Labor Media, or the Lack Thereof

Panel Presentation for Conference of United Association of Labor Educators
April 1, 2005, Philadelphia, Penn.

I originally proposed as a title for this workshop “What Direction Should Labor Media Take?” Somewhere along the way, the word “Media” got lost, a fortunate accident in that it produced for us the brilliant paper that Andy Zipser is presenting today, which addresses the media question but within the important context of the broader debate over labor’s future. Another change to the initial agenda is that I am not here speaking for the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA), because I no longer work there.

It’s appropriate that we lost the word “media.” The mission of the ILCA, which I continue to support, is largely to reawaken labor to the need for its own media. We do not have it. News reports that pay any respect to the interests of working people or to organized labor are virtually non-existent on broadcast television, national cable television, and radio. WIN produces short radio reports that are played on many stations, and a handful of labor friendly radio shows are syndicated to a respectable number of cities. I’m most familiar with the Thom Hartmann Show, which has me on every Monday to talk about labor.

But fundamentally, labor news does not exist in the major national media that provide most people with their understanding of public affairs. And it exists in the most marginalized, distorted, and silenced way in the corporate print medium.

Over the past year I’ve researched the corporate media’s coverage of a number of workers’ issues and found it to be miserable or nonexistent. We have now in this country historic and unprecedented labor opposition to a war, a war that has often been the top story in the media. This opposition has been expressed in the form of the passage of resolutions at conventions, other aspects of which have been covered by the media. Yet, there has not, to my knowledge, been a single corporate media story on labor’s opposition to the war. Nor has there been anything like appropriate coverage of NLRB actions stripping and threatening to strip American workers of the right to organize. There’s been an article here or there, following extensive PR efforts by unions, the AFL-CIO, and groups like American Rights at Work. But a single article here or there is not the same as a media story in an echo chamber, a story that sticks, such as “Social Security is in Trouble,” or “Michael Jackson is Weird.”

Last summer, when Bush’s so-called “Department of Labor,” pushed through the largest pay cut in American history, in the form of stripping millions of people of the right to time and a half pay for overtime, nobody knew it. The AFL-CIO had engaged in lengthy and extensive PR efforts, but their well-organized rally outside the Department of Labor just provided color for a corporate media spin dominated by what the media childishly calls “balance.” The print media also took balance to its extreme of absurdity. Here’s the lead to an AP story from August 23, 2004: “Paychecks could surge or shrink for a few or for millions of workers across the country starting Monday, when sweeping changes to the nation’s overtime pay rules take effect.” That gives you two viewpoints (you’ll never get one or three viewpoints from the media), but no actual reporting on the fact that there was extensive evidence for one of those viewpoints and none for the other.

What’s missing from the media is not just coverage of labor policies or union activities, but political proposals and movements that are outside the corporate interest. Judging by media coverage, single-payer health care is a nutty left-wing idea unworthy of consideration, and yet the media’s own polls find a significant majority of Americans support it. The American public deserves immense credit when it takes a position opposed to the thrust of media coverage. Too often the media holds much too powerful a sway over public opinion. But many who favor single-payer have no idea that they are in a majority. The media has managed to make a majority believe they are a minority. We now have majorities who believe they are minorities in this country on such issues as opposition to the war, restoring value to the minimum wage, or seriously addressing global warming. We are seriously weakened by our lack of awareness of our own strength. While we’re losing on cultural questions, as Andy points out, we’re unaware of our strength on economic and public investment questions.

When I worked as press secretary for Kucinich for President, I spoke to many, many people who told me that Dennis Kucinich was their favorite candidate, and that they would vote for him if he had a chance, or if he were serious. The media was actually reporting that he didn’t really want to win. One-on-one and small-group communications have their strengths, but I saw room after room after room of people enthusiastic for Kucinich but planning to vote for a candidate that the media had told them was more acceptable. I would even go so far as to claim that Kucinich gave some speeches and presented a vision that inspired people in the way that Andy says has been missing. But, unless you happened to be in the room, no one heard about it. I’ve spoken to international union communications directors who had no idea what Kucinich’s platform was – and who worked for unions that obviously based their endorsement decisions on something other than the candidates’ platforms.

In the aftermath of last year’s election, there’s been an upsurge of interest among progressives in framing messages. Ignoring the evidence of election fraud or the nomination of a remarkably lousy Democratic candidate, we’re all focused on what the media’s coverage of the campaigns was. But we have not come to terms with the fact that the corporate interests best represented by Bush own the media. Dave Lindorff will be speaking on this panel about the failures of union PR staff in their interactions with reporters. But I suspect that Dave and Andy will both agree with me that PR efforts, even if perfected, can only get us a small fraction of the way we need to go, at least working with the current media conglomerates. Dave’s investigative report on the radio transmitter that Bush wore under his jacket during a debate was a story that the New York Times chose to kill because it might have affected the election. Democratic media would publish stories for the same reason that the New York Times kills them. Media appropriate for a democracy would not engage in the Washington Post’s infuriating habit of telling the public about a disastrous bill in Congress the day after it passes.

Yes, we need to frame messages and broad visions. Yes, we need to return reporters’ phone calls and deliver pithy sound bites. But stop and think for a minute. Is the assertion really credible that progressives are less talented at framing messages than conservatives? Might we not be “misunderestimating” ourselves? I’d actually suggest that we’re smarter and more articulate than the Neanderthals running this country. But, again, they own the media and we do not. So, let’s consider scaling back on the George Lakoff inspired seminars, brilliant as they may be.

Most of our message crafting is long since done, and in any case far less difficult, than getting our information to people. Better frames and messages and sound bites will not get us on the Sunday talk shows. More corporate friendly ones will, but there’s a difference. It’s a difference that’s further obscured when we try to imitate right-wing message framing, imagining that their messages succeed in the media simply because they’re better messages. Often they’re aired on the media because they fit the agenda of the owners of the media. And often they do not succeed anything like as well as the media itself tells us. After all, they do most of the polling. Most of our issues the media doesn’t do polls on. I haven’t even seen any polls on the bankruptcy bill. How many Americans want to create a new social class of permanent debt slaves to credit card companies? Somehow that’s less critical than who believes Michael Jackson is guilty.

A slight majority of Americans want the United States to get out of Iraq this year. But what if people were asked questions like these:

“Do you support large cuts in your state’s education budget in order to pay for a war on Iraq?” or

“Do you favor giving large government contracts in Iraq to corporations with criminal records, and do you favor not requiring any record of whether they do the work they’re paid for?”

Again, we don’t ask the questions. The owners ask the questions. The robber barons tell us what to think we think.

When labor does commission polls, it uses them not to determine what aspects of public thinking need to be changed through the provision of missing information. Rather it uses them to determine what positions labor needs to change to fit current public opinion. I went to a meeting at the AFL-CIO with lots of union communications staff, a strategy meeting months ago on Social Security. A pollster instructed the labor communicators on what to say and what not to say. The instructions were to play along with the pretense that Social Security is broken, but to focus on how Bush’s plan would make the problem worse.

This struck me as insane. If you won, you’d have blocked reform of a broken program. You’d also have missed a golden opportunity to denounce a dishonest administration as dishonest. Many in that meeting, including myself, ignored the advice and put out the message that Social Security is no more broken than Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Whether the Democrats on the hill will keep to this message remains to be seen.

I view our upside-down use of polling data and our self-flagellation over our poor messaging as symptoms of a slave mentality. We do not think of ourselves as in charge of our own destiny, as shapers of thought and action. We have not come to grips with the fact that the pirates of industry own the media and we do not.

Once we do come to grips with that, then I agree with Dave that we need to do better PR. I am not proposing that we shut corporate reporters out, as too many unions have long done. The corporate media’s coverage can range from absent or utterly atrocious to halfway useful. We need to push it in the right direction.

But doing so cannot be our focus. And we cannot continue being satisfied with the pathetic bones the media sometimes throws us.

In addition to PR, the other communications strategy that labor employs is buying advertisements. This needs to stop. Almost no one knows that labor ads are frequently rejected by the media, that only acceptable messages are aired. People think that if an ad is on the air it was paid for and expresses the freely spoken opinions of the advertiser. Which many people then proceed to completely ignore. Advertising involves a reduction to sound bites that makes any serious content impossible. That content is considered biased, and is less respected even than opinion columns. But, more importantly, the purchasing of advertising transfers millions of dollars from the pockets of working people to the corporations that bash workers every day by commission and omission.

The labor movement should not be training staff or members to think in terms of PR and advertising. Doing so teaches us exactly the wrong mentality for union activism. We learn subservience and satisfaction, not initiative and independence. We learn to think like corporate reporters in order to better work with them. We see ourselves as one side of a balanced debate. We aren’t. We’re millions of workers fighting against the undemocratic power grabs of a tiny overclass.

Labor needs to invest in its own media and to train its members to produce it, nationally, regionally, and locally. We need a national labor trade press. We need central labor council newspapers that address entire metro areas of unionized and non-yet-unionized workers. We need to produce and support existing labor-friendly national radio and cable shows. Or rather, labor needs to facilitate their production and provide some oversight, but allow enough editorial independence to provide credibility and the ability to constructively criticize labor.

In our arsenal for organizing and legislative campaigns needs to be both production of our own media and active protest of the corporate media. We should be in the habit of producing summaries of media outlets’ failures and taking them to editorial board meetings. When change is not forthcoming, we should be in the habit of using picketing and nonviolent civil disobedience to protest particular media outlets.

We should distinguish between editors and publishers, on the one hand, and reporters on the other. And we should organize reporters. At most newspapers, outside of the largest ones, reporters are paid poverty wages, in addition to being overworked. And in most cases, they don’t have any political agenda against labor. They just have no idea what labor is. We need to launch a campaign for a living wage for reporters. We need it to reach into the small town papers of major newspaper chains. We will find that many community and activist groups whose work is not covered or poorly covered by overworked reporters at papers with higher turnover rates than Wal-Mart will join us. If we succeed in such a campaign, our new union members will still have very limited control over content. Their bosses will still make those decisions. But we will help to move reporting in the right direction.

The staffs of labor newspapers and magazines are overworked too. We don’t invest enough in our own media, and that has to become our primary focus. What we do produce, let’s be frank, is often awful. I’m a Newspaper Guild member, and I read the Guild’s paper, but I don’t read the CWA’s and I wouldn’t read most other union papers. If I want big photos and fonts and short stories that all come from one point of view, I’ll get the USA Today. We need numerous voices and in-depth pieces that don’t insult union members’ intelligence. The way to get this is to train members to do it. We need labor media to get labor democracy, but we need labor democracy to get good labor media. And we need both if we’re going to have a labor movement, quite regardless of what dues are paid to the AFL-CIO or who’s forced to merge with whom.