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July 2012, Week 2

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Labor and the New Media

By Dick Meister
July 12, 2012
San Francisco Bay Guardian
http://www.sfbg.com/bruce/2012/07/12/dick-meister-labor-and-media

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 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, a San Francisco writer, has covered labor
issues for more than a half-century as a reporter,
editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his
website, www.dickmeister.com.

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