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Interview with
Tyler Marshall

October 28, 2007

 

 

 

"When you pray, move your feet. In other words, don't just wish for things to get better. Get moving."-Tyler Marshall

 

Tyler Marshall is a distinguished journalist who wrote for the Los Angeles Times from 1979 through 2005. He covered international events in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Among his many awards is the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his three-part series about the global effect of our country's largest corporation, Wal-Mart.

Spencer:


While working with the LA Times you traveled internationally, often with world leaders. Would you share the experience that you find most memorable?


Mr. Marshall:


I did have the privilege and the access to travel a lot with people. And when I was the diplomatic correspondent for the LA Times between 1996 and 2000 I traveled mainly with the Secretary of State, with Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. And I gather you've interviewed Madeleine Albright.



Spencer:


Yes.

Mr. Marshall:


And then when I came back from Hong Kong in 2004, had the last trip with Colin Powell, and then a better part of a year covering Condoleezza Rice. And when I was a foreign correspondent overseas I would often be on the receiving end and the President or the Secretary of State would come to the country that I was in, and I was not part of the traveling press at that point. But I think probably the highlight of the trips that I took was the President Clinton 1998 trip to China . It was an 11-day trip, and as presidential trips go, that was a very long trip. It was an amazing trip. It was his first trip to China as President, and it was one where the Chinese leadership pulled out all the stops. It was an amazing experience. On presidential foreign trips the paper would often send a foreign policy specialist in addition to the White House. So our newspaper had three reporters on the trip. And I think probably the best moment was watching the live news conference with Jiang Zemin on live television throughout China , which was a real step forward for the Chinese leadership and an expression of confidence in the relationship with the United States and that President Clinton was not going to embarrass him. And in the course of the news conference, President Clinton got into a talk about the Dalai Lama. I think one of the questions to the Chinese President was would you meet with the Dalai Lama? And Jiang gave his answer and he danced around it. And then President Clinton came in and talked about the values and the virtues of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause, and without angering Jiang, he concluded his remarks by saying if you met the Dalai Lama, Mr. President, you'd probably really get along with him. You'd probably really like him. And he did this in a way that, as I say, did not anger Jiang Zemin .

 

Spencer:


He got his point across.

Mr. Marshall:


Got his point across and didn't anger the Chinese. He didn't embarrass Jiang , and to me that was a great example of Clinton 's skills as a diplomat and as the senior diplomat. He has great people skills.



Spencer:

How many reporters were on this trip?


Mr. Marshall:

The American Press Corps and the White House traveling press corps was over 300. They filled a 747.


Spencer:


Air Force One?

 

Mr. Marshall:


No. There's only a pool on Air Force One. The press charter was a flight chartered by the White House and it was getting on towards being full.

 

Spencer:


With every presidential trip, don't have two planes? Isn't there a press plane?

 

Mr. Marshall:


On a number of presidential trips there is a pool on Air Force One of 15 or 20 reporters, and then there is a press charter on larger trips and on the international trips. The number of reporters going has dropped off, because newspapers are under pressure and the costs are increasingly expensive. I would venture to say that very, very few, if any matched the 350 that traveled with Clinton in 1998.

 

Spencer:


How do you begin your day? Where do you go to get the news?

Mr. Marshall:


Well I begin my day on NPR at a little after 6:00 a.m. when I get up and make coffee for my wife and myself and get John started, I I get his breakfast and make sandwiches and get him off to school. So that's the start and then I get the Washington Post and The New York Times here at home. I did have The Wall Street Journal until very recently, but I passed that on to a colleague at International Medical Corps. I left International Medical Corps at the end of August. So the subscription went with him. And then I read The LA Times online. I was in the LA Times bureau last week and they had this special edition on the fires. So they gave me a hard edition.

 

Spencer:


Do you read anything from London ?

Mr. Marshall:


Well I think the two best foreign papers from my mind both are English, The Financial Times and The Economist . The Economist is a magazine, obviously, but both of those are great values and consistently excellent.

 

Spencer:


Bill Clinton, in praising the works of Peter Jennings, said, "Good reporters bring their life experiences to bear on any story." Can you give me an example of how this works for you?

 

Mr. Marshall:


I had four years in the Marine Corp. and that gave me a huge advantage in covering all the conflicts that I have covered. The first real war that I covered was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan , and then I covered the Bosnia War, the Iran/Iraq War, some insurgencies in Southeast Asia and the Philippines with resistance groups in that area, and then the Gulf War, and also the troubles in Northern Ireland . And in all of those instances the fact that I had a small, in relative terms, four-year experience with the military, was a huge asset in relating to the people who I was speaking on the military side to understand how the military mind works, and just to relate to people, and to process and understand what I was seeing. And I realize, because I'm older than a lot of my colleagues who are covering the Iraq War and not very many of them had served in the military, or certainly a minority of them had, and I realized that I had an advantage there.



Spencer:

It gives you a different perspective, a different outlook maybe?

 

Mr. Marshall:

It gives you an advantage in interviewing, because you understand the mindset that's coming at you. And it enables you to better assess and understand whether you are getting the truth, whether you are getting a line, whether what the person is telling you is just spin.

 

Spencer:


You have written extensively about economic changes in China and Southeast Asia . You say that America , at our own peril, is ignoring the remolding of the region's political landscape. Can you explain?

 

Mr. Marshall:


I think that one of the great events of this century is the emergence of China as a major global power. And I think that at any time in history the emergence of a major power is a very delicate and potentially dangerous time. The world did not handle the emergence of Japan and Germany very well at its own cost. America was born in war. It was a major power that emerged in the late 18 th  Century and the early 19 th  Century and continued to grow, but there was, as you know, a couple of wars associated with that. China is emerging, re-emerging as a major power in East Asia at a time when the United States is distracted, almost a disproportionate amount of attention and energy, and the best minds that we have in government are being pulled off onto Iraq and the Middle East . And it is not focusing on these much more subtle developments that are happening outside of the headlines. Asia is very far away. We don't have very many people at the high end of the administration who are experts on Asia . China is becoming a major trading partner with countries that matter to the United States and East Asia.

I did a story last year just looking at the relationships that U.S. treaty allies have with China . We have a good relationship with these countries because we have treaty alliances with them, Thailand , the Philippines , South Korea , Australia . They're our buddies in that part of the world and what's happening is that China is gradually, not by saber-rattling, but by increasing trade, engaging in cooperation, making it in their interest, making it in the interests of the countries that China is trading with to be a friend with China. Our message to countries like the Philippines and Thailand and Australia is join us in the war on terror, and the subtext is you too could be bombed. The Chinese message is hey we need stability around our perimeter and healthy countries if we are going to grow and complete our very delicate and very ambitious transition to a free market economy. So let's get rich together. That's the subtext of their message. China has a very, very enticing message for the countries around it.

 

Spencer:


We're not paying as much attention as we should.

Mr. Marshall:


And we're not. Time after time when I spoke with people in high places in the governments of our treaty allies, the complaint was the United States is interested only in its issues, in terrorism mainly. The complaint that I repeatedly heard is it's a one-way street. The United States is interested in its own issues. It's not interested in ours. But one of the things that we learned as a major power during the Cold War is that the way that we kept groups and alliances together was on a two-way street. Of course, during the Cold War we had security to offer. We had the great umbrella. You come under our umbrella and you're safe and you can trade with us and then we get some things, you get some things. It's a whole new game now and we're not offering as much as we could. We're not listening.


Spencer:


You wrote an article about nuclear power titled Iran Makes North Korea Look Easy . Recently North Korea agreed to begin disabling its nuclear facilities. What can we expect from Iran ?

 

Mr. Marshall:


A lot of heartburn I think is the answer to that. It's an incredibly complicated issue and North Korea and Iran were given a similar recipe during the first Bush administration. You don't talk to either one until they fill a set of prerequisites. Once they meet unilaterally and declare their renunciation of an attempt to gain a nuclear weapon and scrap all their nuclear facilities, then we can talk.


Spencer:


But that's too late.

Mr. Marshall:


A lot of people said so. Well what happened is that with North Korea the Secretary of State, Condi Rice, and her Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, decided on another option to continue these six-party talks and get an agreement, which they have. They do have an agreement and now they're trying to bring it home. Getting North Korea to adhere to what it says it will adhere to has turned out to be like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It's really hard. But we're a heck of a long way from even that breakthrough with Iran and the administration has been so divided since Bush became President that there has never been a unified policy on Iran . There's always been the hardliners emblemized by the Vice President and by John Bolton who was the senior State Department official in charge of arms control issues, and so he had both North Korea and Iran in the first administration. On the other side, there were people who were saying no we need to negotiate, and those two camps have been unable to reconcile their differences. So on most issues of major importance there is a presidential directive, a White House directive that declares the policy on an issue. There has not been one on Iran . So, there's been a lot of division here within the Bush administration, but the Iran issue is incredibly complicated. It has the Islamic dimension, which North Korea doesn't have. It has the Iraq War, which Korea doesn't have.


Spencer:


There's some denial on Iran 's part that they are even building weapons.

Mr. Marshall:


I don't think he's denying that there are facilities because the International Atomic Energy Agency has inspected those facilities. So the world knows that they are there. Now at one point, the Iranians said you're out. So they kicked the inspectors, the International Atomic Energy Agency out and said we are going to resume our enrichment, our attempt to enrich uranium.


Spencer:


They are claiming the uranium enrichment is a research project. And they claim they are not really building weapons.

Mr. Marshall:


That's right. And they are legally correct that they have, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. And the debate is what are you doing this for? And the Iranians say hey, all we want is nuclear energy. Our oil is going to run out. We've got a big population and it's going to, we want to develop just as you and therefore we need this nuclear option to provide energy. Well skeptics say well if that's the case, how come you lied to us then. You lied to us and you didn't tell us anything until we found it out. So you, unlike say France or Spain, who can develop its nuclear energy as it sees fit and is a true and tried member of the international community with its cards on the table, you've lied to us at every turn. So we don't believe you now. So what we need to do is to have the inspectors in there and we have to be able to account for every gram of enriched uranium that you produce. That's what we want, and that's where the tension is and the conflict is. But it's a hellishly difficult issue.


Spencer:


Some believe that President Bush's view of promoting democracy and political freedom throughout the world reduces danger to the United States . Why do you think his vision lacks public support?

 

Mr. Marshall:


Americans don't like things that don't work. And this has not had a very good track record. I think the idea of promoting democracy is a good one. How can you be against it? But it is deeply flawed in its present form. First of all, in the Islamic world most of the people who would gain in election dislike us to the point of launching a campaign to kill us. There was an open election in the Palestinian territories. Who was elected? Hamas. Election free, open election, most of the people who observed that election considered it fair and open and were for promoting democracy. But we're not going to deal with them. So there are lots of contradictions in there too. And with Egypt , there was strong pressure initially that bowed to open up the political process for real genuine elections. But there's an organization there called Muslim Brotherhood that neither the United States nor Mubarak has any interest in having come to power. So, it's really hard. It is a very enticing idea that is very difficult to translate into the real world of power politics.


Spencer:


In 2003 you were part of a team and won the Pulitzer Prize for a three-part series in The LA Times about the global effect of the world's largest corporation, Wal-Mart. How has Wal-Mart changed the world?

 

Mr. Marshall:


Wal-Mart is quite an operation. Let me give you just one anecdote. When I went to interview the President of Wal-Mart Asia, my role in this project was to see Wal-Mart in China and just to see how they how they did it. And so I got an interview with the President of Wal-Mart Asia, who was headquartered in Shenzhen , China . It's the border city just inside the border from Hong Kong in Southern China, and that's where they had their China headquarters and their Asia headquarters. And so I was waiting for this interview and they invited me in and I ended up in a room about half the size of this and I was in the President's office. I mean Wal-Mart has no frills. Their President's office looked like a small secretarial anteroom and it had a couple of plastic chairs and a table. Their annual report looks like a throwaway comic printed on not very expensive paper. When they travel, the senior executives travel economy class and they, if there's more than one going, share a double room. Keeping costs down.

So one of the ways that Wal-Mart has changed the world is by showing how you really run streamline ship and how you increase productivity. One of the things I found in China was you go to a factory and the factory owner has produced shirts of a certain type for say $9.00 each that he knows he can do that. Okay. Wal-Mart invites him to bid, which is already something because Wal-Mart checks its vendors very carefully. Okay, Wal-Mart offers him to bid and the deal is Wal-Mart says okay, I want these shirts, I want them for $8.00, not $9.00, but I want them for $8.00, but I want to order 10,000 of them. So the guy's initial response $8.00, I don't want that, and then hears the 10,000. Ten thousand, wow, if I shave a little bit, if I can just get this shift to work half an hour longer or these guys to work for $.50 less and this, and they start calculating and they say I can probably produce this shirt for $7.98. But if I have 10,000 of them, then I can make some money. And if I get this contract done and they like it, then I can really do it the next time. So they pile in and they do this. Now Wal-Mart has its codes, which it's very proud to show. Workers can only work so many hours a day. Conditions have to be clean. We inspect this, this and this. Well there's, it's a very cynical game because the people who order that shirt and who really know what's going on and know the market and know this area know that it is almost impossible to produce that shirt at that price, yet stay within these humanitarian guidelines or these workers' rights guidelines.

 

Spencer:


So what happened?

Mr. Marshall:


It gets squeezed. And either the producer stays within the guidelines and loses money and hopes to get it back on the next contract if Wal-Mart likes what he did, or he cheats. And people look the other way until somebody gets caught or some incident raises a light to it. But the point is that it creates a huge, huge pressure and it is a textbook example of how you can get a toy or a shirt at a price you never thought was possible. That's everyday low prices, but it has a cost to it and the cost is on occasion really horrific working conditions in the production areas of China or Cambodia or Sri Lanka or Honduras or wherever Wal-Mart choose to by its goods. But the same thing happens on the labor side here. Spencer: To the workers at Wal-Mart? The workers at Wal-Mart, they don't get paid very well. They've just been forced by Maryland to offer health insurance to their employees. It's, health insurance at an affordable, I can't remember what the details are, but the State of Maryland legislated in a way that made Wal-Mart upgrade its package. I think that's probably the way. And my favorite anecdote of that whole series was the guy who was at Wal-Mart and was fired for trying to start a union. Wal-Mart will deny that, but he was fired and he was also trying to unionize the shop. What happened was that the guy went out on unemployment, had very little money, and had a family to support. The only way he could get what he needed on the low amount of money that he had was to shop at Wal-Mart, and that is the contradiction. Spencer: How would it affect our economy if Wal-Mart allowed manufacturers to produce their products in the U.S. rather than in China ? Well you get a lot higher prices. You cannot pay somebody at a factory on Oakland , California what you would pay them in China .


Spencer:


What would happen to our economy in America in general?

Mr. Marshall:


Well, it would create inflation. There would be inflationary pressures. Wal-Mart is the biggest company in the country at the moment, but it would not be for very long, because Target and K-Mart would keep producing in China and fewer and fewer people would go shop at Wal-Mart. 


Spencer:


But that would create so many more jobs in the U.S.

Mr. Marshall:


Well it would create some jobs for a while. So you give, you start this factory. You create the jobs, but then people start shopping, because your shirt for, that you squeezed down to $8.00 is suddenly not $12.00, but $20.00 and you've got to sell it for $22.00. So your $11.95 shirt that was on the rack is suddenly double the price. So the people that shopped at Wal-Mart will go across the street to K-Mart. If you said okay, well everybody has to do this, then you would have tremendous inflationary pressures and you would not have a very productive economy. America is more efficient in producing services or high end manufactured goods than it is in producing low-end manufactured goods that are price sensitive, such as a shirt or commodity products. That's why all those jobs have migrated. That briefcase that you have there, or certainly this recorder is probably produced in China . Certainly the computer that you and I will use is. They are produced there because that's the cheapest place that there is to produce them. It's a global economy, for better or for worse. And so it's cheaper now in our generation to produce that shirt, that computer, tens of thousands of miles away and bring it here, than it is to produce it here, and that's the economic equation at work.


Spencer:


Suppliers meet with Wal-Mart buyers at their corporate office in Bentonville. One former Wal-Mart manager said, "It is very one sided and there is no negotiation. If you want to do business with Wal-Mart, if you want to stay in business, you have to do it their way." Has Wal-Mart reversed a 100-year trend where the manufacturer had the power?


Mr. Marshall:


Yes, to a considerable degree, because of their power to purchase. They can, they are so big. A factory that can produce maybe 20,000 shirts a month, and this buyer from Wal-Mart comes in and says I'll buy all 20,000, but you've got to produce them at this price. That's a huge leverage and it's that sense that they command so much of the market that you want to be in there with them. If you can get your product on a Wal-Mart shelf you've sold thousands of them just by doing that, and they understand that. I've been in those buying areas in Shenzhen and there are long tables and the buyers are invited to come in, or the vendors are invited to come in and display their goods, and the Wal-Mart buyers just come down and say yes, no, yes, no. And they have the ability to command it and it is because of their size and their clout. That's how they do it.

 

Spencer:


Just being there, that's one for the suppliers.

Mr. Marshall:


It is a huge, if you're producing cases of tape recorders, you want to sell them. This is an outfit that can sell thousands for you, if you can put them on their shelves at a price or in a way that you can make a living from it. And that's the equation. That's the tension. And I'm sitting here with this thinking that maybe I can sell a million. This is huge. Maybe I can shave a few pennies off. Maybe I can take that a little bit lower and suddenly you are going lower than you ever thought you could.


Spencer:

Just because of the volume?


Mr. Marshall:

Yeah, just cause of the volume. But at the end of the day the consumer is the winner.


Spencer:


Because they get the low price.

Mr. Marshall:


Because they get the low price, but the consumer is also a laborer sometimes, and his job may have been lost because the guy who is producing that tape recorder says instead of producing those in Arizona , if I outsource that to China I can produce that component cheaper. And so I let off those 400 guys in Scottsdale or wherever and start producing in Shenzhen and I can produce this product instead of for $50.00 for $48.20. And that's my profit margin. And so it's complicated. So the consumer wins, but some who worked at that factory lost.


Spencer:

Rubbermaid's largest customer was Wal-Mart. The profits kept growing until the price of plastic rose. Wal-Mart did not allow a price increase, sparking a vast decline for Rubbermaid. Was this fair business?


Mr. Marshall:

Well, if you are in business you are going to do what you can within the rule of law. Yeah, unless it's monopoly, I would say yes it is fair business. Why should I pay anymore for it?

 

Spencer:


After leaving The LA Times in 2005 you went to help lead the International Medical Corps. Can you tell me about the mission and your experience?

 

Mr. Marshall:


It was an interesting experience. This was my first job outside of journalism in probably 40 years and the humanitarian aid world, that community is a very interesting one. International Medical Corps is based in Los Angeles . It now works in about 25 countries, has worked in about 40 countries. What makes it different is that while a large number of organizations go into a crisis, say Darfur, and they deliver food aid, they deliver medical assistance, primary healthcare and they help in certain other areas and then they leave when the crisis ends. What International Medical Corps tries to do and has done successfully in the large number of cases is to go and help during the emergency, during the conflict or the natural disaster say in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, or Indonesia after the tsunami, but stay long enough to transfer some of these skills, to train local people in the basics of delivering primary healthcare. They are not going to educate medical doctors to perform complicated operations, but they do train nurses and midwives and traditional birth attendants and what we would call paramedics. And after a certain amount of training they are able to dispense basic primary healthcare in their own community and communities become self-sustaining. And that is a very worthwhile and noble goal and it does far more for a community than just give it healthcare. It gives it confidence, gives it some pride. It gives it a lot of things that are stabilizing factors, that are just intangibles.


Spencer:


So what was your role?

Mr. Marshall:


I was the Director of Communication, so my role was to get the message out and to promote the image of the organization and to try to define how the organization was different from others.


Spencer:


The crisis in Darfur is recognized as the worst humanitarian emergency in the world today. While there are certainly not solutions, one wonders if there is any solution. If you had the ability to set a plan into action, one that would work, what would you do?


Mr. Marshall:


Somebody said that you put everybody in a room and you don't let them out until they have an agreement. I came out of Darfur with the feeling that it was the most complicated, complex, hopeless situation that I had ever been a part of, had ever seen as a correspondent. There are now 17 different rebel factions. I noticed in this morning's paper that the Sudanese government at the peace talks in Libya declared a unilateral cease fire. I'm not sure what that means, because the main perpetrators of violence against the rebels are the militia called the Janjaweed. The government will say the Janjaweed attacked the village, not them. So, it's really complicated. It is now Arab against Arab. The different Janjaweed militias have decided they haven't really done very well over the last four years, so some of those commanders are starting to go freelance and just engage in routine banditry. As I say, the rebels have split, split, and split again, and there are now about 17 different groups.

The only way that you can begin to make any headway is to force them to find some way of making it in their interest to unify as a group at least at the negotiating table. I don't know what that could be. And then you have to have the major players, the United States , China , France, Britain to have enough equity or see enough, that the stakes are high enough to be able to really engage in a meaningful way. Right now the United States , the spirit is willing, but it is not willing to lean on China enough to stop financing the oil, because it needs China elsewhere in the world. It doesn't want to spoil that relationship. The Chinese need their oil so they're responding to the pressure that the U.S. does put on by saying okay you know we want a peaceful solution to this and it is trying to pressure the government of Sudan, but has the caveat no internal intervention, no mixing in the internal affairs of another state. So it's defined its limits. So it's telling the United States , yeah we want a solution just like you do. We want stable oil flows and everything, but we have this red line that we don't want to cross. The United States says well we need China elsewhere so we're not going to push them across this red line. It may not work anyway. There are too many actors and not enough pressure points. And if I had an answer, people far smarter than I would have had an answer, but I can tell you the reason that it continues is because you can't put enough political pressure on the right people to make it in their interest to stop. In some instances, and I think Darfur has had enough killing, there are some instances where you just have to let people exhaust themselves. I think the Balkans was a case in point where the Serbs and Croats exhausted themselves in the killing and they finally came to the peace table. And the Dayton Accords were signed. I think we are watching that in Iraq between the Sunnis and Shia. It's not over yet.


Spencer:


It's not an easy situation.

Mr. Marshall:


If these were easy situations they'd have been resolved a long time ago. It's hellishly difficult. Spencer: If you could have lunch with anyone in the world outside of your family who would you invite? Well, I'd like to get to know Barack Obama a little bit better because I don't know much about him as a candidate. I think I would like to have Hu Jintao to understand a little bit more about where he is taking China . I think I would invite Jeffrey Sachs to get a better understanding of his thoughts on third world development.


Spencer:


Everyone has a favorite quote, what is yours?

Mr. Marshall:


In the Al Gore film,  An Inconvenient Truth , in the credits there is an African saying that really stuck with me and it's "When you pray, move your feet." In other words, don't just wish for things to get better. Get moving.

 

Spencer:


And one final question. What is next for Tyler Marshall?

 

Mr. Marshall:


Well, I'm doing a project now for an organization called The Project for Excellence in Journalism that looks at content and the implications of the cutbacks in newsrooms around the country at the moment and what that means for the newspaper reader in terms of the product he or she is getting in his hand. Beyond that I still have my interests in Asia and I think there's a book in there somewhere. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I'm working on it.

 

Spencer: That is great. Thank you very much.