Mar 1 1998

Muddying Mr. Clean

Shallow coverage turned Carey campaign scandal into cartoon

It’s easy to imagine why corporate-owned media might be eager to report the political downfall of Ron Carey–the man who in August 1997 led the 1.4 million-member Teamsters union in the most prominent and popular strike in recent memory. The sudden media fascination with union politics is a little suspicious; many a tainted Teamsters election, in particular, has passed without occasioning so much ink.

But Carey is a public figure, and the lamentable dealings that led to his being disqualified for re-election and potentially barred from the union deserve scrutiny. It’s just that they deserved much more thoughtful and informed scrutiny than commercial media delivered.

With few exceptions, establishment reporters turned a complicated story into a cartoon: of a “Mr. Clean” who “got muddied” (New York Times, 11/23/97) and thereby fundamentally undermined the goals–or even the very existence–of the entire labor movement. Full of protestations of concern for union democracy and workers’ rights, coverage of Carey featured a determined disregard for labor history–and the ironic exclusion of the very workers whose interests were supposedly journalists’ concern.

Image is everything

Federal election officials overturned Ron Carey’s victory over James P. Hoffa, Jr. in the 1996 race for Teamster president, citing evidence of illegal fundraising schemes by the Carey campaign. Carey denied knowing that a hired consulting group had funneled union money into his re-election effort; but a federal monitor ruled that he was or should have been aware of the abuse, and barred Carey from running in the next election. At press time, investigations continued.

Thoughtful treatments in the labor and independent press (Labor Notes, 1/98; In These Times, 12/14/97) told a difficult, cautionary story of the influence of money on union politics and the importance of forging a democratic process that transcends personalities.

For the commercial media, on the other hand, it was all about image. The trouble, ran the standard analysis, was that since his 1991 election, Carey had been a “darling” (Washington Post, 11/23/97), a “white knight”(Chicago Tribune, 11/26/97), anointed as the “salvation not only of the Teamsters Union but of the labor movement in general” (Rocky Mountain News, 11/22/97).

Citing “experts,” the Boston Globe concluded (11/21/97) that the media were largely responsible for creating an “unwillingness to believe Carey was possible [sic] of wrongdoing.” “Left-wing groups and journalists have all bought into those images,” former federal investigator Michael Moroney told the Globe, and this blinded them to any criticism of Carey.

But a quick look at earlier coverage belies that tale, including Moroney’s own experience: A widely quoted Carey detractor, Moroney had no trouble planting stories with, for example, Time magazine, where reporters evoked “spaghetti-sucking mob bosses and pistol-blazing hitmen” (11/22/93) in one of several articles filled with speculation about Carey’s real estate holdings and unsubstantiated rumors of Mafia ties. (See Extra!, 7-8/94.)

As reporters sounded this theme of Carey’s fall from lofty heights of media esteem, regular readers of what passes for labor coverage had to wonder: Did they mean the Newsweek article (12/9/96) that snickered, “In the Teamsters, democracy means the right to call your opponent a mobster”? Or the New York Times piece (6/28/93) that concluded that, though not himself charged with wrongdoing, Carey had “seen wrongdoers during his years as a Teamster leader”?

Besides the hazy hindsight, the insistent focus on fluctuations in Carey’s “popularity,” as opposed to his documented record of fighting corruption and ousting mob elements from the union, suggested a peculiar media self-absorption. For the Atlanta Journal & Constitution (1/28/97),for example, the 185,000 UPS workers who put their jobs on the line did so in a “battle for a better contract and an improved image in the media.” Now that Carey’s apparent malfeasance has tarnished that (media) image, the paper solemnly editorialized, the union “ought to consider disbanding.”

Hoffa’s bake sales

As absurd as the pretense that the corporate-owned media had portrayed a union leader too positively was the illogical leap made by some of the press: If Carey is dirty, Hoffa (his main challenger) must be clean. A number of stories suggested, with the Rocky Mountain News (11/22/97), that “Union Reform May Ironically Lie With Hoffa.”

A little digging would have shown just how ironic. As illustrated in a straightforward piece in U.S. News & World Report (12/22/97), Hoffa, Jr. has a public history with plenty of dark clouds. His closest advisers include “two men who have been convicted of embezzlement and a union official whose local is under grand jury investigation for alleged mishandling of funds.” At press time, federal prosecutors were continuing to look into the source of $1.8 million in campaign funds Hoffa claims came in less-than-$100 checks–from bake sales, T-shirts and the like.

Most reports evoked Hoffa, Jr.’s “larger-than-life” father (Washington Post, 11/27/97), but surprisingly few noted that the son to this day flatly denies that his father had any ties to organized crime, bribery or extortion. So while the Houston Chronicle (1/4/98) claimed the “Jury’s Still Out on Kind of Leader Hoffa Would Be,” many mainstream journalists failed to put much evidence before the court of public opinion.

Of course, the convention that limits national media to only one labor-related story at a time–they couldn’t track Hoffa because they were tracking Carey–and the general poverty of analysis leaves gaps in public awareness that anti-union ideologues are happy to fill.

The Rocky Mountain News (11/22/97) captured the pervasive dismissive tone: “So much for union democracy under Ron Carey and the government monitors,” it declared. Atlanta Journal & Constitution editorial board member Marilyn Geewax showed similar subtlety, with an analysis evidently drawn from movies. “Bad habits die hard,” she explains; the Teamsters are “no more able to change the nature of their organization than a Corleone could change his family’s business practices.”

An editorial in the Houston Chronicle (11/24/97) sanctimoniously evoked the breadth of trade unions’ “proud legacy” in the improvement of wages and working conditions for all Americans, only to declare the Carey election scandal evidence that “the labor movement” of today has “completely squandered that legacy.”

The Chronicle starts with the election story–though now it’s only “some union apologists” who “argue that the Teamsters union has made great progress”–but soon it’s clear that it’s not really Carey they’re talking about. The nation’s unions, it seems, were already squandering their proud legacy by “opposing the expansion of free trade that has revived the U.S. economy, reduced unemployment and created good-paying jobs for American workers, [embracing] the protectionism that the robber barons used to protect themselves from competition. . . .” One begins to suspect that opposition to neoliberal trade policy was Ron Carey’s worst offense.

Relevant history

A simple acknowledgment of relevant history distinguished reporters with a track record in labor issues from their underinformed colleagues. The New York Times‘ Steven Greenhouse commented (11/24/97) on the fact that three of the candidates to replace Carey were wooing the grassroots anti-corruption group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union. That shows how things have changed, said Greenhouse, recalling that “in 1984, when the Teamsters were still in the mob’s grip, union leaders sent a gang of thugs to beat up delegates” at a TDU convention.

Reporter Philip Dine (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11/28/97), former New York Times labor reporter William Serrin (Long Island Newsday op-ed, 11/21/97) and Long Island Newsday columnist Robert Reno (11/24/97) also wrote dry-eyed accounts of Teamster history, anti-corruption gains and Carey’s role in them. Their assessments weren’t rosy, just complex–and simply better reporting than saying, as USA Today did (11/26/97), that the recent charges merely add “a layer to the clouds of corruption that have cast a shadow on the union most of this century.”

Journalists also might have done better at seeing the big picture if they’d spent less time speaking for rank-and-file Teamsters and more time speaking to them. Most of the dozens of mass media accounts of the Carey charges were free of quotes from any actual union members, the most glaring indication that concern for workers’ “right to be heard” was a bit thin. Presumably if the Atlanta Journal & Constitution could have found UPS workers to say that they’d gone on the picket line in a quest for “an improved image in the media,” the paper would have quoted them.

Instead, in some cases, reporters talked to other reporters: Host Judy Woodruff to AP reporter Kevin Galvin on CNN‘s Inside Politics (11/25/97): “How tough a decision do you think it was for Ron Carey to step aside?” Galvin: “Oh, it must have been heartbreaking for him.”

Those regular folk that did appear weren’t exactly plumbed to their depth, their comments limited to the likes of “What do we do now?” (Washington Post, 11/23/97) and “If the Lord wills, Ron Carey will be our president” (New York Times, 11/23/97). Some had the sound of props for a pre-existing thesis, as when a Washington Post (11/27/97) piece ended with a source saying, “They’re all thieves. But some thieves are better than others. We ate good when Jimmy Hoffa was in there.”

It’s too bad reporters saw workers mostly as “color,” when they should have been the key to the story. Given more than a soundbite, many would have offered practical, intelligent ideas about the problems of changing institutional culture and the accountability of leaders, about grassroots participation versus rule from above, about how unions do or do not help them exercise their rights in the workplace. Labor Notes (1/98) cited a reform activist’s comment, no doubt repeated at gatherings around the country, that “we’re bigger than any one leader or candidate, because we are a movement.” A simple enough idea that found little echo in the media arena.