October 12, 2006

No Labor Coverage For You

Earlier this week at TNR, John Judis wrote about the decline of Business Week, noting that the magazine no longer covers labor issues like it used to, and that, indeed, almost no major media outlet these days carries a dedicated labor reporter. The decline of labor reporting is an important story, and there are a few things to add here. Christopher Martin, a communications professor at the University of Iowa, touched on the issue in his recent book, Framed!: Labor and the Corporate Media. Here's a synopsis of Martin's argument about how the media frames labor disputes:
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. Collective 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.
Martin looked 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 [usually adverse] effects on consumers"--undermining potential solidarity between strikers and the public--"and ignored the working conditions of employees."

And this wasn't just a side effect of "New Economy" mania during the Clinton years. FAIR delivered a similar indictment back in 1989, noting that few outlets employed a labor reporter, that newspapers rarely cover labor issues unless a strike is going on, and that labor coverage has been replaced by a "workplace beat" investigating office gossip and the like. And it's hard to ascribe all of this to a lack of interest. Cable outlets, after all, spend lavishly on corporate- and finance-oriented shows, even though most of them have earned piddling ratings since the stock market crash in 2001. Even PBS has no counterpart to Kudlow & Cramer.

Anyway, we're a far cry from the start of the 20th century, when Eugene Debs' Appeal to Reason boasted a stunning 760,000 subscribers. Indeed, one of the last major labor-run publications, the Racine Labor--often held up as a model for other aspiring labor papers to emulate--closed down in 2002. Anyway, people can debate causes all day, but it's hard to imagine that the decline of labor coverage hasn't had a negative effect on unions--or the labor movement in general.
-- Brad Plumer 4:49 PM || ||