Washington Post Carnival Story: Nicely Written, Terribly Reported

By Jerry Kammer on January 6, 2014

A front-page story in Friday's Washington Post presented a glowing report about the prominence of migrant workers from Mexico in the U.S. carnival industry. It marveled at the energy of the workers, who come to the U.S, on H-2B visas. It described how the money they sent home had "helped transform" the small town of Tlapacoyan in the coastal state of Veracruz. Reporter Joshua Partlow quoted one carnival manager as saying that without them "we'd be out of business."

The story is a good read. Partlow has a bright, fluid writing style. But like many reporters who admire the migrant work ethic and the diversity they bring to the workplace, he failed to engage the less appealing reality that there is often a downside to stories of migrant labor. The unpleasant reality of the carnival labor market is that it is also a story about the degradation of the American workplace and the manipulation of U.S. visa policy by politically active employers eager to jettison American workers.

Partlow's story runs for more than 1,500 words. But he skipped with remarkable brevity past the unpleasantness. "Researchers have found that pay often falls below minimum wage and workers don't receive overtime pay," he acknowledged without elaboration. Four paragraphs later, he noted that "Critics of the industry have described the housing as cramped and unsanitary."

If Partlow weren't so enthralled by the story, he would have quoted from a scathing investigative report published in a joint effort of the Clinical Program of American University Washington College of Law and the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante. Remarkably, he made no mention of the report, even though the online version of the story includes a hotlink to it.

The report is hardly old news. It was published last February and is titled "Taken for a Ride: Migrant Workers in the U.S. Fair and Carnival Industry". Indeed, Partlow's story is far older news. For although the headline hyped it as showing the "new face of the carny," Partlow featured a recruiter who has been bringing workers from Mexico since 1978.

The investigative report offered this sobering assessment of the program that brings the carnival workers here with H-2B visas:

As a result of inadequate government oversight and enforcement of existing laws, coupled with workers' limited access to exercise their rights by filing complaints regarding employment and safety violations, employers continue to bring worker to the U.S. and place them in deplorable work and living conditions with almost absolute impunity.

While the Post story was brightly written, it was badly reported. It amounted to praising with faint critique.

The investigative report, by contrast, was stark and detailed. It alleged that the workers "often live in substandard and overcrowded housing prone to insect infestations and the spread of disease. Housing frequently lacks refrigeration or cooking facilities for workers to prepare their own food and often lacks adequate bathing and waste facilities."

Is it any wonder why this program would be so attractive to employers? Why would they look for American workers, who might demand a living wage and decent working conditions? Why hire them by ones or twos when they can tap hometown connections in a poor region of Veracruz state and have access to hundreds of people who live in an area where $300 a week is a fortune? Why pay for American workers when you can buy American politicians who will help you bring in foreign labor?

The investigative report added a telling detail about the foreign carnies, reporting that they "justifiably fear that protesting or complaining about working conditions will lead them to be targeted for retaliation and loss of employment opportunities in future seasons."

It is certainly true that U.S. carnival workers do not have the best of reputations. Carnival managers complain that the type of people they tend to attract often have issues with poor work habits and illegal drugs. But when the pay is so low and the working conditions so bad, this becomes a self-fulfilling condemnation of American workers.

Partlow heaped insult onto the injury with a quotation from a carnival manager who issued a sweeping condemnation of Americans as indolent and sullen: "'In the U.S, there's no caring anymore,' she griped. 'Nobody goes out of their way to do something for somebody.'" Why, in Mexico, she constantly hears "Buenos dias" and "Buenas noches." But, she insists, "Not in America. You know, people don't even look up and smile with you."

What rationalizing baloney wrapped up as sociological critique! Note to Partlow: David Brooks of the New York Times is not so despairing of his countrymen, especially those in the heartland. Brooks describes "the incredible niceness of the people" in the Midwest, where "Everyone is so energetically nice to you all the time you feel you have to be energetically nice to them back."

The investigative report cited the work of the carnival industry's trade group, the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. It reported that the group has lobbied to stall new "regulations that would improve aspects of the H-2B program that leave workers vulnerable to employer misconduct." It said the OABA complained that was being attacked by the Obama administration, labor unions, and worker rights groups.

The OABA certainly has no reason to complain about the Washington Post. The newspaper's long-standing, hard-earned, and well-deserved reputation for tough-minded and fearless investigative reporting took a hit last week. The carny story was little more than an advertorial.