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Are the media shortchanging organized labor?

Are the media shortchanging organized labor?

At one time, I was a labor reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and, as such, was one of those persons affecting the public perception of labor unions. The Journal became a very important voice in translating what labor was doing, what it was thinking, and what the consequences would be for a public--the business community--that was very interested in all of those things. This reflected a conscious decision by the editors of the newspaper that labor union activities were extremely important to business.

Labor reporters in the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's were major figures on major newspapers in major cities across the Nation: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis. We talked to each other, exchanging information and ideas. We talked to labor union officials, business agents, and local union officers--and rank and filers--as well as international union presidents and vice presidents. We talked to the academic community. There was in this communication process an important cross-fertilization, a reaching beyond narrow geographical boundaries, that brought a breadth and depth to our reporting. This provided our reading public--and our constituency of labor union members and officials, industrial relations personnel in industry, the academic community with a particular interest in labor-management relations, and government officials-- with a seasoned, considered, and balanced view of events taking place in the area of their prime interest.

I do not see that kind of emphasis on labor coverage among the major newspapers of today. But perhaps part of the reason is that, in earlier years, what was happening in labor was crisis, crisis, crisis. There were strikes, there were picket-line beatings. There were indictments. There were trials. There was lots of action and lots of show. Along with that, for a considerable period during the 1930's and 1940's, there was a great deal of visible advance by labor unions. It was exciting, a moving story.

Looking back at those times from the perspective of some distance, I wonder if reporters approached the labor story correctly. In reporting on the turbulence in the labor movement, did the media create some distortions that did not really help anybody? Did the media provide the true story, or did they fail to serve the audience they were trying to reach by giving them a wrong perception? Did they, in fact, bend the trade union movement a little out of shape?

Another reason for the decline in media attention could be that the labor story is more complicated to cover today. It involves dealing with economics, with all sorts of social matters, and with politics. But when I used to go out into the field to report on labor, go to a union convention, or talk to some union leader, I would very often find that the local reporter assigned to the story was actually his newspaper's police reporter, who had been sent out to cover a strike or some other potentially dramatic development. He often had little perception of what the labor movement was, where it had come from, or what the important issues were.

A lot of the drama went out of the labor movement because of the developing complexity of the economy and changes in the workplace and in the economy. And it seems to me that most newspapers do not want to invest the time in covering a story with many subtle complexities that the reporter must digest and put into perspective. So it does appear that the media have shortchanged the labor movement. Television simply is not, except in too few cases, equipped or inclined to interpret the labor movement to the public. Print journalism can--as it has in the past--but it does not seem very interested in doing so now.

I think this is a disservice to the reading public and to the reader constituencies I cited earlier. This lack leaves the field of comment on matters affecting the trade union movement open to those persons whose views are more often a reflection of what they believe the trade union movement ought to be rather than what, in today's world, it is able to be.

If today's labor movement is going to make an impact through the public press, its representatives must explain to reporters, editors, and newspaper owners why labor is an important element in the local economy. When I went on the labor beat during the 1950's, I found that I did not know anything about labor unions or the labor movement, but I also found that the people I talked to within the trade union movement were very willing to help me learn. They were interested in presenting the most positive image they could, and they helped train me. I wrote some things that they liked, and some they did not like, but even so, they were eager to have their story told because they believed that more good than bad would come of telling that story in an honest manner. I think that was a correct decision; it may have been risky, but they had confidence in their position. Unfortunately, for labor to try to reach the public through the media now would be difficult because there are very few people in the newspaper business listening out there.
COPYRIGHT 1987 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Author:Grimes, John A.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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