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The scoop on anti-union bias in the media

Berry Craig
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We publish union news and views almost daily. Odds are, you don’t get much union news in your hometown paper. Or when you do, it’s in-house or canned opinion from anti-union, right-wing groups.


AFT Local 9005

"Why is the media so anti-union?”

This old reporter-turned-history-teacher often hears that lament from my union brothers and sisters. So give me a crack at an answer.

First, let's get specific. By “the media,” union members mainly mean Fox News and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber or local newspapers and TV and radio stations.

Everybody knows Fox News is the Republican Party’s propaganda ministry. More than a few small town media owners are Fox fans. But a lot of their anti-union bias is rooted in old-fashioned local Chamber of Commerce-style boosterism satirized in Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis’s famous 1922 novel. (That's a photo of Lewis topping this story.)

Most local newspaper publishers and TV and radio station owners would fit right in with George Babbitt and the other members of the “Good Citizens’ League” branch in “Zenith,” Babbitt’s Midwestern “hometown.”

The Good Citizens battled unions, claiming “the…American way of settling labor-troubles was for workmen to trust and love their employers. All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary.”

Sound familiar in real life today? 

Generally, the smaller the paper or TV or radio station is, the greater its bias against unions. Their anti-unionism is sometimes as plain as their front doors, which are often plastered with decals or stickers proudly proclaiming chamber membership. The fact that the chamber is openly pro-business and fiercely anti-union apparently doesn’t trouble local media owners about conflicts of interest.

Like the chamber, almost all small-town newspaper publishers and TV and radio station owners believe that what’s best for businesses – including their media businesses, of course – is best for the community. So local business leaders — and fellow chamber members — get a lot of ink and on-camera time. They are depicted as “solid citizens” who are “pillars” in their communities.

On the other hand, union leaders almost never get such positive press. The president of the local chamber of commerce is in the paper or on TV or the radio all the time. The president of a local union almost never is, except when there is a strike.

Reporters commonly call strikes “labor disputes,” not “labor-management” disputes. “Labor disputes” implies, on purpose on not, that unions are to blame for work stoppages.

Strike stories seldom focus on why workers go on strike. They usually concentrate on how strikes inconvenience the public.

Therefore, newspaper readers, TV viewers and radio listeners are led to believe that the public is the innocent victim in “labor disputes.” Striking workers, no matter how aggrieved, come off as greedy malcontents who just cause trouble, not only for their employers, but for everybody.

Part of the problem is a lack of understanding on the part of reporters. Not that many small town newshounds even have a basic idea of how unions and collective bargaining work.

Almost no small-town papers or TV or radio stations are union. Few reporters come from union families or have ever been in any kind of union.

Of course, any company’s PR department is always glad to “help” the reporter with skillfully spun news releases. Like PR staffers, most reporters are middle-class, college grads. Hence, many reporters naturally sympathize with management.

Though almost all small town, non-union reporters are poorly paid, many of them see themselves as “professionals,” like company flaks, whose station in life is above that of blue collar workers.

Even reporters who consider themselves “liberal” often wholesale dismiss union members as dimwitted bigots.

Anyway, good labor reporting is specialized reporting. Time was, big city daily newspapers recognized that fact and had full-time labor reporters. Few do any more. (But large or small, almost all papers have business pages or sections.)

“Labor reporters knew how unions functioned and why they existed,” said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. “They tended to be more balanced in their labor reporting.”

Londrigan added that it’s no accident that labor reporters are all but gone. “It was coincident with the corporatization and concentration of media ownership.”

At the same time, even some large papers whose liberal editorial policy includes stated support for organized labor resist unionizing efforts by their employees. In a Guardian online article, Hamilton Nolan cited  The New York Times

"One of the most useful qualities of labor unions is their ability to force Good Liberals to actually demonstrate their principles in a tangible way," he wrote. "It is easy for a self-proclaimed progressive business owner to say all the nice things about how they believe in equality and fair wages and worker rights – but when their employees unionize and come to claim those rights, those nice bosses must stop talking about how nice they are, and prove it. For limousine liberals, dealing with unions is where the rubber hits the road."

Maybe I missed it. But as far as I can tell, the less-than-union-friendly Gannett Corp.-owned Louisville Courier-Journal, editorially Kentucky's leading liberal paper, has yet to publish a word about the successful union drive in its newsroom.

Next up: How your local can get better coverage in your hometown media.