August 30, 2005

Smooth Operators

I'm sure I haven't been the only one annoyed by the media's coverage of the Northwest Airlines strike, regardless of what one thinks about the strike itself (and I have no special love for the AMFA). Just about every major story I've seen opens with a few cloying paragraphs on how the airline is still running "smoothly" despite those uppity workers causing a big ruckus, then segues into a full swoon over Northwest's ability to keep its stock prices flying as high as its planes, and finally, closes on a note of admiration for the company's oh-so-bold strategy of using scabs—ahem, "replacement workers"—to weather these tough times. And that's just the liberal press.

Fine, so it's what we've come to expect from our corporate media. A few months ago, I noted something just as appalling going on with the barely-averted BART strike here in San Francisco: In the press, the entire ordeal was cast as a battle between commuters and workers—in which the soon-to-be-inconvenienced BART riders heaped aspersions on the "unreasonable" demands of the unions—while business managed to write itself out of this little drama entirely. Is labor reporting always so awful? It sure seems so. While searching around I came across this valuable review of Christopher R. Martin's recent book, Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media, which looks like a must read, judging from the brief synopsis:
Martin argues that the "framing" of U.S. labor coverage occurs through five means: 1. The consumer is king; 2. The process of production is none of the public’s business; 3. The economy is driven by great business leaders and entrepreneurs; 4. The workplace is a meritocracy; and 5. Collection economic action is bad. He also notes that corporate ownership of most media has led to a hostile relationship between unions and media outlets. None of those frames has anything to do with the plight of the worker, he added.
Seems spot on. Martin takes a close look at how the three major television networks, USA Today, and the New York Times covered five major labor issues in the 1990s, and concludes in each case that "media coverage predominantly focused on the effects on consumers and ignored the working conditions of employees." But this wasn't just some perverse side-effect of the '90s "New Economy" mania. FAIR issued a report back in 1989 delivering nearly the same indictment. Few major media outlets, the report found, carried a dedicated labor reporter any longer—the labor beat has been replaced by the always-amusing "workplace beat"—while editors have shown scant interest in labor stories, unless something important happens, like, you know, a company unveiling some bold new strike-busting tactic. (There are exceptions: Steven Greenhouse of the Times, for instance, is a fantastic labor reporter, although I notice he didn't get invited to cover the NWA strike.)

Cable outlets, for their part, lavish attention on their corporate- and finance-oriented shows, despite the fact that most of them have earned piddling ratings since the crash, but not even PBS has a labor version of Kudlow and Cramer. Presumably the market has spoken, and there's just no demand for that sort of thing, but union density still hovers at around 12.9 percent, and it seems hard to believe that the potential audience just doesn't exist.

But forget the mass media; it's as useless as ever. If anything's worth doing you need to do it yourself. Yet the rapid decline in union density over the past three decades has forced hundreds of labor publications to shutter up, including the 2002 closing of the Racine Labor, a Wisconsin-based newsletter that had survived for over 60 years and had often been held up as a model for other aspiring labor papers to emulate. So much for that. We're a far, far cry from the turn of the 20th century, when the Appeal to Reason, a socialist rag, boasted 760,000 subscribers at its peak. Perhaps the internet will someday revive that tradition; one can always hope. In the meantime, though, the cycle will likely continue: the liberal media will avert its innocent eyes as business slowly but surely dismantles organized labor, which will put even more worker publications in dire straits, which will in turn convince the Times and the networks that "the people," apparently, demand more stories about workplace gossip and less about the means of production. And on it goes.
-- Brad Plumer 3:37 AM || ||