In Dangerous Times

It's been a while since the subject was last touched upon, but as any journalist knows, context is everything, and what's a liability some places is an asset in others. Recalling Ari Paul's piece in In These Times, Paul potentially exposed himself to charges of being lazy, sloppy, and unreasonably biased in his treatment of American Apparel and the lawsuits that CEO, Dov Charney, is facing.

Paul's most notable fumble was how he reflexively deferred to the mainstream media's account without having taken a first hand look into the matter himself--a deference that was, in itself, at odds with the missions statement of In These Times. Specifically, Paul relied on Business Week and an article that it had previous run on American Apparel and its infamously eccentric CEO.

One can only assume, but Paul's underlying operative assumption seemed to be that if a generally conservative-oriented publication can caste the practices of an enterprise not favoured by the left in a rather negative light, then there must be something evil afoot. What really stuck out abou this all, however, was the reflexive deference itself.

As already said, though, times have changed, and Business Week has since run another piece on the garment giant. In last week's issue, the light it caste American Apparel in was less than negative, and perhaps outright positive. Comparing American Apparel to Muji, Business Week writes:

Both retailers have carved out a niche by offering a certain style, whether minimalist in the Muji's case or classic fashion revival in American Apparel's, that has captured the imagination of millions.

The point here seems to be that what these two companies are doing is revolutionizing the way in which label whoring is done. Essentially, by allowing the quality of their respective products to speak for themselves, the two firms have made it so that their nameless faces are, themselves, reputable legacies.

What Business Week is eager to note, however, is that pursuing a certain path doesn't necessarily mean advocating some other cause that travels often down that same path. In other words, just because either enterprise employs certain manufacturing or marketing practices that can be reconciled with other causes, there is no reason that either of them need to adhere to the dogmatism surrounding thoses causes.

NO POLITICAL AXES. In the U.S., American Apparel has had similar success. In just seven years, it has grown to 14 stores domestically and a dozen or so in Mexico, Canada, and Europe. It made $250 million last year.
It's important to note that neither Muji nor American Apparel necessarily has aligned itself to a political message by keeping its products logo-free. Nor are they a direct response to the anticorporate movement launched by activist Naomi Klein, who took up her war against brands and logos and globalization during the 1990s.

The point here is that both enterprises are corporate successes because they do believe in the theory and practice of capitalism. Indeed, if anything, they have both returned to the roots of market theory where it is suggested that in a situation of perfect liberty, people will be able to act and interact toward outcomes that are perfectly just and equitable. Where consumers will have access to as perfect information as can be expected, they will make the choices best suited to their well-being, and workers will receive compensation in proportion to the value that their labour contributed to the product/enterprise.

As one casual observer has noted, the term 'progressive' should not, and cannot, be reserved for the more radical elements of society if we are to approach any degree of progress at the end of the day. It is in this respect, moreover, that Muji and American Apparel stand as new, emerging business and marketing models worthy of our attention.

Muji certainly has made a business case for saving marketing dollars on brand building and plowing that money into better design at affordable prices. Its executives believe a brand name or a logo is extraneous and doesn't bring a specific benefit to consumers except to satisfy their ego.
"A ZEN LEVEL." Muji is short for mujirushi ryohin, which translates roughly to "no label, quality goods," and its mission is to provide well designed, useful products at affordable prices.
For Muji, design is key. It has 15 in-house designers and also commissions top designers around the world to create its products. Muji's Azami takes great pains to stress that these designers are anonymous, and he refuses to identify which products they've made.

In other words, just because Muji doesn't propound the same, distracting tactics that other marketeers do, it doesn't mean that it is necessarily anti-capitalist. Rather, its reliance on quality is what a brand-name is supposed to be about, and its dedication to such standards recall a time before consumerism was consuming our social fabric. Muji's idea of consumerism, then, is based more on consumer accessing the goods and services that they want, rather than needing to be persuaded into buying them. The case of American Apparel is similar.

Its logo-free clothing is made of 100% cotton in bright solid colors with no imprints. American Apparel promotes itself as "sweat-shop free" and "Made in Downtown L.A.," because its two factories, where the cutting and sewing are done, are located in Los Angeles. It has become one of the largest manufacturers of T-shirts in America. "We like the simplicity of unmarked clothing, and many people find it appealing and even more versatile," says Alexandra Spunt, content adviser at American Apparel.

What American Apparel is offering, then, are quality garments with no excesses or frills. Their product is one that is reliably consistent, and whose aesthetic appeal lies its tailoring and colours.

American Apparel has, of course, come under fire for a previous run-in with unions, but even this fails to substantively detract from its claims. Everything still is made in downtown LA in a sweatshop free facility. There are those that charge American Apparel with union-busting and, therefore, being ethical inconsistent, but they appear to be mostly partisan pundits who cannot ever admit the prospect of any markey model being a viable one.

Essentially, American Apparel seems to be more about paying their workers for what their labour is actually worth rather than championing the labour cause. During a campaign titled Legalize LA, American Apparel apparently made efforts to advance the rights of immigrant workers. After all, it is rumoured that man of the workers at the American Apparel facility entered the country, and are therefore working there, illegally.

For a devout market-liberal, any individual is a consumer, and nothing else, and should be entitled to full compensation in exchange for whatever product they sell, labour or otherwise, if the marketplace is going to function as it should. What this Legalize LA campaign might have amounted to, then, was American Apparel championing the American way: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

By acknowledging that so many participants in Los Angeles markets are excluded from full and, therefore, complete participation in the marketplace, American Apparel was, in consequence, being entirely American. In other words, as it pays its employees what their labour seems to be worth, American Apparel would like to see all manufacturers doing so.

This Business Week piece, albeit a casual comment, raises some interesting issue for the modern marketer. The anti-consumer backlash that's surfaced over the last few decades has, apparently, prompted some entrepreneurs to contemplate just exactly what went wrong, and where. Now, however, they've seem to have pin-pointed the short-coming and are returning to their money-grubbing roots where more equitable distribution and compensation makes it better to be middle-class in a rich land, than the richest in a poor one.

It is curious, then, to see if Paul had compose his piece for In These Times only recently, whether he would have mentioned the earlier Business Week piece at all--for fear of having acknowledge the later one--or if he would have simply fallen back on the lame anecdotes of personal experience, whcih should have been, itself, grounds to disqualify him from treating the subject.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Candidly Canadian to the Crypt

Canada forever sliding more and more into the shadown of its collosal neighbour to the south, there are few personalities that manage to escape the allure and vacuum of its massive media machine. One who managed to actually capitalize on its pull, and in the fashion of the Apollo 13 mission, actually used its gravitational pull to catapult himself to safety, Peter Jennings, has been lost to time and decay.

His father having been a significant CBC personality, some would think it predictable that he would, naturally, surpass the old man and move on to bigger, better things. After all, that quaintly Canadian charm wasn't all that was in his blood.

On CTV he was noticed by ABC News' Elmer Lower, who recognized Jennings' good looks and charm as elements that would sell to the American public. Shortly after, in 1964, Jennings joined ABC as an anchor for a 15-minute evening news segment.

Shamelessly humble as we Canucks tend to be, Jennings had a penchant for the facts of the matter, and was therefore suited for the calling of a journalist. Aside for being renowned for being relentless with his research team of ABC behind the scene newsies, Jennings could not help but to call things as he saw them: in an unapologetically, anti-flag-sucking, Candian light.
As one right-wing, putative media-watchdog so wryly put it:

ABC's Peter Jennings sees an ominous new threat in the world. Not weapons of mass destruction or terrorism, but another vast right-wing conspiracy at home, specifically, the supposedly “well organized and aggressive efforts to make life very difficult for celebrities who speak out against the war.”

But this is the type of thing you'd expect from someone who's a lover, not a fighter. After all, Jennings went through four marriages before that amorphous mass of renegade white blood cells ate through his lungs.

But even Jennings felt the pressure of the post-9/11 climate. Having stubbornly stuck to his Canadian guns through thick and thin, after that fundamentalist-feces hit the fan, Jennings had to make concession, even if they wouldn't be in terms of lip service.

A proud Canadian who only applied for dual citizenship in the United States after 9/11, he was a man of exceptional physical grace and legendary stamina.

But as much as he had to fold here and there, Jennings was always willing to to flaunt his Maple Leaf Privilege when "he used his Canadian passport to report from inside Cuba for ABC when the country was off-limits to Americans."

Whether it comes down to a case of Canadian potential or American opportunity is a matter up to debate--who knows, I just may be missing the point altogether. Maybe it simply a case of a distinguished man with enough drive and ambition (and maybe the luck) to become something that most people only dream of becoming. It can't be ignored, however, that enough of his personality traits were stereotypically Canadian and that he was so well-suited as an agent of the American media.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

In Dangerous Times

For nearly thirty years now, In These Times has been “dedicated to informing and analyzing popular movements for social, environmental and economic justice." But the difference between building a reputation and upholding one is like that between throwing a revolution and not having your comrades shot or shipped off to the gulag the next day.

Just as Freddy Nietzsche once warned how whoever fights dragons for too long becomes one, a recent piece by Ari Paul demonstrates the all too common, and dangerous, tendency of do-gooders to become so pious in their struggle as to allow the ends justify the means.

The focus of the article is the fashion label firestorm, American Apparel, and its eccentric and self-proclaimed playboy CEO, Dov Charney. A mere seven years old, through its unique style of vertical integration, the American Apparel label claims to revolutionizing the way in which the garment industry is run.

Too quick to buy into a media storm conjured long before he authored his piece, rather than assuming any critical or objective standpoint himself, Paul defers to the landslide of partisan propaganda already circulating the media marketplace.

Paul’s first vexatious vector bears on AA’s marketing campaign:

First, there are the ads. Ultra-sexy—some featuring porn actresses—their full-page magazine displays are most conspicuously not showcasing the socks. Jason Rowe, a columnist for New York University’s Washington Square News, puts it best: “Photographs of young women in compromising positions, some as young as 15, are juxtaposed alongside text giving accounts of meeting the models on the street and inviting them to be photographed, conveying the feeling of some sort of perverted conquest.”

The professional pursuits of any given model aside, AA is scarcely alone in its portrayal of women in its advertisements. Major fashion labels have not been alone in using sex to sell. Rather than it being malfeasance on the part of any given marketer, that sex sells so reliably might be better regarded as the symptom of problem of the consumer culture writ large.
Paul’s wanton singling out of AA in this respect, is clearly indicative of an individual with an agenda who is abusing their access to a reputable publication.

Even more disappointing, however, is Paul’s reflexive deference to a second party, Business Week. A free-press is not only supposed to be insulated from coercive pressure, but is also expected to allow for a diversity of sources to report on any given issue. Paul’s deference to another established source, then, amounts to regurgitation.

What’s most disturbing in this context, however, is how that source is one so embedded in the mainstream. In These Times should be ashamed to have let a fluff piece of this kind slip through its editorial filters.

The deference, however, doesn’t stop there. Moving on to the sexual harassment charges that Charney is now facing, Paul writes:

Founder and senior partner Dov Charney has been at the center of controversy over his fondness for sex in the workplace. In two separate sexual harassment lawsuits, writes Business Week, “two of the women accuse Charney of exposing himself to them. One claims he invited her to masturbate with him and that he ran business meetings at his Los Angeles home wearing close to nothing. Another says he asked her to hire young women with whom he could have sex, Asians preferred.”

The repeated reference to Business Week is a clear indication of lazy, waiting-room-reading research; but what is more treasonous is Paul’s persistent failure to contact any of the parties involved first-hand.

While Charney is reputed for his transparency and being readily accessible to the both the media and casual observers alike, one of his legal opponents, LA attorney Keith Fink, has been repeatedly featured both on television and in print.

That Paul fails to make any attempt at soliciting direct quotes or statements from either party is not only an affront to the watchdog institution of the press, but an instance of sloppy partisan journalism.

Paul’s finally folly acquires sound breaking momentum as he trades in third party sources for partisan propaganda, and speculates on antedated and uninformed personal experience.
With a shocking ability to recall exact quotes, Paul recounts the tale of a disenchanting AA job interview experience that he underwent “Last year.” That being denied the position should have precluded his good, journalistic, conscience from allowing him to cover the story, however, pales in comparison to the suggestions he advances as unequivocal fact.

First, Paul boldly speculates that his previous union experience cut his interview short and disqualified him as a candidate. A casual chat with the manager of any local AA retail outlet, however, will quickly reveal that the company’s screening process often consists of a 120 second interview. The operative assumption here is that any potential candidate who is sufficiently outgoing for a retail position and second interview will be able to shine within those two minutes.

The so-called information that Paul does bother to uncover relates directly to the uninformed speculation he advances regarding his failure to secure a sales position.

Addressing allegations of AA union-busting, Paul relies on the findings of “Stephen Wishart, a senior research analyst with UNITE HERE,” to demonize the company. He writes:

Wishart reports, “The company’s activities included holding captive meetings with employees, interrogating employees about their union activities and sympathies, soliciting employees to ask the union to return their union authorization cards, distributing anti-union arm bands and T-shirts, and requiring all employees to attend an anti-union rally. The company’s most devastating tactic, though, was threatening to shut down the plant if the workers organized.”

At this point in the article, to have not pursued a balanced line of reporting by representing the other party to the dispute is almost expected. But that Paul castes the prose of cyber pamphlet propaganda as an objective or accurate account is miserably underhanded.

To have a bias in the media is one thing, but not bothering to elicit an actual quote sympathetic to that bias amounts to scribbling propaganda, yourself, and advancing an agenda.

Every publication should be entitled to its bias. The press would be impotent were it to only tow the line of the embedded establishment. But neglecting to represent the other side, even negatively, is slanderous.

Paul clearly has his sympathies, for which he shouldn’t be penalized; but it seems that he still carries a grudge for having been refused employment a year ago.

His treatment of the topic is not only unfairly biases, but sloppy and half-hearted. If the public is owed viable and credible alternatives to the mainstream media, then those alternatives must not only meet the mainstream on its own ground, but also transcend it by surpassing what standards it does manage to uphold.

In These Times has been too long in the making and has enjoyed the support and contributions of too many reputable characters, such as Noam Chomsky and Kurt Vonnegut, to allow such flagrant abuses of its reputation to slide on by.

Sympathetic to Paul’s stance, or not, readers and subscribers should be outraged over the shoddy treatment that Paul pays to such an important topic.

Role Call:

A Different Perspective

What's Really Progressive About Them

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