Transcript

344:

The Competition
Transcript

Originally aired 11.30.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/344

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Some businesses and some businessmen just press things further than other people are willing to go. John Nash Pickle grew up poor on a farm in Mississippi, learned to work with steel, started his own company in 1972 with a few thousand dollars. And he did well. The John Pickle Company became a multimillion-dollar business based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They manufactured these huge 200-ton steel tanks that are used in the oil business and other big industrial processes. Until the 1990s, reporter John Bowe says, when Pickle found himself competing against foreign companies who were stealing a lot of his potential customers.

John Bowe

Even down the road, a few miles from him, they won a contract that he was bidding for on a pressure tank for some utility company literally 10 miles from his factory. So he saw these companies coming in from thousands of miles away and he thought, well, he just couldn't keep up, because they didn't have all these pollution regulations and taxes and stuff that poor American manufacturers like himself had to deal with.

Ira Glass

So at first, Pickle decided to do what so many US companies have done. He'd open his own factory overseas. He'd manufacture his steel tanks near the oil fields in Kuwait, in a joint venture with the Kuwaitis. And the way these kinds of factories are run in Kuwait, apparently, the workers aren't Kuwaiti or American. They bring in labor from the Philippines and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Pickle hired a recruiting agency in India to find him qualified workers, which they did. They sent two groups of workers, 27 of them in all, to Tulsa for a few months training in Pickle's main plant. And then they were shipped out to Kuwait.

And this right here is where our story really begins. In October of 2001, Pickle brought over a third group of Indian workers, 52 men. And these men say Pickle did not hire them to go to Kuwait. No, no, no. They say he was doing something a little more spectacular. He wasn't just going to run an overseas factory in Kuwait. They say he also wanted to run an overseas factory right here on US soil, inside his own Tulsa, Oklahoma plant.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. You know that idea, "It's not personal, it's business," that what a company does is all about trying to make a sale, trying to stay afloat, trying to respond to market forces in the best way possible. It is not about anybody's feelings.

Well, today we have two stories about the places that market competition leads two very different firms. One of them, John Pickle's company, makes industrial equipment. The other, in Boise, Idaho, makes local TV newscasts. And in both of these stories you'll hear, things could not be more personal. There is nothing cut and dried and businesslike about any of this, for the people in the companies and for the people who surround the companies.

Our show today in two acts. Act One, Cowboys and Indians. Act Two, The Race to Number Two. Stay with us.

Act One. Cowboys And Indians.

Ira Glass

Act One. Cowboys and Indians. Now, we know a lot about the person who's at the heart of this story, John Nash Pickle. But you're not going to be hearing from him directly. That's because this story involves a court case that he's been found on the wrong side of, and his attorneys have advised him not to talk to the press anymore about it. Fortunately, before he got that advice, he'd already talked to a bunch of reporters, including John Bowe, who tells his story in his book, Nobodies, and who put us onto this story.

Now, as John Bowe explains in his book, back in 2001, John Pickle had an Indian company recruit 52 men for him to bring over to the United States.

John Bowe

And all of them swore in affidavits that they were promised that they were going to come to the US, they were going to be working for at least two years, they were going to be given medical insurance, driver's licenses. They would eventually be given the means to obtain a green card and get their families over there.

Man 1

John Pickle himself says, you're going to hire for the John Pickle company in America. He said that it's going to be in the United States.

Ira Glass

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] had a great job, what Indians call a permanent job. It's like a tenured position, but in a factory. He had over a decade's experience when he took a position with John Pickle. He also had a new baby. Pickle flew to India himself to interview the recruits, shake their hands, make small talk about their families. He could be charming. And the Indians were impressed that the owner of the operation would go to the trouble to meet them.

Man 1

He mentioned about the good accommodation [? of the ?] facility. And you guys have internet facility and the phone facility. You guys have 24-hour-- all the channels you can watch. Especially he mentioned about the different channels, you know, bad channels and stuff.

Ira Glass

Bad channels?

Man 1

Oh. He mentioned about porno movies. And I didn't know, regularly, at that time, what was a porno. So he said, it's bad channels. And you can watch.

Ira Glass

But before their plane left the ground, a few things happened that made the men kind of nervous. They noticed that the visas to go to America that Pickle had gotten them were only for six months. And the visas classified them as trainees, not as real workers. They were told this was just a formality. It was just a month after September 11th, and this was the only way to get them visas. It would be fixed later, which seemed reasonable to them. And a couple days later, they were in Oklahoma. Again, John Bowe:

John Bowe

And of course, they were surprised when they got to the factory in Tulsa and there is John Pickle's wife. She collected their passports as they left the bus. And some of them had the temerity to ask, well, why are you taking our passport? And again they were assured, this is just a formality. Since September 11th, blah blah blah, we have to do this.

Ira Glass

And then they're shown to makeshift barracks that have been built for them inside the factory. Dozens of bunk beds squeezed together, barely room between them to walk. The walls were flimsy partitions that didn't reach the ceiling. A bathroom on the other side. Again, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Man 1

My bed was very close to where people were taking showers and they go to the restroom. And I was sleeping in the nighttime, and the people would come through from the night shift. And they'd come about 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock. And they'd take a shower. All the water comes out from their wall and spraying on you and makes so much noise. And I told him, I cannot sleep here. And they said, no, we don't have any more beds. You have to sleep here. They put the numbers on the beds. So he said, this is your number. You've got to go there and sleep. You don't like it? Go home. We have tickets ready to pack you up.

Ira Glass

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] had 18 years experience as a metal fabricator when he came to work for Pickle. He says that, although he was surprised at the living conditions of the factory, mostly he stayed pretty hopeful. He was in America. Soon enough he'd get to bring over his family.

Man 2

We just lived there, because we thought, in the beginning, that that was just a temporary arrangement, because Mr. Pickle must be working on that, to find a good apartment or something. So I gave my benefit of doubt every time. I think good. Because I am a good-hearted man, I always think positive.

Ira Glass

But it wasn't just that these men wanted it to turn out happily for them at John Pickle's plant, they needed it to. Most of them had taken a huge gamble, coming to America. Hoping to transform their family's lives and move here permanently someday, they gave up jobs back in India that would be hard to get back, and many of them had gone deep into debt to come here. The recruiting agency in India charged each of them a fee that amounted to a small fortune for them, $2,200 each. And they'd taken out high-interest loans, sold their houses, borrowed life savings from family members. If this didn't work out, if they got sent back early, they'd have a hard time paying that money back. Again, [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Man 2

Yeah, that's a lot of money for me at that time. And if I lose that money, it would be a problem for me, because I borrowed that money from my mother-in-law.

Ira Glass

How long would it take you to earn that in India?

Man 2

Oh, there? Maybe 10 years.

Ira Glass

10 years?

Man 2

Yeah, 10 years to save that much money.

Ira Glass

Because how much did your job pay, say, in one year?

Man 2

Maybe $200 per month.

Ira Glass

As the weeks passed, things worsened. There rarely seemed to be enough food, for one thing. And they were making just $2 to $3 an hour, less than they'd been promised back in India, and half the minimum wage. And they were working side by side with men doing the same jobs for as much as $17 an hour. The company sacked its janitors, and managers tried to force the Indians to clean toilets. As skilled workers with decades of experience, the Indians were indignant about this. Nearly all of them refused. There was other menial work. Five of them moved a septic tank. A few of them did yard work.

And one of the most interesting things about this story is the possibility-- and this is a serious possibility-- that company officials and Pickle truly thought they were doing nothing wrong. Again, reporter John Bowe.

John Bowe

He really didn't think, I'm just a guy trying to save a buck. He thought, I'm a guy who likes to help Indians because they're starving. Now, never mind that he always refers to them as "the India boys" or "them Indian boys." He told me all these stories about how one of them started crying to him, saying, I never had anything to eat in my life but a handful of rice. And he had been to Mumbai to see the conditions there. And of course, it's true. There are millions of very, very poor people there. So in his mind, though, he was doing a great thing. He was really doing them a big favor. And as he put it, why not treat them like the guests of America that they were?

Ira Glass

Which explains why Pickle had the guys come to his house one weekend and showed them how to fish with a rod and reel, and why, at the holidays, he drove them around to see the Christmas lights of Tulsa, and why, once everything blew up and this hit the local news, there'd be moments like this one.

Reporter

Pickle says he's a hardworking businessman and has done nothing improper.

John Pickle

I'm kind of a halfway [? do-gooder, ?] I guess. I've had many people go in business. I've had people get education. I feel like I went over backwards to help these people, and I'm getting shot in the back. OK?

Ira Glass

And he really believed all that?

John Bowe

I think he really, really genuinely believed that. I mean, I really do think, in Pickle's mind, most of what he did was legal. And as far as the things that might not be legal, well, he was still morally correct, because the shortcuts he was taking were just examples where the federal government was being too intrusive in our lives. For example, he said, sure, I could have paid them minimum wage and let them all find their own houses, but I thought it's probably better for them if I just house them inside my company barracks and don't make them do the work of finding their own apartments. And so, because I'm doing that, I don't really have to pay them minimum wage, because they're still going to be making out anyway.

Man 2

There was a meeting. They said this a paradise for you.

Ira Glass

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] says that company officials would even try to say this stuff to the Indians themselves.

Man 2

Yeah, that's what he said, that you are happy to get this food, because in India you are dying by hunger. But that was not true, because we are skilled men, skilled full-fledged workers.

Ira Glass

At this meeting, where the Indians were told that they were in paradise, one of the workers, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE], argued with one of the managers. "When I heard this, I became angry," he said in a deposition later. "We were not dying of hunger in our country. I asked them why they did not tell us in India that they would be unable to provide the right food and accommodations for us. I told him that he misunderstood the life in India, if he thought that we should be happy with the insufficient food and accommodations being provided here. I told him that if he had told us the truth in India, we would not be in this situation, would not have come, and for this reason we would not now be complaining. I told them that to tell us to be quiet now made no sense. He became very angry with me."

Within weeks, the company told [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] to pack his bags. He was a troublemaker. They were taking him and another worker to the airport to be deported. Both of them ran away before the planes took off, and lived with Indian friends in America.

Meanwhile, back at the plant, Pickle fired 30 of his American workers, keeping the Indians to handle the jobs at a fraction of the cost. When there was overtime work, managers were told to give it to the Indian workers, not the remaining Americans. And all this time, the Indians were in a strange country, whose rules most of them didn't know. When they asked to be driven to a store or to a movie, often they were just told no, and they were warned it was too dangerous for them to go out on their own. Again, reporter John Bowe.

John Bowe

Theri bosses told them repeatedly, don't leave the factory premises. Americans have a hard time understanding these cases, because you think, were they in handcuffs? Were they tied to something? Was their door locked? In fact, it's a whole bunch of layers of threats that add up to coercion.

Man 2

They used to say, you're are not going to go out. If you are to go, you've got to get permission. There was a sign put on the wall that, if you leave this place without permission, you'll be terminated and deported back to India.

Ira Glass

Again, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]

Man 1

I mean, it was totally, completely, the situation-- you know, out of hand. We were all scared. People were scared to even speak their problems.

Ira Glass

Things continued this way until help came from right across the road.

Mark Massey

The John Pickle plant takes up almost a city block, so our church is on the back side of the factory and across the street.

Ira Glass

This is Mark Massey. Up until now in our story, every single person is motivated by the goal of doing better in the global economy, making more money. That's true for Pickle. That's true for the workers. That's not what motivated Massey the day he saw a couple of Indian workers show up for Pentecostal service.

Mark Massey

It's a little country-type church. And they came into the church Sunday morning. And they came and it was kind of-- you could feel like they were uneasy and maybe they were, I guess because maybe they weren't supposed to be there.

Ira Glass

And what happened? You saw them just-- they came in, sat in the back. And did they participate in the service?

Mark Massey

They did. But the congregation usually will shake hands and try to befriend any visitor that would come in, and get to know them more than just the face or a handshake as they leave.

Ira Glass

So Mark Massey approaches the Indian men. And he's a lay minister, did a lot of outreach with the homeless and teaching English in the Spanish community, so he is being very, very friendly. And one of the men who came to this church early on, a vessel fitter with 25 years' experience named [UNINTELLIGIBLE], says that this just made him suspicious.

Man 3

I didn't even like that, because John Pickle did the same, like that, with the smiling face. And he did wrong things.

Ira Glass

Oh, I understand. You didn't trust it when the Americans smiled and shook your hand.

Man 3

Yes, that is right. I am not ready to trust the people, because of all the experience through John Pickle.

Ira Glass

The men edge away from Mark, but he perseveres, invites them back to church, and back to church again, and to a church dinner where one of the guys starts to open up a little.

Mark Massey

He told me that he had a degree in electrical engineering, a college degree in engineering. I thought, oh, wow. And so I said, wow, to bring you from India, you must be making some good money, I don't know. And he told me he was making $2 an hour. And I didn't make much comment about it, but after they had left, I said I must have misunderstood him. He told me he was just making $2, and he's got a college degree.

Ira Glass

Part of the problem was the men's English was so bad. So eventually, Mark gets an Indian guy he knows in Tulsa, who happens to come from the same state as some of these workers, to come and translate. And Massey finally gets the whole story: their working conditions, how they're not supposed to leave the plant, their fears.

Mark Massey

I told them, if the situation gets too bad and something happens, that I had a couple houses close to the factory. So I actually left the key underneath the mat, is what I did. And I said, if anything happens, it's a vacant house. I just fixed it up to sell it. I'd bought it and reconditioned it, and was going to sell it.

Ira Glass

This is actually Mark's business. He had bought a cheap house in this sketchy area near the plant and fixed it up with a partner. And it didn't take long for the Indian men to get in touch, to ask if they could move into the house.

Mark Massey

They called me and they said that they had to leave. They were afraid the next day they were going to be deporting some people. And they were very scared. So I drove up. I had an eight-passenger van. I drove up outside of the factory. And it was kind of a scary feeling. It was moving a little quicker than I wanted it to. I didn't know just what I was getting into. I didn't know if I was doing things legal, illegal. You still had a nervousness about helping, not knowing if you were violating something. So it was a scary feeling.

It was in the evening, and as I drove up-- they told me to pull up on the outside. There was a little bitty hamburger stand that was shut down. It was closed during the time I pulled up there. There was a phone there you could park by. And I parked by there, and as you watched these guys, they were sneaking some luggage out and bringing it by a train that was set in there. There's a big train track that runs through that area. And they were hiding all their luggage behind the train. And then they were crawling and sneaking and bringing all their luggage into my van.

Ira Glass

Crawling. He means crawling under the fence that protected the Pickle factory.

Mark Massey

And there was a Hindu man. He was helping them. His name was [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. He sat in my van, and he knew I was helping these Christian guys who came to my church. So after he had loaded them up, he said, I'm Hindu. Will you help me? And I said, well, yeah. That's what it's all about, is helping each other.

Ira Glass

So five of the guys are now out of the factory, never to return. The next morning, Mark went to get the men's passports back from Pickle. And this is when the simmering problem in the plant breaks into full-out open conflict, because managers have got wind of what Massey was doing, and were putting their own plan into motion.

John Bowe

Mark Massey shows up at the John Pickle Company and sits down with the vice president, Joe Reeble, to beg him for the men's passports.

Mark Massey

And he sits in his office chair, kind of rocking back and forth, and he begins to tell me that we're living in a different time, in a different era, that if companies are going to compete, they're going to have to-- this is how things are going to have to be.

Ira Glass

Wait, this is how things are going to have to be, meaning we have to steal their passports?

Mark Massey

It's a competitive field out there, and if they're going to work in a world market, that they're going to have to-- this is how they're going to have to do it.

John Bowe

And so, while Massey is talking to Reeble, John Pickle is sort of storming in and out of the office, looking really furious.

Mark Massey

And he is totally out of breath. And he was very furious. He was very hot. And just seeing him, you would think-- in my mind, I thought, man, this guy is fixing to stroke out or something. He is just boiling, furious.

John Bowe

And what Massey didn't know was that Pickle was actually deporting seven of the men, of the Indians that he had deemed troublemakers, at that very moment.

Ira Glass

By complete coincidence, Massey had shown up at the factory on the same day the sheriff was arriving to escort these seven men to Tulsa International. When Massey comes to understand what's happening, he's able to get immigration officials to pull the men from their plane on a stopover in Atlanta. They're allowed to stay in America. Most of them return to Tulsa, where Mark finds them a place to live.

Meanwhile, back in the Pickle factory, security tightens. The men are all warned that anybody who escapes, or tries to leave without authorization, will go to jail. One of the guards starts carrying a gun. To deal with everything that was happening, Mark tried to hire this lawyer named Kent Felty. Here's Mark.

Mark Massey

I couldn't think of no one else to go to. My brother had divorced several years before, and this was the lawyer he used in his divorce case.

Kent Felty

It was really strange. I think I might have been the only lawyer they knew. And at that time, I don't know if I could have spelled immigration.

Ira Glass

This is Kent Felty, and when he looked at this case at the beginning, he didn't bother with the big questions that it raised, like can you open a low-wage factory with foreign workers on US soil? Or was this human trafficking? No, instead of dealing with that, he looked at what seemed like clear-cut, provable violations of normal laws that most of us have actually heard of.

The men weren't being paid minimum wage, for instance. That's illegal. They received radically different salaries and treatment than the American workers got, so he might be able to argue discrimination under civil rights laws. And when the men interviewed for these jobs back in India, they'd been promised certain pay and working conditions that hadn't been delivered, so there might be fraud.

Kent Felty

Well, the first thing that hit me was-- I remember going up to the lawyer for John Pickle and knowing that I have strong facts. And if I were in his shoes, I would settle this case immediately. And I told him. I said, look, basically, I've got you. And of course, the lawyer for John Pickle laughed and basically said, no, we're going to club you like a baby seal.

Ira Glass

Wait, were those his words?

Kent Felty

Those weren't his words. That was their mode the whole time. They knew that they had the resources and expertise to beat us up. And they did for a long time.

Ira Glass

Well, and in fact, it's a sensible calculation on their part, right?

Kent Felty

Yeah. We had great facts and that's all we had. We didn't have any money. At one point, we couldn't get-- Kinko's was calling us and saying, you have a $500 order of copies. Can you please come pick them up? And we could not pick them up. We couldn't get copies out. We barely had our filing fee.

Ira Glass

Filing fee is just the fee that you give the clerk to submit papers?

Kent Felty

Yeah. That's $200. And that's embarrassing to say, and I'm sure my wife will be upset that I'm being so candid about our finances, but it was a major hardship.

Ira Glass

But the more Kent Felty learned about the case, the more amazed he was at how easily John Pickle might have smoothed things out with these workers. Truly, one of the most remarkable things about the case is how clumsily Pickle ran this illegal enterprise. If he had just given the men regular raises, been more responsive to their complaints, he might have kept them going for a long time. But instead, the Indians testified in court to all kinds of humiliations.

One experienced welder named [UNINTELLIGIBLE], who'd worked in Saudi Arabia before coming to the US, who'd run a business of his own, described being ordered to clean toilets, which he refused to do. And he then was suspended for three days. He finally agreed to sweep the shop floor, so he'd be allowed to come back to work.

After half an hour of this, one of the bosses told him, this is not fast enough. You have to do it faster. They went back and forth about this, and, finally, the boss said, this is why Americans say that Indians are a lazy people. He repeats this three times, according to the testimony, and then tells [UNINTELLIGIBLE] that he doesn't like him, and that he's going to punish him. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] told the court how afraid he was. He thought of killing himself. He'd lost all control of his own life.

Many men gave examples like this, of what seems like gratuitously harsh treatment. And one of the biggest examples, Kent Felty says, is something the men faced every single day: the food.

Back when John Pickle met the workers in India, he made a point of promising good food. And he brought two Indian cooks with him to Tulsa from Mumbai.

Ira Glass

You know, the part of this I don't understand is, why didn't he feed them better?

Kent Felty

You know, that is the craziest thing, because this case probably would not have come to me on national origin discrimination or any civil rights claims or false imprisonment or fraud. The men, their primary complaint was that the food was substandard.

Man 4

In the first beginning, he bought some food, Indian food. And then after, he decided he's not going to buy any more Indian food. And he said, I cannot buy your goddamn Indian groceries, because it's so expensive.

Ira Glass

Again, Mark Massey.

Mark Massey

It was a crazy thing to me. I mean, had the men had adequate food, they wouldn't have become as discontent, because the food situation-- they worked hard all day long, and in the morning, when they cooked a little omelette with one egg, he would come through and cut it in half.

Ira Glass

No, no.

Mark Massey

Oh, yes.

Ira Glass

So each man had to half of a one-egg omelette.

Mark Massey

Half of a one-egg omelette. And then there were items that Mr. Pickle bought that he got special prices on, like old bread, old fruit.

Kent Felty

That He was actually rationing apples. He'd cut an apple into four pieces, and a quarter apiece.

John Bowe

After the meal, for dessert, they were given a quarter of an apple.

Kent Felty

He would ration milk. For the Hindu guys, that's a really important source of protein.

Man 4

I mean, I was strictly vegetarian. I had to start eating meat because it was not enough food. There were some of my other friends who were also vegetarian. They wouldn't even eat the-- I mean, hardly enough food.

John Bowe

And Pickle would mock them and mock them, and say, well, I don't know any grown man that drinks milk.

Mark Massey

The food provider that came to court to testify, they asked him, the food he delivered, how many men it would feed.

John Bowe

The guy testified that, for the 54 Indian men Pickle had brought over, he was supposed to deliver food for 27 men.

Kent Felty

So it sounds trivial, but all those things added up to, really, disrespect, I think.

Reporter

Just moments ago, Indian nationals working at the John Pickle Company walked out. Channel 2's Rebecca Seebirt is following that story for us, and she joins us with the latest.

Rebecca Seebirt

Just more than an hour ago, more than 30 of the men marched off the John Pickle Company premises and went to a nearby house to celebrate their walkout.

Ira Glass

The disrespect had consequences. Four months after they arrived in the United States, all the Indians who were still living in Pickle's factory finally left. Mark, who is not a rich man by any means, took it on himself to give all these men a place to live, and he organized churches and local Indian businesses to provide their meals. It took over all his time.

Ira Glass

And how did your family feel about it? How did your wife feel about all this?

Mark Massey

It was difficult for her. I had to pick her up and move her into one of the rent houses. And I moved 52 men into this big old house out in the country. So there was a lot of difficulties for her. And it was hard. It was a lot of stressful situation.

Ira Glass

But did I just understand right? You moved your wife into a different house so the men could have the house that you and she were living in?

Mark Massey

Right. Right.

Ira Glass

Did you know people who just thought, wow, this is nuts what you're doing? Maybe even people in your own church?

Mark Massey

Oh, sure. Sure. Sure. We didn't become popular for doing this, or even praised, really. There's been a lot of hurt and distance, people that we felt like-- and they were our friends. But I think sometimes there's still more prejudice in us than we really realize. Our churches have been good to help foreign missions, but when the foreign comes into our own district, our own comfort area, we're not always ready to accept.

Ira Glass

And what would these people say to you?

Mark Massey

Well, there were ministers, because we weren't successful real quick in getting help and visas, and they just felt like it wasn't God's will that I did what I did. Because we weren't real successful in the first part of our efforts to help these guys. It took a while.

Ira Glass

They're saying that, because it was really hard, that meant that God didn't want this to happen?

Mark Massey

Right. And my theory, my biblical feelings are different than probably most people. To me, the gospel and ministering and our faith should be very incorporated. And I know we can't help everybody, but I think everybody is given a little portion that they can do. And I know we can't turn around and change the world tomorrow, but just what's put in our little field here, our little corner, I feel like we're responsible for. So I felt like that was put in my corner.

Ira Glass

Mark did end up getting a lot of help, including legal help from Catholic charities. And there were private donors in some churches. And at some point, the federal government stepped in. A lawyer from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission joined the case, and ended up running a lot of it. At last, Kent could get his photocopies out of Kinko's, and pay for somebody to take depositions. It takes a year before all of this came to trial, and for that year, the men lived together in this house that Mark lent them, not working, not sure what was going to happen to them, and incredibly, most of them not telling their families anything, not even that they were out of a job.

Man 2

I just was lying to my wife a lot.

Man 3

Yeah, they don't know about that. Because our aim is to make our family happy.

Man 1

I told my wife in secret. I didn't talk to my parents. My father, he has heart troubles. And I said, don't tell him, because he's going to upset.

Ira Glass

Now, John Pickle and the people who ran his company have their own version of this whole story. And we contacted Pickle, Pickle's lawyers, and three other company officials, and none of them wanted to come on the air to talk about any of this. I spoke with Pickle and one of his managers at length on the phone. They mostly repeated things that they'd already said in court, but declined to say the same things on the radio. Their version of the story is that the Indians, all 52 of them, are lying. Here's reporter John Bowe.

John Bowe

All of the top brass at the Pickle Company supported the boss. And they said that the Indian workers had turned on them, and they were lying in a scheme to get visas and green cards to stay in the US. What they kept saying, over and over again, was these guys read about slavery, and they read about trafficking cases on the internet. And that's how they found out how to do this scam, that they would cry "slavery, slavery," and then all these do-gooders would rush in, including the federal government, and give them green cards. And they could stay in the US forever.

Ira Glass

That's because of a 2000 law called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. If you're a foreign worker in a human trafficking case, it says, you get a special visa, called a T-visa, that lets you stay in the country while the case works its way through the courts, which means years. So with that in mind, John Pickle says that everything the men allege is a lie, as part of this scam to stay in the United States. He says that the food in the plant was good, that the men were free to come and go, and that the deal that the Indians signed up for was not, as all 52 Indians claim, to come and work long-term in the US, but to get six months training in Tulsa before being shipped to Kuwait.

His argument did not carry the day in court. In a 100-page opinion, the judge found Pickle guilty of a laundry list of violations. There's fraud and false imprisonment, employment and labor law violations having to do with harsh working conditions and living conditions and the minimum wage. And the Indian workers won their discrimination case for being treated so differently than the American workers. In fact, the Pickle case has become a precedent, a way to go after human trafficking and forced labor in court without actually bringing human trafficking charges, which are criminal charges and harder to prove. Again, reporter John Bowe.

John Bowe

Pickle is assessed a fine of over $1 million. And I called him up a while after that, and asked him how he felt about all that. And he kind of chuckled into the phone. He said, well, let's just say that I'm a guy who lives with his wife in a nice house. And the house is in her name. And basically he said, if they want to come after me for that money, they can, but good luck.

Ira Glass

Recently, Kent Felty has started the process of going after that money. The $1.3 million that Pickle owes the Indians isn't really much cash. It comes out to less than $25,000 for each of the 52 workers. But even if they don't get Pickle's money, the workers got what they wanted in the first place, thanks to John Pickle. It's only because Pickle tried to exploit them that they ended up in court, and now have visas that let them work and live legally in the United States. [? Joseph ?] now pulls in $28 an hour, which seems typical for these guys. He's brought over his wife and his son, just like he'd hoped for. He thanks Mark Massey.

Man 3

In the Bible study, there is a good Samaritan. He is the one. You know what I mean?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Man 3

That is a good Samaritan. One man, laying down in the street. Nobody will help. The Bible says a good Samaritan comes over there and takes him.

Ira Glass

And that's what Mark was.

Man 3

Yes, that's what Mark was.

Ira Glass

It's interesting that, when you met Mark at first, you didn't trust him.

Man 3

Yeah. I had doubts. I had doubts, that's all.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Man 3

But he helped us.

Kent Felty

None of us have gotten a dollar, but I think every single person would do it again.

Ira Glass

Kent Felty says that his life's been transformed by the experience. His law practice is about immigrants and people who hire them. Mark Massey has also made cases like these Indians into his full-time job. Everybody came out better, except Pickle, who lost his business because of the case.

Back in the beginning of all this, Pickle and the Indians found each other because each of them had a certain stereotyped idea about the other's country. Pickle saw India as filled with impoverished people living on a handful of rice a day. They saw America as prosperous and full of opportunity and fair. In the end, not only was Pickle wrong about them and their country, he was wrong about his own country, too, and what he could get away with here. And the Indians, maybe because they were lucky and found all the people who helped them, it turns out the Indians were right about America.

John Bowe's book, which tells this whole story, is called Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

Coming up, what do you do when your gut says no, but your boss at the local TV station says yes, yes, yes? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Race For Second Place.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Competition. We have stories today about market forces and the things that they lead people to do. We've arrived at Act Two of our show.

Act Two, The Race for Second Place. When TV stations go after each other-- like when any kind of companies go after each other-- there's fallout in random people's lives. Boise, Idaho had four TV stations doing local news. One station dominated the ratings, a local NBC affiliate, so everybody else was fighting to be number two. Thanh Tan was a reporter at the CBS affiliate, Channel 2, and she tells what happened. A warning to listeners that this story mentions, in a very non-graphic way, the existence of sex.

Thanh Tan

Back in October 2005, I was working as a TV news reporter in Boise, Idaho. My station's closest competitor for the number-two rating spot was the ABC affiliate, Channel 6. We couldn't afford to get beaten on anything. On this one day in October, we got wind of what sounded like a really solid story. It had a clear, concise conflict, exactly what we like to cover. Our competitors got wind of it, too. We were two stations with the same exact information, same name, same guy, same everything. But we came to completely different conclusions about what to do with the information.

Let's start with the competition.

Scott Picken

My name is Scott Picken, P-I-C-K-E-N. I am the news director for KIVI, Channel 6 news.

Reporter

6 On Your Side has learned tonight, a registered sex offender works with children at Idaho Ice World as a referee.

Scott Picken

It actually started out, believe it or not, as a viewer tip. Somebody had, I believe, emailed me and said that they had become aware that Mr. Kimball, who was a registered sex offender in the state of Idaho, was I believe coaching youth hockey at Idaho Ice World.

Thanh Tan

He was a referee, actually.

Scott Picken

And so I thought that was kind of weird. So we checked it out and found out it was true.

Reporter

--a concerned viewer, and tonight we've confirmed it's true. Brandi Smith joins us live with a story you'll see only on 6. Brandi?

Brandi Smith

Michelle, yes, James Kimball does work here as a referee at Idaho Ice World. He's a convicted sex offender. He was convicted--

Brandi Smith

I remember the email. I remember going out on the story, going to Ice World.

Thanh Tan

Here's the Channel 6 reporter, Brandi Smith. She doesn't work at the station anymore.

Brandi Smith

And back at the newsroom, they were researching more about the documents about the charges, if I remember right. And I remember having to go through Ice World and ask people what their response was. And I could only get one woman to comment. And she was pretty outraged, as any parent would be if you heard that a sex offender was working with your kids.

Woman

Fire him. Get rid of him. Get him away from children.

Brandi Smith

At Idaho Ice World, many parents had this same reaction when we told them one of the referees here has a rap sheet that includes--

Thanh Tan

I was the Brandi at Channel 6's competitor, Channel 2. But I didn't do the story. The tip had come late in the day, and what I'd been able to find out was that Jim Kimball was a registered sex offender. The charge was statutory rape, but the case was from 1992, 13 years earlier. It was too late to look up his file at the courthouse, so we decided to hold off a day until we could get the details of what happened. Maybe it was more complicated than it sounded. I'd actually heard of cases in Idaho where boyfriends were charged with having sex with their underage girlfriends. Meanwhile, Channel 6 kept going with a second report.

Brandi Smith

--offender. He was convicted in 1992 of statutory rape of a child under 16. He is just a subcontractor. He doesn't work with the city of Boise directly. Also, he doesn't work with children directly. He's a referee, and the GM says at any time, there are at least two or three officials on the ice, and that it's very unlikely that Kimball would have any one-on-one time with children, that he would be left alone with them at all. Now, again, this--

Brandi Smith

Well, I felt the initial concern of a sex offender working with children at Ice World was completely valid.

Thanh Tan

Here's Brandi again.

Brandi Smith

But as the day progressed, I think we learned more about what the charge was, how long ago it had been. And by the time the live shot rolled around, I just remember voicing concern to my photographer. And I just kept commenting to Lance, we're ruining this guy's life. We're ruining his life.

James Kimball

At the time, I was actually just doing some work on my computer, and it was just before 5 o'clock. It was literally five minutes of 5:00, just before they go on the air.

Thanh Tan

And here's the guy who all the fuss was about, Jim Kimball.

James Kimball

And I actually got a call from an attorney friend of mine who was our state risk manager for Idaho amateur hockey. And he said, look out.

Thanh Tan

Jim's a 39-year-old hockey and football fanatic, husband and father of two. He didn't know it, but news editors all over the state were deciding that day whether to wreak havoc with his life, to dredge his name up for a crime he'd committed 13 years earlier. He was at a point in his life where he thought the story was behind him.

James Kimball

Well, my first reaction was, I think my stomach fell somewhere down around my toes. I'm like, who-- I had all these-- basically, I was a walking question mark. I didn't know who or what or why. And that night I think my wife was working a little bit late, so I phoned her and said, we've got a problem here.

Thanh Tan

So here's where, after day one of the Channel 6 coverage, the two stations diverged for good on the Kimball story. I went to the courthouse the next day and got his case file. I found out Jim was 23 at the time, his alleged victim a 15-year-old girl. But looking closely at his record, I found out he wasn't actually a convicted sex offender, as Channel 6 had been reporting. The judge on the case had withheld judgment for three years.

There were conditions. Jim did 90 days in a work-release program, took classes for sex offenders, and was on probation. At the end of the three years, the same judge dismissed the case. But Channel 6 wasn't reporting that part. Because of a technicality, Jim still had to register as a sex offender, even though his charge had been dismissed. The hockey association that hired him knew all about his record. He never lied about it.

I talked it over with my news director, and we decided this wasn't a thing, not in 2005. My station, Channel 2, never did the story, neither did Channel 7, or Channel 12, or the AP, or the Idaho Statesman, or the local radio stations. But Channel 6, our closest competitor, kept at it day after day. My news director at the time was Mark Browning. He watched it all in the newsroom, knowing his boss downstairs was watching it, too.

Thanh Tan

Did you feel a pounding in those days after the initial story broke?

Mark Browning

I did. And I remember some of the talk within the newsroom, and even within the discussions with our management team, said, did we miss one here? In our hesitancy to be ultra-correct, did we miss one here? And we still were very confident there was no story there. But it was hard, from a competitive standpoint. And in our situation, we were a distant number-three station. We needed wins like that, with so-called big stories, to be able to go to the people and say, look, this is what you miss by not watching Channel 2.

Thanh Tan

The two news directors simply had two different ideas about whether Kimball deserved to have his face appear in living rooms all over his hometown. My boss, Mark, thought the guy had paid for his crime, and there was no reason to humiliate him all over again.

Mark Browning

Big difference, in my book, between sexual predator and sexual offender. But you attach that word "sexual" in front of it, and it changes the entire dynamic with people. And I think what it does is it gives newsrooms license to hunt, where really there's no game there.

Thanh Tan

Scott, at Channel 6, he thought the guy basically had it coming. Jim was driving a school bus when this happened, and the girl he tried to have sex with was a student on his route. To Scott, this was a breach of public trust that shouldn't be forgiven, regardless of whether the charge had been dismissed.

Scott Picken

Whatever the legal standing, he did it. He did it. And to Joe Smith out there, the legalities of the thing are not really as relevant as the fact that this is a man who violated a trust, and did something that, frankly, I would have never done, and I think that most men put in a position of trust like that don't contemplate doing. He made a decision. He made a conscious decisions. This wasn't like an accidental act of sex. That's the kind of decision that's going to affect him for the rest of his life.

Thanh Tan

There was another angle to Jim's story, which is what allowed it to live on for days. Jim worked for a city-owned ice rink, but he was hired by a subcontractor. Back when he applied for the job, the subcontractor had automatically denied his application because of his record, but they encouraged him to appeal the decision, and he did. A state panel found that Jim wasn't a risk to kids, and he got the job. But city officials said they didn't know any of this until Channel 6 aired the story. On camera, they said they would review their hiring policy. So for Scott, the story became a TV news trifecta. It had a dubious main character, a public accountability angle, and the bonus of a possible policy change.

Scott wrote a memo to the staff congratulating them on their work. They had what we in the TV news business might refer to as a win. Brandi, the reporter, should have been feeling great. Instead, she felt awful.

Brandi Smith

This guy had a clean record from then until now. A judge had withheld judgment on the charge. A board of several people had decided he was OK to work with children. So where do I come in and say, no, that's not right? We were doing more damage to his life than we were benefiting the community. So why are we doing the story, besides to damage this man? And I called the newsroom and said, I just don't know. I'm not certain that we should go with this. And I don't remember if it was our executive producer or if it was Scott just saying, you have to do this. And I said, I don't want to.

And it was, you're doing the story. Get over it, you're doing the story. Stop complaining. You're out there. You're going to go live in 15 minutes. That's it.

Thanh Tan

Scott remembers the argument, but from his point of view, Brandi just didn't understand the bigger picture of what he was trying to do.

Scott Picken

Brandi, when she was here-- and I love Brandi to death, but she was extremely young, and was very inexperienced. And this is not meant to be an insult on Brandi or anyone here, but the fact of the matter is that in order to become a viable journalistic organization in this market, we had to step up our game some. And I think sometimes people need to understand that, just because you're uncomfortable with something, or just because you're being asked to do something that's not in your realm, doesn't necessarily make it incorrect or wrong. It just means you have to go to the next level. You have to take it to a new level.

Thanh Tan

For Scott, Jim Kimball was the next level. This story was exactly the kind of thing he wanted his reporters to be doing every day. Scott had been hired at Channel 6 just two weeks earlier. His bosses felt the station was going nowhere. Scott was supposed to turn it all around. His strategy was to make what he calls a hard-nose convenience play, which means a lot of short hard-news stories packed into 10-minute chunks. The station dropped its 6 On Your Side slogan, and became Today's Channel 6 News.

Scott Picken

When I first walked in Channel 6, I had never walked into a newsroom in my life that had as much of an inferiority complex as this one did. They just all looked over and they said, we're never going to be as good as the other guys. We're never going to do better. We're never going to win. So it was a very, very depressing place. And I walked in there and said, you know what, you're not only going to be as good as Channel 7, you're going to be better. Every day, every minute you're on the air, you're going to be better. You're going to work twice as hard. You're going to produce three times more work than they do.

Brandi Smith

And there was a lot of pressure. This new guy comes in. You never know what he plans to do with reporters. You never know what he plans to do with anchors. The entire newsroom was in upheaval, essentially. So there was a sense that everyone was trying to prove themselves to him. We need to stay. You need to keep us as a reporter. Please don't fire us.

Thanh Tan

Under her previous boss, Brandi was supposed to deliver a story from a live location during her shift, which was the night shift. And even then, she didn't go live every single night. Under Scott, that requirement tripled. She had to go live at 5:30, 6:00, and 10:00.

Brandi Smith

--On Your Side. We will have the latest for this story tomorrow. Reporting live in Boise, Brandi Smith, 6 On Your Side.

Thanh Tan

On the Kimball story, since no other media thought it was worth covering, it became a Channel 6 exclusive, and Scott made sure every anchor mentioned it at every broadcast. Scott says he was signalling to the public that the station was changing, and also trying to boost morale inside the office. They were kicking ass and he wanted everyone to know it.

Reporter

Brandi Smith is live with the story you'll see only on 6.

Reporter

--because of a story you saw only on 6.

Reporter

The move seems to be in response to a 6 On Your Side investigation where we found a registered sex offender was allowed--

Reporter

It's an exclusive story. Brandi, you've been all over it. I'm sure you'll continue to follow it for us, tell us what the exact--

Thanh Tan

They had Brandi go live from Ice World three times that first day. They showed an undated, grainy headshot of Jim, his hair short like a buzz cut. He looks uncomfortable. In later broadcasts, they showed that same picture in black and white, even though the shot in the registry was in color. At one point, the video slowly zooms in to Jim's eyes, fades them in and out. But the thing that really killed Jim was that they juxtaposed his mug shot with video of little kids skating and walking around the rink.

James Kimball

They're showing Mighty Mite kids that are five, six, seven years old. It makes me look like a pervert, and that I was preying on six- and seven-year-old kids. That's false. And so when I look at that, I'm going, wrong, wrong, wrong. To me, even though, yeah, I have a public record, but I feel in some ways they treated this as like a National Enquirer story, like this is going to draw in viewers. We've got this exclusive.

Thanh Tan

Jim's real story isn't the most sympathetic. He lives with his wife and two daughters in a Boise suburb in a modest house in one of those newer cookie-cutter subdivisions. He makes sure his daughters aren't within earshot as he tells me what happened. Jim says he was immature at the time, living at home with his parents. He says he struck up a flirtation with the girl, picked her up at her house one day. They didn't quite have sex, but it amounted to the same thing. He's pretty clear that he was an idiot to have done it.

James Kimball

I don't know what I was thinking at the time. I think the problem was I wasn't thinking at the time, and that's what led to it. I've regretted it every day. And there's probably not a day goes by that you don't think about it, maybe for even just a split second.

Thanh Tan

Before the story broke on Channel 6, things were going pretty well for Jim and his wife, [? Shar. ?] They were working on getting his record expunged. Their daughters were doing well at school. Once the story hit, it was like their lives had exploded. They had to tell friends about the rape charge, and wonder if they'd stay friends. They had to tell their nine-year-old daughter about Jim's mistake, years before they'd planned to, in case people were talking about it at school. They worried that if he attended his daughter's school functions, someone would report him for being around kids, and so he skipped his older daughter's choir concert.

Jim told me he cried on and off for days. So did his wife. Even talking about it now, she cries.

?] You know, there's a lot of people that we know, that we'd known for years, that had known us for years, that didn't really understand what had happened and why it happened. They misinterpret the charge. They misinterpret what he is.

Thanh Tan

What do you think? When you watched that news coverage, how do you think they depicted your husband?

?] As a child molester. And that's how people at my work saw it. That's how lot of people saw it. They saw him as a child molester.

Thanh Tan

What did they say to you?

?] Primarily, they went to my supervisor. And [? Jade ?] asked me what was going on, and I told her the whole story. And she said, people are asking questions. And I said, just send them to me. I'll talk to them, but--

Thanh Tan

Jim's across the room, leaning up against the wall. He looks ashamed and sad.

Thanh Tan

Are you OK, Jim?

James Kimball

Yeah. No, this is fine. Anybody else would have probably told me to go to hell. And rightfully so.

I ?] was ready to two years ago.

Thanh Tan

Were you really that close?

?] When this all came back to the front, like I said, it almost ruined our lives. It really did.

Thanh Tan

It must have been very difficult to stand by him during that time.

It ?] still is.

Thanh Tan

After a couple of days, Jim was fired from Ice World.

Reporter

A sex offender working with Treasure Valley children as a hockey referee is off the ice tonight.

Reporter

The city of Boise suspended James Kimball from Idaho Ice World after 6 On Your Side broke news of his past. Brandi Smith joins us with much more on a story you'll see only on 6. Brandi?

James Kimball

I think the biggest thing in this whole ordeal was they never once, not one time, ever called to ask my side. So let's not go to the source and let's not go to the person who actually did this. Let's just do a submarine job on him, and the hell with the facts. That's crap reporting.

Thanh Tan

Scott Picken, Brandi's boss, says his staff tried to contact Jim but couldn't find a number. In fact, Jim couldn't have been easier to find when the story broke. He's in the phone book. His address is online. But this is the sort of story where if you talk to the person and find out all the facts, it can kill the story.

Brandi Smith

I don't remember if we looked him up, if we tried to call him. I don't know that we did.

Thanh Tan

Why not?

Brandi Smith

I don't know. I'm sorry, I'm trying to remember. No, I don't think I ever called him. And that was likely bad reporting on my part. I probably ought to have tried to call him and get his side of the story. And I don't know why I didn't.

Thanh Tan

Months after she did the Kimball story, a coworker at Channel 6 told Brandi she should include it on her resume tape. Brandi didn't. It's not a story she's proud of.

I've been in Brandi's situation more times than I'd like to admit. I've had to cover stories I hated. I've made mistakes. I've smeared people's names because of those mistakes, like the time police gave me the wrong mug shot for a suspect on the run. Yeah. Imagine being that guy. I felt like a dumbass, but it was live TV. There was no time to double-check. You're sometimes assigned three different stories in a day, so at some point, you make do with what you have.

Scott stands by their coverage of Jim. He says they acted in good faith, and that's the main thing. Even as he watches the stories with us again on a DVD, it's not the content that bothers him so much as the production value. All he sees is how far they've come.

Scott Picken

Yeah, the graphics are ugly, to say the least. Michelle, we've done a lot with Michelle in order to change her image and change her look. We've actually worked with cosmetic and look consultants and what have you. We've changed the background of the set, got it less orange and things along those lines. We don't use three-shot desk sets anymore at all. And so things along those lines--

Thanh Tan

We've got this saying in the business, "We have to make the black go away," meaning we have to fill the news shows with something. Car crashes and crime are really easy to do. They don't take up resources, and they freak people out, get people talking.

As much as I'd like to say our station came out ahead by not covering the Kimball story, I can't. This coverage worked for Channel 6. It set the stage for their comeback.

Scott Picken

And the result of that has been numerous awards, an Emmy for Best Newscast, which we are very proud of. And a product which people are watching more and more. Our July book just came in. We are up 75% at 10 o'clock. And I suppose a cynic could say it's all about ratings, it's all about ratings, it's all about ratings. No, it's about more than that.

I have this analogy I like to use sometimes. If a tree falls in the woods and there's not a news crew there to film it, did it happen? And the answer is, well, yes, but who cares? The fact of the matter is is that there's no relevance to it, because no one knows about it. Your stories gain impact, are more valuable, when more people are watching them. And that's the important thing that you need to remember about the drive for ratings. It is not an unworthy goal. It's a very worthy goal.

Thanh Tan

If I'd had Scott as my news director instead of Mark, I could have easily been the reporter ordered to stand outside Ice World that day, showing everyone that disturbing picture of Jim. And I have to ask myself whether I would have had the courage to walk away from the story. I hate saying this, but probably not. Scott's convincing, and it's tempting to want to see the business the way he does. If ratings are any measure, a lot of people do.

Ira Glass

Thanh Tan. She's now a TV reporter in Portland, Oregon.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, John Jeter, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Bruce Wallace. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, right before today's show, I went to him and said I wasn't sure about doing that Pickle story. But he told me,

Brandi Smith

You're doing the story. Get over it. You're doing the story. Stop complaining. You're going to go live in 15 minutes. That's it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.