Roundtable: Ford Layoffs, Positive Scrushy Payoffs

Topics include the Ford Motor Company's plan to cut thousands of jobs and allegations that former HealthSouth chief executive Richard Scrushy paid for sympathetic newspaper stories during his fraud trial. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist; and Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the NorthStar Network.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES, I'm Ed Gordon. On today's roundtable, ousted HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy allegedly pays for positive news stories. And Harry Bellafante speaks out again. Joining us to talk about these topics and more, from New York, Walter Fields, CEO and Publisher of the NorthStarNetwork.com. Laura Washington joins us from Chicago. She's a Chicago Sun columnist, and she's at member station WRLN, oh, in Miami today. You moved on me today, Laura.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Yeah. LRN.

GORDON: And from Laurel, Maryland, George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

Let's talk a little bit about something that made the news today. Walter, we've been looking at this time and time again from different companies, and yet again Ford Motor Company suggesting that we're going to see upwards to 4,000 jobs lost. One has to continue to take a look at the automobile industry that really, to a great degree, has been the foundation of the American economy for decades and decades and centuries, quite frankly, and particularly, within the African-American community has been a stronghold of jobs and wellbeing and wherewithal. What does this, again, say for the ability for African-Americans to continue to move forward?

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO and Publisher, NorthStar Network): Well, it's an alarming trend. I mean, these companies help move many blacks into the middle class with good waged jobs, good benefits and really, lifetime security, and now you're seeing the auto industry decimated, some of it by their own doing. I mean, if you look at Ford, the fact that they really bet the ranch on SUVs at a time when the oil industry was really unstable and the fact that now you see this downward trend in sales that's causing them to take these drastic measures. Then you have the free trade agreements that were struck with the auto industry. We had a lot of the manufacturing exported outside of the country. So it's sort of a double whammy, particularly for blacks in the auto industry. And Ford is not the only automaker that's going through this, US automaker. If you look at all of the automakers in the United States, the ones that are doing exceptionally well are, continue to be the Japanese automakers because they're producing cars that are fuel efficient, that are attractive in design and that consumers want. The US auto industry is really lagging in many respects.

GORDON: Laura Washington, when we take a look at the proposed plants that may be affected in Mississippi, in Atlanta, one in St. Paul, Minnesota, of course in Mexico, the outsourcing that has gone on in Wixom, Michigan and Ontario, again, the majority, a good majority, I should say, of those workers are going to be African-American, including-we should note-some white-collar workers, and when you take a look at the decimating ranks of those, many of those people who are losing their jobs, those "white-collar jobs" are the African-American executives who are still on the lower rung of the ladder.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Absolutely. There's gonna be a Super Bowl in Detroit in a couple weeks, but that's gonna be about the only thing that's going to be happening to celebrate. This is - these cuts are coming - they're also coming in St. Louis. That's another place that they're looking closely at. And you have to remember, this is the second round of cuts. Ford had to do this four or so years ago. They cut 35,000 jobs, five plants, and it wasn't enough, so the question is not when or what, but if it's going to be enough. We're talking about devastating and decimating local economies. And again, you say executive jobs, white-collar and blue-collar jobs, jobs that cannot be replaced and jobs that are contributing tremendously to local economies. That's why you see governors of some of these states and mayors in some of these towns trying to lobby Ford to come up with some kind of incentives or some kinds of backstops to keep this from happening because they know how devastating it's gonna be.

GORDON: Yeah. Hey, George Curry. Here's the difference today with these layoffs then of years gone by. When I grew up in Detroit, you were kind of used to waves of layoffs and then people would be picked back up. This is really, as Walter was eluding to, the changing face of the automobile industry that's going to have to get smaller and tighter in order to compete, which means that these jobs are not coming back in the immediate future.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor-in-Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Especially when you look at Ford. Ford has been losing market share for ten straight years and not just to the foreign rivals. They lost to GM for the first time in 19 years as America's best-selling brand, so they have some serious problems. We're not gonna ever go back to a day that we had before where we dominate the auto market, and a lot of these jobs will never be recovered.

GORDON: Yeah. Walter, you wanted to say?

Mr. FIELDS: People should also understand that it's not just Ford. There's a chain reaction here because the supply chain, all the suppliers that provide parts to the automotive industry are affected when the auto industry downsizes. So it's not just Ford Motor Company that's going to be hit, it's all their suppliers to.

GORDON: I had a conversation with Dave Bing, owner of... Dave Bing, still and former NBA All-Star and superstar, and his suggestion to me was--and he has become a great business magnet there in Detroit--that he's never seen the automobile industry, which he is on the peripheral of by supplying parts and the like, in the place it's in, and he really concerns himself with not only the industry in and of itself but blacks who are now trying to get into the business with those industries that you suggest, Walter, are in play so much within the industry in and of itself.

Here's an interesting story. George, let me come to you. It's your part of the country. Birmingham, Alabama, we're finding out now that during the Richard Scrushy trial, the HealthSouth CEO that was on trial for fraud, that he secretly paid, allegedly, upwards to $11,000 to have a sympathetic news stories written in one of the influential black newspapers, the Birmingham Times, through a PR firm, as well as the firm eliciting support from black preachers by bringing a prominent black minister into their fold to sit in the courtroom in hopes that the jury would see this as a sympathetic gesture of blacks saying, we support this man.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah. I saw the story in the Wall Street Journal, the one by AP, and found it disgusting. They're denying that it happened. They're saying, oh, it was for something else, but this thing stinks all over the place, and it's certainly not something condoned by the black newspapers. I mean, this is just a terrible incident, and obviously, there was some influence buying here with the minister as well as with the so-called freelancer who placed the story in the Birmingham Times.

GORDON: But what does this say, Walter, to the idea of really two institutions that have, over the course of the last decade, taken some big hits, and that's the church and the media. Here's a freelance writer allegedly accepting money to go easy on the stories, and we keep hearing about black ministers be co-opted by dollars, whether it be political, social and the like, to gain support for whomever is at the trough feeding.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, it's really a disturbing trend. I mean, George knows, probably better than anyone on this panel this morning, the historic role of the black press in our community, and when the black press is compromised along with another strong institution, historically, the black church, we really have some problems. And the fact of the matter is that more and more, the line is being blurred. There may not be anything illegal about what happened, but in term of ethics, it really is damning. The fact that you could manufacture news based upon what someone writes you in a check to try to draw support for an individual who may or may not have been guilty. I mean, that's really troubling in my mind, that you're using the criminal justice system in that way. It's a disturbing trend.

GORDON: Lest we believe that this hasn't gone on for years, we should note that historically, Laura Washington, this kind of thing has gone on, but as we move to--here's the catch-22--as we move into the mainstream of society, we did not see it go on as often in the African-American community. Is this just an instance of human nature when dollars are being throwing around, people are like a magnet, gravitate toward Mr. Washington and others on the bill? Or is this, in fact, a, I guess, a chipping away at the moral end of what used to be a community that was proud to be able to be in the game.

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think that money is operating here in ways that it never has before. We've always had elements of this in the media, not just the black-owned media, but all the media. Many newspapers and news organizations have been sale for a long time. I think what Walter says is very true: the lines are more and more blurred. There are fewer and fewer of us who are being trained as real journalists, as people who have ethics, who have standards. You have a situation with the Birmingham paper where the owner of the paper also owns a PR firm that allegedly was providing these payments. The owner of the paper is doing PR, taking moneys to do PR while he's also running a newspaper. That is a clearly a violation of any kind of journalistic ethics and standards, but it's very widespread.

The same thing with the church. In Chicago, many people believe that Mayor Dailey has pretty much bought off the black church because he's able to give out money, dollars, in terms of government grants to many black churches and he can therefore get those pastors to stand with him every time he stands for election, regardless of some of the concerns that the black community has about the way he governs.

So again, the dollar, I think, has become more and more predominate. I like to think of what Steve Harvey says in his routine, where he talks about the building fund. You know, he talks about the building fund. That's the building fund for churches. Churches are using those kinds of mechanisms to gain power with politicians and to becomeprofitable.

Mr. CURRY: I think that we have to admit that this has been a problem, whether it's been radio payola, whether you have Armstrong Weaver, no money left behind with Department of Education. Or whether buying stories in Iraq that this is a problem and the industry has to resist this in order to maintain its credibility.

GORDON: All right let's turn our attention to Harry Belafonte who over the last, really six months has really pushed the envelope in some people's minds in terms of his attack against the Bush administration. And others will suggest that he's right on target and unafraid and would like to hear, not only Mr. Belafonte but others, take the hard line stance that he has taken. He compared the Department of Homeland Security to a Nazi Gestapo and called the President a liar during a speech here in New York. His suggestion of President Bush being the greatest terrorist in the world was quite frankly, talked about this weekend over the course of Meet the Press when Barak Obama, Senator Barak Obama was on and he was asked whether or not, as often African Americans are asked whenever another African American of prominence has something to say, you almost have to feel like you are wanted to denounce that person to be okay in some corners. But, Tim Russert asked Obama about the announcement here and whether he thought it was appropriate to call the President of the United States the greatest terrorist in the world. Laura Washington, when you hear Harry Belafonte and see him taking this hard line stance, days of old we should note Mr. Belafonte was always on the front lines, even during the Civil Rights movement and has never held his tongue. The suggestion is that perhaps he's gone too far now, what do you think?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well I think you have to look at each case. For example the Gestapo statement, what he actually said is, as I understand, We've come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended. He's basically calling the Homeland Security, not so much as a Gestapo but an institution that is in his mind, using Gestapo tactics. And I don't have any disagreement with that. I think the value of Harry Belafonte is he's not running for office, he doesn't need anything from anybody he's got enough money. He can speak out and get attention to issues. And he's being rhetorical. I mean obviously he's using terminology that he knows will get attention. And the case that he's trying to make is what we need to hear. And the case is that we have spying going on in this country, have government sponsored spying going on in this country and it needs to be addressed. And he's been a voice against that.

GORDON: Walter Fields, any concern that he, as was Bill Cosby when he made his controversial statements, clearly there are people who disagree with these statements. But there are many, many who agree with these statements but they allow these people to be a lone wolf, if you will. What about the bravery of others who will step up and say, Yes, and he's not alone, we support this. Shouldn't we be seeing this more?

Mr. FIELDS: We should and historically that's always been the problem in these instances. If you take Mr. Belafonte's remarks, particularly from a global context, when you think historically about WEB DuBois when you think about Paul Robeson, who always managed to address issues in the United States from a more international context, this is what Harry Belafonte is doing. But like those men, they were alone in terms of raising their voices and what that does. It unfortunately it isolates those individuals and those individuals then unfortunately, become prone to attack from others for a number of reasons and not necessarily that statement. So I think, what I hopefully we will see is more institutions in the black community begin to speak on issues, particularly about Iraq. Because we've been really silent. If you look at the black church, they came out early on, some Bishops, addressing this issue of invading Iraq. But it's been silent for the most part, on this issue of what our country is confronting overseas. So I think you know from my point of view, hopefully we'll come to a day when we can have this discourse in the community that, raises above a single voice like Mr. Belafonte's.

GORDON: George?

Mr. CURRY: Well, it's not language I would have used. I understood what you're saying, particularly go to the comments where he said, he talks about being arrested and not being charged and you can be arrested and not have the right to counsel. This is the part I zero in on because those are those kinds of Nazi tactics and that undermines what America stands for and that's what he seems to be lashing out again.

GORDON: What of the idea Laura, that we aren't seeing, not that we necessarily historically ever have, but we're not seeing politicians today, statesmen today as Walter suggested, as many of the religious leaders of the past today, make these bold statements. I mean the people that come to mind immediately, Adam Clayton Powell comes to mind. You think of obviously, all of the ministers in the Civil Rights movement, who did stand for the moral defense of what they thought was right. You just don't see it today in sheer numbers.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Absolutely, I think that it's partly because the war on terror has just paralyzed the political class in this country, black, white and elsewhere, folks are afraid to step out there. There was just a story this morning in The New York Times about Bush's ability to really, marginalize folks that speak out against the war and to simplify the debate to one where, we're trying to protect you against al-Qaeda and anybody that speaks out against that is in favor of al-Qaeda. Folks are afraid of that Bush propaganda machine and they've been afraid to speak out because they're afraid it will backfire on them, and in some cases it has.

GORDON: George, am I romanticizing this too much? Am I suggesting that this kind of thing should be happening, that we should expect it from elected leaders and that's just not being realistic? Too Pollyanna perhaps?

Mr. CURRY: Well, two points. One, when King went out there in the war he was out there by himself, he was repudiated by other black leaders including Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. So, it was never a period where you just had this cascade of black leaders stand up and beign bold. And there are some voices out there, I think of Dick Gregory and Cynthia McKinney as being two that immediately come to mind. They are standing up and are being brave but it's never been a great number. And I suspect we won't have a great number these days.

GORDON: Walter?

Mr. FIELDS: Well you know I think if you compare this situation to World War I, when there were black clergy who were speaking out against Woodrow Wilson, because Woodrow Wilson was apparently promoting democracy around the world, but back here at home blacks had no rights. I think what's missing today is a convergence of voices from many quarters that will address these inequities. Because if we don't come to that we'll always have a situation where you'll have individuals like Mr. Belafonte, or Dr. King, or DuBois, or Robeson, who stand alone. And at the end of the day they will be suspect and they will be attacked, and they will be removed off the scene and we'll continue to have these conditions.

GORDON: All right, we were going to... Unfortunately we ran out of time, we're going to move it over to tomorrow's show. You want to tune in to listen to a conversation about a movie called Son of Man. It depicts a black Jesus and its raising a lot of eyebrows at the Sundance Film Festival we'll talk about that. Walter Fields, George Curry and Laura Washington, who joined us from Miami, WLRN in Miami, Florida, greatly appreciated. All right next up on NEWS & NOTES, Charlayne Hunter Gault talks with NPR's Raj Haday(ph) about the latest news from Africa, including an African Union Summit that's underway in the Sudan.

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