One Strategy to Create Honest Media and a Stronger Labor Movement

By David Swanson, ILCA Media Coordinator
Part of the ILCA’s Building Labor Media series

The Problems We Face

Two major problems face the United States that in combination seriously impede any large-scale attempts to better the lives of working people.

The first is the ongoing decline of the labor movement, which is shrinking our organized force of political activism. The second is the increasing failure of the corporate media to serve as a source of honest and useful information for citizens.

We can take a major step toward addressing both problems by re-energizing and democratizing labor media, turning labor media into a tool for organizing and activating members, and investing in labor media on a scale that begins to challenge the corporate media for control of the public discourse.

Labor media has declined at least as rapidly as the labor movement, often suffering cut backs before other perceived priorities. During that decline, labor failed to invest in its own grass roots media. It did not adequately develop a network of communications that could deliver one powerful message at a time to its media, much less the means of listening to the voices of the rank and file, and it did not adequately train its media workers or provide them with the necessary funds and materials to grow.

Over the past decade, that neglect has increased as union dollars have been poured into television advertising, consulting fees, and futile attempts to influence the corporate media.

In addition, what now remains of labor publications, broadcast productions, and websites often fails to make good use of the resources available. Labor media outlets do not take easy and proven steps to engage or to effectively influence the membership or to help enlarge it. The labor movement is lacking in adequate activism by its members, and labor communications is doing too little to change that.

Labor communications is doing too little to address failures in organizing and legislative campaigns. But it may be in the field of electoral politics that the shortcomings of the labor media most clearly hold the labor movement back.

Between a third and two-fifths of union members who voted in 2004, as well as of their household members who voted, voted for George W. Bush for president. According to the University of Maryland’s PIPA, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, 74 percent of Bush supporters (presumably some of them union members) believed that Bush favors inclusion of labor and environmental standards in trade agreements, and 60 percent of Bush supporters said the US should not have initiated a war with Iraq unless evidence established that Iraq had WMDs and was supporting the Al Qaeda terrorists.

At the end of 2003, PIPA had released a huge study finding that most of those who got their news from the commercial TV networks held at least 1 of 3 fundamental “misperceptions” about the war in Iraq (and some held 2 or 3 of them):

that Iraq had been directly linked to 9/11;
that WMDs had been found in Iraq;
that world opinion supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Among those informed on all 3 questions, only 23 percent supported Bush’s war. For many voters, informed or otherwise, the war was one of the most important considerations in determining how they cast their vote.

Yet, almost no labor publications (or websites, or phone calls, or door-knocking campaigns) had spoken to members or provided a forum for members to speak about the war. Even unions whose members had passed a resolution demanding an immediate end to the war failed to acknowledge in print that there was a war, or failed to address the topic in any substantive way. Union members were thus left to turn to other organizations and social groups for information and debate on one of the issues that many of them considered to be of top importance.

By failing to engage the membership on what they saw as a topic that could split the membership apart, unions left in place disagreements and misunderstandings that were, of course, there whether or not we talked about them, and which could not be rectified unless we talked about them. The results can be read in the November 2nd exit polls.

Labor media also tends to avoid such culture-war topics as GLBT rights, women’s rights, and gun owners’ rights

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