Dick Meister: Labor and the media

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By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www,dickmeister,com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

The coming of the Internet has had a profound impact on media coverage of working people and their unions. No, the mainstream media have not expanded their generally limited and shallow labor reporting or their generally anti-labor editorial positions. But there now are dozens of non-mainstream websites and blogs, such as the Bay Guardian's, that provide in-depth labor coverage. The print versions of union newspapers and newsletters could never reach the very much larger audience that's now available via the Internet.

There are even pro-labor broadcast outlets, such as Pacifica Radio's KPFT in Houston, that cover labor issues in depth. The broadcasts and labor websites and blogs expose many people to labor activities and issues they may not otherwise have heard of, or understand – including pro-labor views,

Use of the Internet also has made it easier for unions to communicate with their own members.

But there's still a major problem. Those pro-labor online outlets don't necessarily reach the general audience that labor needs to reach. They primarily or solely reach only labor supporters and union members who often are in effect talking only to each other.

That may be good for the morale of unions and union supporters and provide them ammunition to use in their struggles. But unions need to reach a broader audience if they are to effectively combat the anti-unionism that's so commonly voiced in the mainstream media.

How would they do that? That's not for me to say, but I am confident that it can be done. After all, unions got their message out in the pre-Internet years when the media were at least as ant-labor as they are today, probably even more so.

The pre-Internet newspapers that unions had to rely on to spread their message were at best indifferent to working people and their unions. That basic situation hasn't much changed. As in those days, it isn't so much that the mainstream media are anti-union – though they are that – but that their labor coverage is generally limited. In-depth reporting of labor issues is as rare as pro-labor editorials.

As in the pre-Internet days, many of today's media outlets are not much interested in covering labor except in a clearly anti-labor manner. They devote their closest attention to critics of union actions and especially the attacks on the public employees who have become the vanguard of the labor movement and thus the main target of anti-union forces.

But at least the Internet gives unionized workers and their supporters an option,  and their militant actions, such as those opposing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker,  have forced many in the previously labor-indifferent media to pay close attention to their activities, however much they may disparage them.

But it remains that despite the complexity of labor issues and the importance of labor to many of their readers, very few of today's newspapers have reporters who are assigned to cover labor exclusively.  mainstream radio and TV stations have never had such reporters.

Some media outlets assign labor coverage to business reporters, who typically cover labor from the generally adversarial approach of their business sources. They're concerned with the effect of labor on business, and, of course, labor's role in politics, which is also usually covered from a non-union, if not anti-union point of view.

Internal union matters such as the election of officers are generally ignored unless there's a scandal involved. Strikes that draw lots of public attention are heavily covered, but with the stress on the strikes' affect on the general public rather than on the issues involved. Only very rarely does a mainstream media outlet side with a striking union or even explain the union's position thoroughly.

Part of the reason for this is simply that newspapers and other mainstream outlets generally are themselves in adversarial relationships with unions – those that represent their employees.

During the formative years of American unions long before the Internet, when unions engaged in highly visible and often exciting organizing attempts, newspapers had little choice but to cover their activities in some detail.  Union activity was news, big news, as it has again become just recently with massive pro-worker demonstrations nationwide.

But there is a major difference between then and now. In those pre-Internet years labor was covered extensively and usually by reporters assigned to that specific task. Virtually every newspaper had a labor reporter or two.

But the number of labor reporters has declined steadily ever since organized labor established itself and became merged into the middle class, ever since its activities lost their novelty, and were expanded to encompass complex matters far beyond the easily covered issue of simply seeking union recognition.

The major turning point came just after World War II. At first there was a great deal of newsworthy labor activity, including many strikes and other highly visible actions as union members sought to make up for the compensation they lost under the tight wage and price controls that prevailed during the war years.

But after that surge of postwar strikes, labor turned to less exciting, less visible activities that are not as easily covered  as are strikes and related matters. That takes expert labor reporters and few have been available. That basic situation has not changed over the past half-century.

There have been some important exceptions to the dismal mainstream media coverage of labor in recent years, notably including the country's major newspaper of record. The New York Times still covers labor fairly and in some detail, and its labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, is among the best U.S. reporters of any kind.

Most media outlets, however, are still concerned primarily with labor's militant actions and cover even those superficially. Most see no need for coverage that goes beyond the surface excitement, no need for expert reportage, although some recent labor actions, such as those of the Occupy Wall Street movement, have forced the media to look closer at some issues that previously have been only superficially examined – if examined at all.

There are, in any case, too few mainstream reporters who are adequately versed in labor matters. There are too few who have the trust of workers and their unions, which naturally hesitate to provide them much of the information that's needed to adequately and fairly explain labor's positions. The result has been labor coverage that's generally shallow, often uninformed and frequently biased.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www,dickmeister,com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

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