Journalist Schlosser
speaks about his work

 

One of today's finest long-form journalists, Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling books "Fast Food Nation" and "Reefer Madness," visited Elon and talked about his work in three sessions Nov. 16 and 17.

Schlosser has applied his exhaustive investigative reporting techniques in settings across the United States to dissect vital issues, including food safety, workers' rights, the war on drugs, the epidemic of obesity and marketing to children. He appeared in two question-and-answer sessions, and gave his main presentation Nov. 16 in McCrary Theatre.

He led that appearance off with the declaration: "Ultimately, this talk is going to be a critique of our nation's unchecked faith in the free market and the worship of money above everything else."

Schlosser's research for the book "Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market" unraveled the inside story of three major "black market" aspects of the U.S. economy: pornography, marijuana and illegal migrant workers. In the book and in his talk at Elon, Schlosser detailed the underground economy tied to the marketing of the three, exposing the greed and hypocrisy involved in their survival.

Schlosser related the long hours he spent finding and getting to know and build a reporter-source trust relationship with people on the inside of the drug trade and in the secret, hillside shanty towns that hide thousands of undocumented workers in the United States.

"This huge black market in the U.S. really made me think about our free market," he said. "You hear this word 'freedom' used again and again ... but freedom for whom? For the buyer? For the seller? The worker? The employer?"

He spoke in favor of legalizing marijuana, using statistics, storytelling and humor to illustrate his point that it is much less dangerous to society than alcohol. Putting the issue in historic perspective, he said, "The plant was associated with minorities and the subcultures of society the majority doesn't like," explaining that it was a way to control poor people, minorities and working-class whites.

Moving on to the topic of the black market of low-paid workers - usually immigrants from south of the U.S. border, but also from other nations of the world - Schlosser began with the fact that even those who make minimum wage as documented workers are being treated unfairly. "What has happened to the minimum wage?" he asked. "It's now lower - adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1950 - 54 years ago. The minimum wage peaked - when adjusted for inflation - in 1974. The poorest workers in America have gotten a pay cut of over 40 percent."

After reading a passage from his book that describes the 12-hour workdays and horrible living conditions of the immigrant workers in California's bountiful fields, he said, "No god that men have ever worshipped is more ruthless than the free market. It always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate and cheap."

He said the rhetoric of the free market is being used by corporations to avoid government regulation in regard to worker safety, minimum wage and other issues. "What we're moving toward," he said, "is an economy much like the former Soviet Union, with a few companies having complete power over the market, the workers and the consumers."

A student asked Schlosser what he thinks should be done about the wave of illegal immigrants coming into the United States. "You could build a 200-foot wall along the border and send helicopters chasing these people through the desert and still not solve the problem," he said, waving his hand through the air for emphasis. "But send the executives of the companies that hire illegal immigrants to jail for their crimes, and that will solve the problem of illegal immigration."

He encouraged the audience of students and other members of the Elon community to adopt a different set of moral values and a different religion, one that gives justice to the weak - as outlined in every religious text revered by those who practice any of the world's religions. He quoted a line from a follower of engaged Buddhism: "Once there is seeing, there must be acting; otherwise, what is the point of seeing?"

Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" spent nearly two years on the New York Times best-sellers list. The book takes an inside look at the fast-food industry, from the appalling conditions in the nation's meat-packing plants to the flavor factories along the New Jersey Turnpike that give fast-food its taste. Schlosser's reporting analyzes the influence of fast food on our economy, workforce, diet and popular culture.

Schlosser is now working on his third book. He says it will answer the question, "How does the land of the free come to have the largest prison population in the history of the world?"

The author graduated from Princeton with a degree in American history and tried several other aspects of the writing profession, working as a playwright, novelist and scriptwriter, before settling on long-form non-fiction. He found his writing niche after he pitched an idea for an article on homosexuals in the military to an editor at the Atlantic Monthly. Instead, he was assigned to write about the New York City Bomb Squad after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. That was followed with other successful assignments, including an article about the fast-food industry that he later expanded into his first book.

His second book was inspired by Atlantic articles on marijuana laws in America and illegal immigration in California. His two-part series, "Reefer Madness" and "Marijuana and the Law" (Atlantic Monthly, August and September, 1994), won a National Magazine Award for reporting, and his article, "In the Strawberry Fields" (Atlantic Monthly, November 1995), received a Sidney Hillman Foundation award.

 

 

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Last Modified:  11/17/04
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