Schlosser, Eric

views updated

Eric Schlosser


Born c. 1960, in New York, NY; married; children: Mica, Conor. Education: Princeton University, B.A.; attended Oxford University.


Home—New York, NY. Office—c/o Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington St., Boston, MA 02114.


Investigative journalist and author. Former staff member of a film company.

Awards, Honors

National Magazine Award for Reporting, 1994; Sidney Hillman Foundation award, 1995.


Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-AmericanMeal, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2001, with a new afterword by Schlosser, Perennial (New York, NY), 2002.

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in theAmerican Black Market, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2003, published as Reefer Madness and Other Tales from the American Underground, Penguin (London, England), 2003.

Contributor to Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, and Rolling Stone.

Schlosser's books have been translated into French.


Reefer Madness was adapted as an audiobook, narrated by the author, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2003.

Work in Progress

A book on the U.S. prison system.


Journalist Eric Schlosser has cut his own trail through the cultural jungle in a self-proclaimed effort to present what he described to Publishers Weekly contributor Andrew Richard Albanese as "an alternative view of what's happened in this country in the last thirty years." In Time, Lev Grossman explained that Schlosser is motivated by a "passionate belief that America is deeply neurotic, a nation divided against itself into a sunny, whitewashed mainstream and a lusty, angry, deeply denied subconscious." Describing the journalist as documentary filmmaker "Michael Moore without the bullhorn" and gonzo journalist "Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs," interviewer Jay MacDonald praised Schlosser as "a cautious optimist who writes and speaks in the measured tones of NPR's All Things Considered."

Born in 1950 and raised in New York City and Los Angeles, Schlosser attended Princeton University, where he studied writing with John McPhee and graduated with a degree in American history. He then studied British history at Oxford University. Returning to New York, he worked for a film company while penning plays and novels in his spare time and meeting with no real success. "I was remarkably unsuccessful," Schlosser admitted to MacDonald, adding that it was a nudge from well-meaning editor friends that ultimately convinced him to give news writing a try. In the early 1990s he marketed his writing skills, and landed several assignments with the prestigious Boston-based Atlantic Monthly, which sent the budding investigative journalist to uncharted territory—which for New Yorker Schlosser was everything west of the Hudson River and east of Los Angeles.

Pens Fast Food Nation

An assignment for Rolling Stone magazine became the genesis for Schlosser's first book-length work. Not only an inside look at the industry that has, increasingly, been roundly criticized by many for undermining the nutritional health and habits of Americans, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal profiles the giant corporations that reap huge profits at the expense of farmers and migrant workers. "Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast food restaurant," Schlosser reports in his book, "perhaps 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes." But in his profile of such individuals as McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, Schlosser does far more than set forth a typical exposé of corporate greed. "Over the last three decades [of the twentieth century], fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American life," the journalist bemoans, citing the proliferation of small shopping plazas anchored by chain restaurants for homogenizing regional cultures and revolutionizing the nation's consumer habits. He also noted how children have been specifically targeted by fast-food marketers from the beginning; Southern California native Kroc, he notes, was a friend of Walt Disney and he employed many of the filmmaker's techniques in marketing his growing burger chain.

Schlosser sets forth his thesis "with the meticulous passion of a historian," noted American Prospect contributor Chitrita Banerji, comparing, as many reviewers did, Schlosser's work to Upton Sinclair's early-twentieth-century muckraking novel The Jungle. Like Sinclair, Schlosser also takes aim at the U.S. meat-packing industry, showing how the dangerous conditions, grueling work schedule, and poor wages continue to trap and impoverish new generations of immigrants. He then goes on to paint a not-so-wholesome picture of, as Andrey Slivka noted in American Scholar, "a fast-food industry that, while aggressively and successfully defining itself as the incarnation of the best ideals of American civilization, is in fact a threat to it." Slivka praised Fast Food Nation as an "eviscerating examination" of modern corporate practices within the U.S. food industry, as well as "one of those rare works that are at once painstakingly detailed and readable." "In clean, sober prose packed with facts," Atlantic Unbound contributor Julia Livshin added, Schlosser ". . . strips away the carefully crafted feel-good veneer of fast food and shows how the industry's astounding success has been achieved, and is sustained, at an equally astounding cost—to the nation's health, environment, economy, and culture."

While many contributors found his analysis compelling, some took issue with Schlosser's economic perspective. In Reason Gary Alan Fine noted that low-paying jobs in the food industry "keep people alive . . . by providing them with work by which to feed themselves. . . . immigrants take these unappealing jobs because they conclude that their lives will be markedly improved by such work." Fine also maintained that market forces have continued to alter and regulate the conditions in meat-processing plants and at other food-industry jobs; "after all," he quipped, "routinely injuring or killing workers is no way to keep a mobile work force happy." In a Commentary review of Fast Food Nation, Steve A. Shaw cited Schlosser's populist bent, noting: "Of all the arguments against fast food, the strongest and most obvious is the one Schlosser does not and seemingly cannot make: that its popularity represents a failure not of market capitalism but of [consumer] taste."

Well-Read Reformer

Schlosser's first step is research. Beginning with general reference books on his topic at hand, he gains a basic understanding and then moves on to more scholarly works; as factual discrepancies and contradictory assertions and conclusions come to light, he moves to more specialized trade publications, grounding his developing perspective with facts. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, he extolled the value of reading the trade press, noting that while "it takes a certain kind of patience to read through back issues," there is more to industry-based publications than finding revealing quotes. "Reading the trades is not a shortcut," Schlosser explained. "It's just the opposite. You immerse yourself in the details of the industry." "I enjoy the process of discovering and all the background reading," he also told MacDonald, citing as one of the main values of such research the ability to engage in intelligent interviews: "When you then get out in the field, you know what you're looking for and the conversations are more interesting."

Speaking of the goal of his writing, Schlosser explained that he hoped to get readers to question their own views in light of his book. "I'm trying to get people to think, and the writing style is deliberately calm and not full of invective against people who may disagree with me," he explained to MacDonald in a interview. Schlosser also recognizes a commitment to the public good, telling Livshin in Atlantic Unbound: "A lot of my writing has tried to give a voice to people outside of the mainstream. I don't expect my sort of journalism to change the world, but if it can add some shred of empathy or understanding or compassion, if it can convey a fraction of what I've seen and learned, it's well worth doing."

Explores American Underbelly in Reefer Madness

A work containing three thematically-related essays, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market is the book Schlosser most wanted to write. An expansion of several journalistic pieces he did for Rolling Stone, Reefer Madness begins with an exploration of the history of marijuana, or hemp, in the United States. First used during the colonial era in the manufacture of rope and insulation, marijuana has become a staple of the underground economy for its intoxicating effects, accounting for transactions of over $650 billion annually. Schlosser traces the U.S. government's changing approach toward marijuana during the twentieth century, from treating it as a legal substance to making it illegal to making marijuana a prime target of the War on Drugs.

The second essay in Reefer Madness, "In the Strawberry Fields," focuses on illegal immigrant labor, which he argues is the mainstay of California's profitable farm economy, particularly in small-scale, specialized crops such as avocados, grapes, and peaches. "Illegal immigrants, widely reviled and often depicted as welfare cheats, are in effect subsidizing the most important sector of the California economy," he argues, citing the state's ability to maintain production levels while the amount of available farmland has significantly and steadily declined.

Cleveland's Reuben Sturman, a comic-book salesman credited with single-handedly building the country's thriving porn industry, is the subject of "An Empire of the Obscene," the final essay in Reefer Madness. By tracing the history of pornography from Sturman's girlie-magazine distribution scheme to an industry that by 2000 found major hotel chains, pay-per-view cable companies, and corporations such as AT&T and AOL Time Warner reaping millions of dollars in profits by distributing pornography, Schlosser also maps the country's shifting values: "Unlike murder, whose legal definition doesn't change significantly with each generation, the crime of obscenity has always reflected the values of the government leveling the charge," Schlosser maintains in Reefer Madness. "If the market does indeed embody the sum of all human wishes," he also observes, "then the secret ones are just as important as the ones openly displayed."

Writing a book about drug dealers and pornographers required Schlosser to interview drug dealers and pornographers, some of whom he caught up with in prison. He also spent time with small-scale marijuana growers and illegal immigrants. "It's amazing who you'll meet if you just go to Indiana and sit in a bar," he told MacDonald, adding that, once they realized he was not a cop, many people were eager to tell their side of the story. Praising the journalist's abilities in this regard, Elizabeth DiNovella noted in the Progressive that Schlosser "is a talented and intrepid reporter, and one of his greatest strengths is his ability to tell the personal stories behind the faceless underground economy." Still, muckraking around the dark side has its down moments, as Schlosser realized when first researching the U.S. pornography industry for U.S. News and World Report. "When I met my first genuine pornographer, a peep-show operator in New York, it was so depressing that I wanted nothing more to do with [the] story," he told U.S. News editor James Fallows.

Sparks Public Debate

Much as Fast Food Nation had done, Reefer Madness captured the attention of both the mainstream public and the more scholarly press, with Schlosser's economic analysis receiving the most critical attention. As New Statesman contributor Tristan Quinn explained, Schlosser's main contention is that "the enormous expansion of black-market activity since 1970 has been fuelled . . . by economic hardship, desire for profit and, crucially, increasing disrespect for authority and the law." While Quinn noted that the author's "eye tends to be drawn towards the most extreme proponents of illicit causes" to the exclusion of more mainstream participants, an Economist reviewer praised Reefer Madness as "a deftly woven tale of corruption and desperation" that exposes what Schlosser argues is "a connection between the black market and falling personal incomes, a widening gap between rich and poor, and an overall slowdown in the nation's economic development."

If you enjoy the works of Eric Schlosser

If you enjoy the works of Eric Schlosser, you may also want to check out the following books:

Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear, 1999.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, 2001.

Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money CanBuy, 2002.

"Schlosser has a gift for spotting colossal numbers that hide in plain sight," praised Grossman in Time, citing statistics that show that pot has become the number-one cash crop in the United States, and that pornography boasts sales figures comparable with rock music. The author grounds his work in these statistics, and moves from there to comment on their economic impact. Noting that "both hardcore libertarians and strict state interventionists will find something to perplex them in Reefer Madness," London Independent contributor Boyd Tonkin explained that "through Schlosser's rich landscape of research and reportage, there threads a winding stream of argument about the proper role of the free market, the law, and the state." While calling Reefer Madness "provocative," Library Journal contributor Scott H. Silverman nonetheless cited the author for "a certain naivete" due to his "claims about the innocence of pot and porn, both of which he favors fully legalizing." While most reviewers have found his arguments compelling, several, such as the Economist critic, agreed that Schlosser's "thesis . . . need[s] to be argued more thoroughly."

Retains Optimistic Outlook

For Schlosser, one of the most rewarding things about his work as a social historian is that he continues to gain knowledge, gain insight into the lives of others, and gain new experiences. Book writing requires total immersion in the subject, which is an emotional as well as intellectual experience. "The challenge is not just to have this expanding human experience but then to put it into words that convey what I've seen," he explained to MacDonald. Despite the dark subjects that attract his journalistic curiosity, Schlosser views life optimistically; the fact that he believes things can change for the better is a powerful motivator for his writing. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children, neither of whom are allowed to eat fast food. His third book project, a study of the U.S. prison system and its affects on the African-American community and youth culture, will complete his goal of attempting to make sense of the last three decades of the twentieth century.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of theAll-American Meal, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2001, with a new afterword by Schlosser, Perennial (New York, NY), 2002.

Schlosser, Eric, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and CheapLabor in the American Black Market, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2003.


American Prospect, July 2, 2001, Chitrita Banerji, review of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, p. 43.

American Scholar, spring, 2001, Andrey Slivka, review of Fast Food Nation, p. 152.

Christian Century, December 19, 2001, Lillian Daniel, review of Fast Food Nation, p. 32.

Christianity Today, May 21, 2001, Lauren F. Winner, review of Fast Food Nation, p. 91.

Columbia Journalism Review, July, 2001, interview with Schlosser, p. 12.

Commentary, May, 2001, Steven A. Shaw, review of Fast Food Nation, p. 78.

Economist, February 17, 2001, "Mac Attack," p. 5; May 10, 2003, "Pot, Porn, and Prison: America's Black Economy."

Independent (London, England), May 3, 2003, Boyd Tonkin "Eric Schlosser: Under the Skin."

Library Journal, February 1, 2001, Wendy Miller, review of Fast Food Nations, p. 115; April 15, 2003, Scott H. Silverman, review of Reefer Madness, p. 110.

Money, June 1, 2003, "Illicit Gains" (interview), p. 26.

New Statesman, June 9, 2003, Tristan Quinn, review of Reefer Madness and Other Tales from the American Underground, p. 51.

People, June 2, 2003, Daniel Radosh, review of ReeferMadness.

Progressive, June, 2003, Elizabeth DiNovella, review of Reefer Madness, p. 41.

Publishers Weekly, March 31, 2003, review of ReeferMadness, p. 49, and "Swapping Happy Meals for Pot and Porn" (interview), p. 50.

Reason, November, 2001, Gary Alan Fine, "Chewing the Fat," p. 58.

Time, April 28, 2003, Lev Grossman, "Keep off the Grass," p. 71.


Atlantic Unbound, (December 14, 2000), Julia Livshin, interview with Schlosser., (May, 2003), Jay MacDonald, "Society's Quiet Crusader.", (February 8, 2001), Katharine Mieszkowski, "Would You Like Ground Spinal Cord with That?"*