From prisons to protests, immigration to the environment, Peabody Award-winning Reveal goes deep into the pressing issues of our times. The Atlantic says “the experience of each episode is akin to a spoonful of sugar, even when it’s telling a story about Richard Spencer’s cotton farms or a man’s final days as a heroin addict.” Reveal is a project of The Center for Investigative Reporting and is co-produced with PRX. The show is hosted by Al Letson and partners with reporters and newsrooms around the world, including The Washington Post, ProPublica, APM, The Marshall Project and The Investigative Fund. Reveal is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has won many broadcast journalism awards, including a duPont and three national Emmys.
The Bitter Work Behind Sugar
Sugar is a big part of Americans’ daily diet. But who harvests some of that sweet cane?
Reporters Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel visit Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic who do the backbreaking work of cutting sugarcane for little pay. They live in work camps, or “bateyes,” that are part of a vast sugar plantation owned by the Central Romana Corp. The company is the Dominican Republic’s largest private employer and has strong links to two powerful Florida businessmen, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul. The reporters speak to workers who have no access to government pensions, so they’re forced to work in the fields into their 80s for as little as $3 a day. Through its sugar exports to the U.S. and other businesses, Central Romana generates an estimated $1.5 billion a year – but some workers are so poor they can’t afford doctors’ visits.
In the 1990s, Tolan reported on human trafficking and child labor in the Dominican sugar industry. Conditions improved following pressure on the government from local activists, human rights groups and the U.S. Labor Department. But major problems persist. And cane cutters say they must go into deep debt just to survive, leaving them trapped.
Since 9/11, the power of the U.S. military has been felt around the world in the name of rooting out terrorism. But at what cost? From Fallujah in Iraq to tiny villages in Afghanistan and Yemen, Reveal reporter Anjali Kamat talks to three journalists about how America’s so-called war on terror has shaped an entire generation.
Anand Gopal is a foreign journalist who traveled across the Afghan countryside, meeting with Taliban commanders and trying to understand how people understood the war. He says when U.S. President George W. Bush divided the world into those who are “with us” and those who are “with the terrorists,” it was an oversimplification and had tragic consequences for Afghanistan. Within months of the invasion, the Taliban wanted to surrender, but 9/11 was fresh and the U.S. said no. Instead, the military allied with anti-Taliban warlords and incentivized them to hunt down “terrorists.” Gopal says thousands of innocent people were arrested, tortured and killed – which only galvanized the Taliban and drew more recruits to their ranks.
To many Americans, Fallujah is remembered as the site of two brutal battles where many Americans died during the invasion of Iraq. But to journalist Feurat Alani, it’s also his parents’ hometown. While American TVs filled with images of the city as a jihadist stronghold, Alani knew it was a bustling city full of regular people whose lives would be forever changed by the invasion. Alani recounts precious memories of Fallujah, like swimming in the Euphrates River with his cousins and seeing football matches with his uncles. But after the invasion, his family fell apart and the city was reduced to rubble. The football stadium turned into a cemetery, and joyful moments there became somber walks through gravestones.
Finally, journalist and filmmaker Safa Al Ahmad talks about what America’s post-9/11 wars have done to Yemen, where drone strikes became part of everyday life for civilians. Al Ahmad recounts what it felt like to ride in a pickup truck, wondering if she would be targeted as the sound of a drone buzzed overhead. She saw on the ground how the tactics of the war on terror in Yemen led to resentment and hostility among people whose lives were upended. While the 9/11 attacks happened 20 years ago, Al Ahmad says that for people in other places, bombings, airstrikes and drone attacks have never stopped. “They're still living the nightmare that people in New York lived for the day,” she says.
Fighting Fire with Fire
Year after year, wildfires have swept through Northern California’s wine and dairy country, threatening the region’s famed agricultural businesses. . Evacuation orders have become a way of life in places like Sonoma County, and so too have exemptions to those orders. Officials in the county created a special program allowing agricultural employers to bring farmworkers into areas that are under evacuation and keep them working, even as wildfires rage. It’s generally known as the ag pass program. Reporter Teresa Cotsirilos investigates whether the policy puts low-wage farmworkers at risk from smoke and flames. This story is a partnership with the nonprofit newsroom the Food & Environment Reporting Network and the podcast and radio show World Affairs.
Then KQED’s Danielle Venton introduces us to Bill Tripp, a member of the Karuk Tribe. Tripp grew up along the Klamath River, where his great-grandmother taught him how controlled burns could make the land more productive and protect villages from dangerous fires. But in the 1800s, authorities outlawed traditional burning practices. Today, the impact of that policy is clear: The land is overgrown, and there has been a major fire in the region every year for the past decade, including one that destroyed half the homes in the Karuk’s largest town, Happy Camp, and killed two people. Tripp has spent 30 years trying to restore “good fire” to the region but still faces resistance from the U.S. Forest Service and others.
Twelve years ago, the Forest Service officially changed its policy to expand the use of prescribed burns, one of the most effective tools to mitigate massive, deadly wildfires. But Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren reports that even though the agency committed to doing controlled burns, it hasn’t actually increased how much fire it’s using to fight fire.The Forest Service also has been slow to embrace another kind of good fire that experts say the West desperately needs: managed wildfires, in which fires are allowed to burn in a controlled manner to reduce overgrowth. To protect the future of the land and people – especially with climate change making forests drier and hotter – the Forest Service needs to embrace the idea of good fire.
The Jail Tapes in the Dumpster
Sixteen-year-old Myon Burrell was sent to prison for life after a stray bullet killed an 11-year-old girl in Minneapolis in 2002. Amy Klobuchar, who was Minneapolis’ top prosecutor, brought first-degree murder charges as part of a national crackdown on gang violence – a crackdown that engulfed young men of color.
Burrell maintained his innocence for 18 years in prison. Associated Press reporter Robin McDowell spent a year looking into his case and found that multiple people had lied about Burrell’s involvement in the shooting and that police didn’t talk to his alibi witnesses. In December 2020, the state commuted Burrell’s sentence, allowing him to walk free.
This end to a prison sentence is rare: Burrell’s case was the first time in at least 28 years that Minnesota commuted a sentence for a violent crime case. But the factors that put Burrell in prison are not rare at all. According to The Sentencing Project, over 10,000 people are serving life sentences in the U.S. for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Half of them are Black. Burrell’s long shot reveals just how difficult it is to right a wrong in our criminal justice system. How many others like Burrell are there?
This episode was originally aired on April 17, 2021.
For 20 years, I saw no peace
We open with a story from Aysha, a Kabul resident in her mid-twenties, who we’ve been checking in with over the past few months. Aysha was born in Pakistan. Her parents fled Afghanistan after the Taliban rose to power in the mid 90’s. Then, after the 2001 invasion by the U.S. and other allies, her family returned to Afghanistan. They saw the war as an opportunity to reclaim their country. Now though, 20 years later, Aysha feels betrayed. She likens it to a doctor leaving in the middle of surgery: “I opened your heart. I fixed your heart bleeding. Now you stitch back yourself.” Our story follows Aysha throughout the final U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power.
Then, Al talks with Fariba Nawa, an Afghan journalist based in Turkey, who is fielding calls from desperate people who are trying to flee Afghanistan. She talks about the uncertain future women face under the Taliban and the moral responsibility the U.S. has to accept refugees from the war we’ve waged for 20 years.
Since the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, more than 800,000 Americans served in the war. James LaPorta is a former Marine who first arrived in Afghanistan in 2009. He describes the fighting, fear, and uncertainty he faced during two tours of duty and how after coming home, he has “the burden of memory.” He notes war doesn’t end with the signing of a treaty or the last day of combat, as everyone affected by the violence is still dealing with its aftermath.
Reveal producer Najib Aminy watched the fall of Kabul on TV, sitting next to his parents, who left Afghanistan for New York in the 1970s. Najib talks with one of Afghanistan’s most treasured poets, Abdul Bari Jahani, who wrote the country’s national anthem. Jahani says the anthem carries a message of unity and justice for the Afghan people.
Shelter staff have called 911 on migrant kids for minor offenses. In some cases, police have arrested, jailed and even tased those kids.
When unaccompanied children arrive alone at the U.S. border and seek asylum, they get sent to cells, then to government-funded shelters, where they wait to be released to family members or sponsors. Kids can spend months, sometimes years, at these shelters, and they can be secretive places. It’s hard for reporters and even government officials to get access to the shelters. But Reveal reporters Aura Bogado and Laura C. Morel found that one group sometimes entering shelters is police.
Reveal had to sue the federal government to get the records on migrant children in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The documents show that since 2014, at least 84 children held in shelters have been turned over to law enforcement.
First, Bogado and Morel share the story of a 16-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras who was tased by a Texas sheriff’s deputy. The incident was caught on the deputy’s body camera, which also captured the deputy’s partner as he insulted the teenager, calling him “El Stupido.” Then, we hear another disturbing story of a 17-year-old boy who briefly grabbed another teenager – and wound up being arrested for assault, held in jail and deported.
These are cases of overpolicing in a place where there are no bystanders to record, a place that is supposed to be taking care of vulnerable children. With a new administration, will anything change?