Since CBS knows that almost nobody who watches a lot of TV doesn’t watch the Super Bowl, even 60 Minutes didn’t try to compete with NBC’s Super Bowl broadcast. They took the week off while last night the Tiffany Network threw CBS News under the Super Bus and ran a “Road to the White House” rerun instead.
But on a normal week, when things like football are still in the realm of the secular and the serious affairs of the world really matter to some, 60 Minutes still rules. A case in point is a Nov. 11 piece by correspondent Scott Pelley and producer Solly Granatstein on the international trade in electronic waste.
It had all the elements of a classic investigative TV piece: Pelley described the toxic threat posed by the millions of cell phones, computers, and televisions thrown out annually. Known toxins like lead, cadmium, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride enter the waste stream — much of it exported to towns in Nigeria, China and elsewhere. There, the destitute use bare hands and chemical solutions to strip out the valuable recoverable substances.
Enter the apparent good guy: Brandon Richter, president of Executive Recycling in Englewood, Colo. He’s welcoming a long line of cars and trucks, responding to his promise that their e-waste would be handled ethically and legally. Then, the classic 60 Minutes catch: They show Richter how his waste — lead-filled cathode ray tubes from computer and TV monitors — was illegally shipped to China. Richter issues a limp on-camera denial, then gathered his thoughts to blast 60 Minutes in an interview with Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, and in a press release posted, then removed, from the company’s website.
Lo and behold, the EPA and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement watch 60 Minutes, too. On Jan. 23, federal agents from the environment and customs agencies, armed with a search warrant, raided Richter’s business, hauling out boxes of prospective evidence in what was called an “ongoing investigation” (as of this writing, neither Richter nor Executive Recycling have been charged with a crime).
That the feds singled out the same recycler singled out before a national audience is no coincidence, says Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network. Puckett has worked for more than two decades to track the global toxic-waste trade. His Seattle-based group, named after the treaty that ostensibly regulates such trade, has played a critical role in shining the spotlight on the torrent of e-waste now dumped on the developing world. Puckett also played a key role in the 60 Minutes story, guiding Pelley and his crew to a hellhole of abandoned and recycled computers in southern China.
It was BAN’s work that led to the 60 Minutes piece that led to the raid. But 60 Minutes got on the trail only after the Government Accountability Office did a lengthy investigation of the e-waste trade, published in August 2008. Much of the legwork was done by GAO staffers Nathan Anderson and Arvin Wu, at the request of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The GAO report identified 43 U.S. recyclers who may be involved in illegal shipping. To date, only the one that 60 Minutes put on television has been raided.
Puckett thinks the one-two punch of the feds and the media has opened doors that a small group like his could never do on its own. “They both really helped. Now we’re hearing it for the first time from our government. Prior to that, the EPA had been abysmal.”
The EPA oversees only one realm of e-waste, the lead-filled cathode ray tubes discovered in the shipments from Richter’s business. It’s still largely a free-for-all for the other toxic metals, plastics, and liquids shipped for haphazard disposal in desperate nations.
But one raid at one suspect recycler isn’t BAN’s only triumph. Its E-Stewards program, an audited effort to certify that waste recyclers are behaving legally and ethically, is emerging as the gold standard in the business.
Before leaving town, President Bush signed the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008, outlawing the shipping of products containing elemental mercury. The ban could help close another loophole in the international waste trade, and it probably doesn’t hurt that the bill was co-sponsored by the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.
So let’s look back at what it took in this case to make some small progress on e-waste:
- A dedicated band of activists, working years for little compensation or recognition, for a noble goal;
- Sudden scrutiny from a government that’s been in a regulatory coma for much of the past eight years;
- The spotlight of a mass-audience investigation — one that’s increasingly rare in today’s media, especially when we're in the grips of a tanking economy.
In the words of that awful Ringo Starr song, "It Don’t Come Easy." And much bigger tasks lie ahead. Thanks and congratulations to Jim Puckett, and BAN, and at least in this case, to Congress and television.
Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)