Saturday, April 02, 2005


Dispatch edits, softens Perdue obit

Today, in the example of an obituary on chicken-made millionaire Frank Perdue, we have one more example of how the Dispatch's Business section is a cesspool of drivel, corporate press releases and sops to their advertisers (potential and real). We'll start with comparing how Dispatch and the Plain Dealer handled the same AP story by Foster King. First from the Dispatch:
To many people, Frank Perdue looked as if he was born to sell chickens. But it wasn’t until he put his face on TV commercials that his father’s backyard egg business rapidly grew into one of the world’s largest chicken companies.
Now from the PD:
With a beak- like nose, beady eyes and thin lips, Frank Perdue looked like he was born to sell chickens. It wasn't until he put his face on TV commercials, however, that his father's backyard egg business rapidly grew into one of the world's largest chicken companies. [emphasis added]
The difference is more than just a possibly funny intro being chopped off. Let us explain why editing the Dispatch business editors did is important and, we believe, done with more than a little thought.

Some people know the Perdue name and brand from buying chickens at the grocery. His PR agencies' have tried to cultivate a "down-home" soft and perhaps humorous image of the old man.

But down-home and humorous he wasn't. Far from it.

Perdue Farms got it start on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a territory that in its racial customs was more like Mississippi than Delaware. Perdue Farms created some of the first chicken mega-farms and factories in the US. Besides being stinking, horrible places for the chickens, Perdue's facilities were also stinking, horrible and unsafe workplaces for its overwhelming African American workforce. The Eastern Shore is primarily an agricultural area, and Perdue was one of the few "factories" that offered jobs - at barely subsistence wages. Workplace injuries were rampant and if you dared complained you were fired in an instant. Perdue also arranged for his employees to classified as "farm workers" which exempted them from a whole range of rights such as overtime pay.

Not surprisingly, the workforce was constantly interested in organizing a union, and in the late 1970s and 1980s we volunteered time in some of the organizing attempts. Eventually, we had to move on to other things, but we definitely recall that Frank Perdue was one mean m-f'er who would be all to happy to turn his goon squad on you. (He also tried, but reportedly failed, to hire some New York mob family to "take care" of his labor problems.)

During those organizing days, there were a group of us that would try to track Perdue's movements and would distribute information about the work conditions where he was making public appearances. It was about that time that we began to notice that as Perdue was aging, he actually began to look like the chickens he was selling! So, besides distributing literature, whenever Perdue was making a public appearance we have a big team that would start making clucking sounds so that he could hear us. At some point, we also made a costume of a chicken but with a face that looked like Perdue's. Eventually, reporters and the public began to catch on and soon everyone was making jokes and comments about Perdue looking like he had chicken DNA.

Some brave reporters even asked Perdue about the chicken references - and he would go ballistic, firing back curses and comments to the reporters that had to be bleeped. As we recall, he also nearly came to blows with reporters who would mention the resemblance. The point is that back then, he did not find any humor in the chicken references - at all!

When his company introduced their commercial's tag line, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," it was initially said in seriousness and meant to capitalize on his hard-ass reputation. It was one of the first ad campaigns that had the CEO making the sales pitch in the ads.

Later, it appeared that some of his handlers eventually convinced him that it was better to at least appear to being going along with the joke because his meanness was confirming what his labor organizer detractors were saying about him. Thus, there were later rounds of Perdue commercials with the "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" tagline but done with irony, a smiling Frank Perdue and goofy music. In his later years, Perdue turned the reins of the business over to his son, Jim, who understood the power of humor and irony in advertising and took the I-look-like-a-chicken schtick to the extreme.

But, we know from friends in Maryland who kind of followed Perdue over the years that the old man never forgave the chicken appearance jokes.

Now, this is only one part of the Perdue being one evil son-of-a-bitch story. There's the mob connection (mentioned above), there's Perdue hiring Arlen Specter (yes, THE Arlen Specter) to get him off of involuntary murder charge stemming from an auto accident where Perdue was accused of speeding, there's 16 speeding tickets in 15 years, there's accusations of running slave-like camps, and so on. The Multinational Monitor named it one of the "Ten Worst Corporations of 1989."


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