I’ve always thought of journalism as a kind of religion. What journalists serve, our diety, if you will, is reality, as best we understand it.
That’s what all our sacred questions are aimed at: the 5 Ws — who, what, where, when, and why and how. But understanding reality is hard, because reality is a moving target, ready to change at any moment. That’s why we call our product “news.”
Understanding a story takes time, and especially when there are many answers to “where?” and “how?” and “why?” are hard to pin down, it takes a lot of people in a lot of places.
The global resources of the Associated Press’ enable the AP to report stories too big for almost any other news organization to take on. But what makes them spend those resources, spend literally years, employing people in bureaus or on assignments almost everywhere, is a religious devotion to journalism, to helping you understand the realities of the world we live in.
Like the divine cultists they are, journalists at the Associated Press know when they sign on, they will never get rich, and hardly ever get famous. But they also know, they will always be working on real news stories, and will sometimes get the chance to report stories, often as part of a team, that the competition wouldn’t even try.
Like the story of the global seafood industry, and how it has come to depend on slave labor, and how it has brought slave-processed fish into the American marketplace…through the wholesalers to the supermarkets to the high-end fish stores and restaurants. Fish that may have been caught, or transported or cleaned or packed by slave labor are also found in American cans and packets of brand-name cat food.
Our guest today, Martha Mendoza and a team of journalists from AP bureaus in Thailand and Indonesia and New York and Washington broke this story in 2015 and won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing how men kept in cages on a tiny island in Indonesia were connected to men working 22 hour days and being kicked and beaten if they dozed on the job taking Indonesian fish to Thailand where other people paid pennies a day and often locked in to their workplaces and living areas processed seafood for global export.
Finally, the AP team tracked packages of fish from those Thai processing centers to wholesale markets and supermarkets and fish stores and restaurants in the United States.
Then in 2016, the AP team revealed a new American side to the story. Piers in the Port of Honolulu docked fishing boats whose crews included people who by any American legal definition were slaves. But the slaves couldn’t be rescued, couldn’t even be let ashore, neither could this American connection save them from exploitation after their ship sailed away. Oh, and AP again tracked the fish these slaves handled and found them headed to some of the priciest markets and restaurants on Hawaii or in New York, Boston or Los Angeles.
Now, AP and the reporting team of Martha Mendoza, Tim Sullivan and Hyung-Jin Kim have an even more startling twist to the story. This time the slaves processing the fish are North Koreans, working in China, and turning as much 70% of their pay directly back to the government in Pyongyang, the one busy building missiles and nuclear warheads to threaten the United States. And once again, AP has interviewed the slaves and tracked their product from China to the United States, to the frozen seafood cases of Wal-Mart and the ALDI supermarket chain.
That’s right, Wal-Mart and ALDI may have sold you seafood produced by North Korean slaves to profit the nuclear weapons project of Kim Jong-Un.
Martha Mendoza is an Associated Press journalist whose reports have prompted Congressional hearings, Pentagon investigations and White House responses. She was part of a team whose investigation into slavery in the Thai seafood sector led to the freedom of more than 2000 men and won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize. She also won a 2000 Pulitzer Prize that revealed, with extensive documentation, the decades-old secret of how American soldiers early in the Korean War killed hundreds of civilians at the No Gun Ri bridge. She’s worked for AP from Silicon Valley, New York, New Mexico and Mexico City. She was a Stanford University Knight Fellow and a Princeton University Ferris Professor. A credentialed teacher, she has lectured in the Science Communications graduate program at the University of California for more than a decade.