Looking naïve or foolish was once every journalist’s worst fear. Veteran reporters knew the perils of making assumptions, especially when writing about subjects they weren’t familiar with. Rookies were generally overseen by an experienced editor who could determine fact from opinion and would line check every detail in a story to ensure it was properly sourced or documented. Fear of being wrong or mistaken was a powerful motivator because it only took a few corrections for a reporter to lose their job and take an editor down with them.
Those days are long over. There’s no longer embarrassment or shame in being wrong, even when the judgment errors are doozies. Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed, two years ago proudly published the contents of what became known as the “Steele dossier,” a collection of unverified intelligence the Justice Department’s inspector general determined was false. BuzzFeed later published another report so erroneous that special counsel Robert Mueller felt compelled to break his silence and issue a denial. Smith is still editor of BuzzFeed, and likely gotten a raise or two since publishing two of the most egregious instances of “fake news.”
The Intercept, a feisty online publication co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and constitutional lawyer who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on U.S. and British global surveillance programs based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, earlier this year published a story headlined, “Beyond BuzzFeed: The 10 Worst, Most Embarrassing U.S. Media Failures on the Trump-Russia Story.” Greenwald, along with Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, are the only journalists I’m aware of not tied to Trump-supporting publications with the integrity and temerity to call out stories that justify the public’s distrust of the media.
Regretfully, The Intercept’s Christmas Eve scoop about the Bloomberg campaign’s use of prison labor call centers wasn’t up to the standards Greenwald strives to maintain. While technically accurate, it lacked some much-needed perspective and was an example of what happens when reporters make assumptions about things they know little or nothing about.
“Mike Bloomberg Exploited Prison Labor to Make 2020 Presidential Campaign Phone Calls,” The Intercept’s December 24 headline thundered, followed by these two paragraphs:
FORMER NEW YORK CITY mayor and multibillionaire Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg used prison labor to make campaign calls. Through a third-party vendor, the Mike Bloomberg 2020 campaign contracted New Jersey-based call center company ProCom, which runs calls centers in New Jersey and Oklahoma. Two of the call centers in Oklahoma are operated out of state prisons. In at least one of the two prisons, incarcerated people were contracted to make calls on behalf of the Bloomberg campaign.
According to a source, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, people incarcerated at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum-security women’s prison with a capacity of more than 900, were making calls to California on behalf of Bloomberg. The people were required to end their calls by disclosing that the calls were paid for by the Bloomberg campaign. They did not disclose, however, that they were calling from behind bars.
Using third-party call centers rather than volunteers to solicit voter support seems unseemly to me, but politics isn’t my bailiwick. However, what clearly alarmed The Intercept is that the Bloomberg campaign “exploited prison labor” to solicit voter support, not that it used call centers. While it’s possible the vendor Bloomberg’s campaign used exploits prisoners, staffing call centers with prison labor isn’t inherently exploitive. In fact, Bill Gates and other executives known for their progressivism and compassion have contributed and supported the effort.
Call centers staffed by women in orange jumpsuits have been common since 1999 when Congress passed the Prison Industries Reform Act, allowing federal prisons to sell services to the private sector. Several states followed suit. Although most companies prefer not to discuss their efforts because of easily perceived exploitation, several articles have disclosed that Microsoft, SAS, Dell, SAP, and Adobe are among them.
Phoenix-based Televerde is one of the leading companies in the prisoner call center space. The company, whose senior management is primarily women, doesn’t operate in secret or gloss over the background of many of its executives and employees. Quite the opposite. The company is proud of its mission to provide second chances to women who made poor choices and ran afoul of the law.
Televerde’s CEO is Morag Lucey, who previously held senior marketing positions at well known technology companies, including SAS, Avaya, and BAE Systems. Phoenix Business Journal named Lucey one of its Top Tech 2019 nominees. Michelle Cirocco, the company’s chief social responsibility officer who formerly oversaw marketing, began her career with Televerde when she was an inmate. Televerde is a participant in the UN Global Compact, which commits companies to align their business goals with universal principals on human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption.
Here’s a video of an inmate talking about how Televerde “exploits” her. I found it quite moving.
The Bloomberg campaign used a New Jersey-based call center outsourcing company called ProCom, which doesn’t disclose on its website that it uses prison labor. The Intercept quotes ProCom’s co-founder as saying the company pays the Oklahoma Department of Corrections the state’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage, which then pays the prisoners. However, the maximum monthly wage paid to Oklahoma prisoners is either $20 a month or $27.09 (policy documents differ).
I’ve previously advised a nonprofit company that operated call centers across the country. If my experience is any indication, people in the call center space aren’t suited to talk to reporters. My sense is the ProCom executive didn’t understand the story angle the Intercept reporter was pursuing and didn’t know how to address it.
According to this Business Insider story published in July, Televerde pays its prison employees the federal minimum wage, plus time and a half for overtime. The employees have immediate access to one-third of their earnings, another third goes to the Department of Corrections and Arizona to cover room and board, as well as fines, restitution, child support or other financial obligations. The remainder goes into a savings account, which in some instances grew to $20,000 when an inmate left prison.
Nearly 60 former inmates worked at Televerde’s Phoenix office last year with an average annual base salary of $52,089.11, plus bonus and benefits. Many are trained to use sophisticated customer relationship management software and have a track record selling complex, multimillion-dollar software and hardware systems.
Using prison labor isn’t without legitimate controversy, and it’s possible that ProCom’s business model is exploitive of prisoners. But the Intercept story creates the impression that private sector companies using prison labor is inherently wrong. The Bloomberg campaign quickly terminated its involvement with ProCom based on The Intercept’s storyline. That will make other companies nervous about working with companies like Televerde and participating in other efforts involving prisoner rehabilitation.
BTW: The Oklahoma prison where Bloomberg campaign calls were made from is a minimum- security facility where inmates are housed in a dorm-like facility. Contrary to what the Intercept reported, call center workers didn’t make their calls “from behind bars.”