COMMENTS: ABC’s Mercantilist Fairy Tale on Snow White Drive

Trying to break new ground, ABC departed from the norms of video journalism with a five-part series on the glut of imported furnishings that overwhelm our homes. For its Made in America series, ABC's correspondents and crew figuratively turned themselves into a team of Seven Dwarves to redecorate an average family's house. What they produced was more fairy tale than journalism.

The premise of the Made in America series is simple enough. Imports account for a disproportionate share of the home furnishings market. Domestic manufacturers offer competitive products, of comparable quality at a comparable price. An average American home can be redecorated, replacing imported goods with a Made-in-USA label. The upshot would be a rise in employment in the domestic manufacturing sector.

It is a simple enough story to report.

1.Find out which goods are readily replaceable; which replacements have competitive weaknesses in price or quality; and which goods are only available as imports.

2.Why are goods in the first category not dominant? Why are those in the second category not improved? Why has domestic production in the third category been discontinued?

3.Finally, would the extra cost of improving the status of domestic goods in any of those three categories be justified by the benefits in extra jobs?

That is not what ABC assigned David Muir and Sharyn Alfonsi to do in their 23-minute five-parter. No straight reporting for Made in America--instead Muir & Alfonsi both personalized and narrativized their coverage, constructing a weeklong moral fable with a story arc of discovery, disillusionment, rescue and reconstruction. Anchor Diane Sawyer dubbed the series Extreme Makeover for Homeland Improvement.

Imported into ABC's nightly newscast were visual tricks of fast-motion video, pop-up graphics with sound effects, episode-ending cliffhangers, and a musical score. You can watch the five-part series here, here, here, here and here but it worked better on live television than as a series of online videostreams. Each night, Muir was so intent on maintaining his narrative velocity that a new episode also contained copious, repetitive, recapitulation of previous developments. Between the set-up to start each piece and the cliffhanger to end it, precious little new reporting was delivered in an individual five-minute package.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with importing non-journalistic storytelling techniques in the aid of journalism. Experimentation and innovation are to be applauded, as a general rule. Yet, Made in America's execution failed. Instead of incorporating non-journalistic techniques to improve the quality of their reporting, Muir & Alfonsi compromised their reporting in order to shoehorn facts into the non-journalistic format of a moral fable.

Watch the reporting carefully and you will find a false premise, fantastical embellishment, tolerance for conflict of interest, spinning of inconvenient details, fudging of facts, a seeming willful blindness to embarrassing irony, and misleading arithmetic. All these flaws can be accounted for by the reporters' desire to have the facts fit their pre-conceived format. They had a rooting interest in their story turning out the right way and were willing to suppress information to make that happen. "We were worried about it," confessed Alfonsi, during their day-two cliffhanger. "At one point I actually looked at David and I thought: 'What have we done? Do we have enough to fill these people's house?'" "I have sweaty palms just watching it again. There is a reason we are not on Extreme Home Makeover," agreed Muir.

The Made in America series was the topic of an economic roundtable on ABC's This Week on Sunday, at which Muir recapitulated its narrative arc one more time. Briefly, this is the story:

ABC selected a representative American family of four, the Usry family of Snow White Drive (ABC News is owned by the Disney Corporation. Get it?) in Dallas, a street with "American flags in the front yards," as Muir put it. He chose three rooms in the house--the parents' bedroom, the living room, and the kitchen--and checked each piece of furniture and each appliance for its country of origin. While the Usrys were away, each imported piece was removed into storage. The family returned and had to camp out overnight in nearly-bare rooms. Next day, Alfonsi arrived to start shopping online for replacement furnishings Made-in-USA. Again the family was asked to leave so that moving vans could arrive and the three rooms could be decorated with only American-made furnishings and appliances. The Reveal, as they say in television, consisted of the Usrys' return, complete with before-and-after pix--and price comparisons between the previous imports and their domestic replacements.

So what went wrong?

First, a false premise: the most satisfactory way for the narrative arc to flow was for ABC News first to disabuse this family of their delusions of patriotism, before setting them on the correct course as future consumers. That is how anchor Diane Sawyer set it up: "We introduced you to a family eager to buy American. They thought they had, though tonight, David Muir gives them the shock of the truth." What did John Usry actually say to Muir? "Have you guys ever really thought what is Made in America and what is not in your house?" "Not until now." No delusions of patriotism there.

Second, fantastical embellishment: are the Usrys really "very brave," as Muir insists? Is Alfonsi really "the best shopper I know," as Muir claims? And what about the Usrys' pet, a black Labrador? "Even the dog was OK with it." The brave Usrys have a talking dog!

Third, conflict of interest: was ABC News reporting on or boostering for the capabilities of domestic manufacturers? Apparently, ABC did not purchase the new set of furnishings. Instead it seems that they were on loan from the manufacturers in exchange for free product placement. I say "apparently" and "seems" because such a deal was mentioned in passing, not spelled out. What Muir did point to was a couple of instances of bait-and-switch. A cheap table lamp and a cheap coffee table were included in the makeover for the purpose of the price comparison, but the objects on display as product placements were budget busters, hundreds of dollars more expensive.

Fourth, spinning of inconvenient details: conforming to his narrative of a successful makeover, Muir was scrupulous, down to the last dollar, in showing us the comparison of the costs of the before-and-after bedrooms--imports $1,758; domestic $1,699. When it came to the less successful kitchen, with its stainless steel appliances made by Viking and Sub Zero and Wolf, precision evaporated. Alfonsi merely told us one day that they were "high end and highly expensive" and the next that they "came with a whopping price tag." It is dishonest reporting to provide precise details when they conform to a preconceived narrative and vague generalizations when they undercut it.

Fifth, fudging of facts: obviously there are some imported objects for which no domestic replacement exists. Made in America mentioned three of them--two crucial and one incidental--yet, misleadingly decided to focus on the latter, not mentioning the lack of light bulbs* and the lack of a television set until the end of the final episode. The entire premise of this project would have been undercut if the Usrys had been told, from the start, that they would be consigned to living TV-free, by candlelight. Misleadingly, at the end of the episode in which Muir had cleared away all the imports from the living room, a lone Made-in-USA flower vase was shown on the floor, illuminated by the light bulb in a ceiling fan. The poignant shot of that vase should have been impossible since it should have been invisible in the darkness. As for the coffeemaker, whose search preoccupied Alfonsi, even if it had been found, where would the beans have come from?

Sixth, blindness to irony: leave aside the embarrassing detail that if ABC's Made in America project were to be implemented on a national scale, it would secure ABC's own demise. The TV exhortation to fill our homes with products Made-in-USA could not be watched in the TV-less home that conformed to such advice. The turning point of this particular tale, itself, was dripping with irony. "Enter the best shopper I know, armed with her BlackBerry and her laptop, Sharyn Alfonsi," Muir announced. That is her Canadian BlackBerry.

Seventh, misleading arithmetic: it was a coincidence that the fifth and final day of the series should fall on the same day that the Labor Department announced that 13.7m American workers are still unemployed. Anchor Diane Sawyer insisted throughout her introductions to the Made in America series that new hiring would be a major benefit from replacing imports with domestic goods. Yet the pair of statistics she used to illustrate her point trivialized what is at stake. At one point she stated that if each of us spent an extra 18c each day on goods Made-in-USA then nationwide hiring would increase by 200,000; at others she called it an annual $64. In the face of the unemployment of 13.7m, let us allow for the multiplier effect: say, buying American could result in 5m (25 times greater than 200,000) new jobs…which is 25 x 18c per day…which is $4.50 per person per day…or $18 per day for a family of four like the Usrys…$18 a day works out at $6,570 a year in extra spending for each and every household nationwide.

Such a massive reallocation of funds on a voluntary basis, without the power of taxation, is inconceivable and even then it would produce jobs for fewer than one third of those currently unemployed. It shows what a fantasy this mercantilist scheme represents. Yet, this comes as no surprise. It is only in fairy tales that trivial costs can accomplish massive transformations.

*UPDATE: during the roundtable discussion of Made in America on This Week on Sunday, it was mentioned that Sylvania has a hard-to-find line of mercury-free fluorescent light bulbs, which are Made in USA. It is a brand that is rarely for sale at retail.


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