Commentary: This column was made in the USA

The Miami HeraldJuly 11, 2012 

I’m only me.

Never mind the rumors. These words were not assembled by a sweaty cabal of cut-rate journalists, working out of some east Asian boiler-room. “Fred Grimm” has not yet been outsourced. It’s just me. (Or, as a sneaky pretender from Manila or Mumbai might write, “It is only I.”)

The Miami Herald was not among the newspapers implicated in the outsourcing scandal that erupted last week after This American Life (Public Radio International) reported that a contractor content provider called Journatic has been cranking out “local” stories for the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and other American newspapers.

Some of these local articles were produced in the Philippines. Some under fake bylines. (“Jake Barnes” seemed to be a favorite fictitious byline among Journatic’s phantom writers. Ernest Hemingway, who instilled a certain code of honor into the original Jake Barnes, would not have been amused.)

Journatic reportedly employs some 140 overseas workers to write up the local news. A lot of Jakes. But no Freds. Not yet.

Admittedly, suspicions about the geographic origins of this column might have been roused by a tad too many references to barbequed poodle, boiled monkey brains and curried grasshopper. In retrospect, it might have been a mistake to compare Donald Trump to Mahatma Gandhi or The Miami Herald building to the Taj Mahal. Maybe Joe Martinez was not actually wearing a sari out on the campaign trail. But I’m sticking with Norman Braman as Miami’s slum dog billionaire.

Not that outsourcing news content would be all that novel. American companies have been shipping so many jobs overseas that the term “corporate America” has become an oxymoron. Last year, the Wall Street Journal surveyed employment data from a number of the nation’s heftier corporations — General Electric, Caterpillar, Microsoft, Walmart, Chevron, Cisco, Intel, Stanley Works, Merck, United Technologies and Oracle — and found that while they were cutting their domestic workforces by 2.9 million over the last decade, they had hired 2.4 million people overseas.

Apple, a company that once boasted how nearly all of its gadgets were assembled in the United States, has pretty much dispensed with the American factory worker. Last year, some 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other items stamped with the Apple logo were made overseas. About 700,000 foreign workers make iStuff. Meanwhile, Apple, our most admired American corporation, employs a relatively piddling 43,000 workers back home. American companies, in search of profits, have gone global, untethered to the national interest.

It’s not just manufacturing gone overseas. Cut-rate accountants abroad now do Americans’ income taxes, cheapo radiologists read their X-rays, bargain-priced architects draw plans for their new homes, low-paid loan officers ponder their mortgage applications. Manufacturing, medicine, the service industry — chunks of it have been outsourced. And now journalism.

But while you may be reading this column on an iPad assembled in southern China, I promise that the words were manufactured in South Florida. In 2004, I wrote what at the time I thought was an absurdist piece of satire, suggesting that I too had been outsourced. “A team of software engineers, call center operators, tax accountants and street urchins now assembles this column in Calcutta, cobbling together 20 inches of verbiage, checking the spelling, writing a headline and transmitting the product to Miami hours before deadline — a feat unobtainable under the old system. All this for a tenth of the cost of employing an aging American journalist. Without the mood swings.”

It was great fun, a fine joke, imagining South Florida politicians along with “gun nuts, cock fighters, gay bashers, no-helmet-by-God bikers, feral cat feeders, silk-suit lobbyists and others fond of e-mailing rather creative and contemptuous characterizations my way,” would actually be disparaging a collection of disinterested foreign laborers half a world away.

Eight years later, the joke seems a little less funny, and no longer so improbable, especially after learning that Journatic, rallying a workforce of foreign pseudo-journalists with fake bylines, had adopted my satirical musings as their 21st Century business plan.

It’s like a modern variation of that famous Martin Niemöller lament from pre-World War II Germany. First they outsourced the factory jobs, and I didn’t speak out. Then they shipped out the service jobs and I didn’t speak out. Then the docs. And then they came for me.

And now we learn that some major American newspapers really did join the outsourcing trend, figuring to save money by buying bargain-basement content manufactured by fictitious writers, many of them named Jake Barnes.

The editors should have considered the words of the original fictitious Jake from The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s Jake knew about all this compulsion of Americans to flee overseas. “Listen, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

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