Dumping Our Mistakes on the World

The idea for this issue of Mother Jones was born three years ago, when somebody noticed that two numbers were not equal.

Mark Dowie, now MJ’s Publisher, was at home looking through a pile of corporate documents. They all had to do with an article he was writing (MJ, November ’76) about the Dalkon Shield. The Shield is an intrauterine device that maimed hundreds of U.S. women and killed at least 17 before a federal investigation forced its manufacturer to take it off the market. Dowie happened to notice that the total number of Dalkon Shields manufactured was far greater than the sum of those sold in the U.S. and those recalled. One million greater. What happened to those one million potentially lethal contraceptives?

The hazardous devices, he found later, had been exported to 42 countries — most of them poor, most of them Third World.

For the next three years, Dowie went on to gather notes on cases in which other products like the Shield, too dangerous to be sold in the U.S., had been “dumped” throughout the world. Last spring, with reader-provided funding from the Mother Jones Investigative Fund, we assembled a team to put together a special report on dumping.

Dowie, Intern Carolyn Marshall and the rest of the MJ staff worked out of our San Francisco office. David Weir and others from the Center for Investigative Reporting went to work across the Bay in Oakland. Reports came in from Steve Minkin in London and from Victoria Dompka, Barbara Ehrenreich and Mark Hosenball in Washington, D.C. We were especially pleased when Washington Post investigative reporter Morton Mintz, one of the senior figures of U.S. muckraking, contributed valuable material on drug dumping.

There is an excitement that comes from working in a group effort like this that is quite unlike anything else in journalism which is too often a depressingly solitary business. That excitement mounted, and we knew we had something solid one day in mid-summer.

It was the day the Africans came to visit. There were 12 of them, a delegation of public administrators from French-speaking Africa. Whatever U.S. official set up their itinerary may have thought this Mother something out in San Francisco was a respectable journal whose editors would extol the American free press. We did. We also talked about dumping.

The dozen Africans at first showed only the sophisticated reserve of their French civil service training. They asked polite questions or listened impassively. But as we described our research, they grew more and more animated. Soon they started showering us with information: facts, anecdotes, cases of shoddy goods forced on their countries by U.S. and French companies. The two American interpreters with the group, MJ readers both, were delighted. The State Department chaperone accompanying the party, a suave diplomat whose prep-school accent came through even in French, sank ever lower in his chair. By the end of the day, we knew more about dumping — and had new African subscribers.

“I wish,” the great South African writer Alan Paton once wrote of apartheid, “that I could write such words as would make the very paper catch fire….” We can imagine how he felt. When you have worked several months digging out the truth about something like dumping, you get angry. It is not enough to write some articles and then move on to the next topic. As an activist publication, we want to do something about dumping. We want to stop it.

The task is not impossible. Like many great white-collar crimes, most dumping is perfectly legal. But, unlike other practices, the bulk of it can be stopped by a stroke of President Carter’s pen, the rest by a simple Act of Congress. Neither Carter nor Congress will act until they feel some heat. To help light that fire, we are, on October 23, 1979, hand-delivering copies of this issue to every embassy in Washington. We are mailing copies to major newspapers throughout the world. We are delivering copies to all delegations at the U.N. And, on the same day, we are inviting all foreign newspaper correspondents in Washington to a press conference. We expect all this will stimulate some embarrassing questions for Carter and his cabinet in coming months. We’ll keep you posted.


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  • Adam Hochschild, the author of eight books, is a cofounder and current board member of Mother Jones and an instructor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley.