Aug 1 1990

Lost in the Margins

Labor and the Media

Cover image from Labor in the Media by Tom Chalkley

Tom Chalkley

On September 17, 1989, 98 members of the United Mine Workers of America took over a coal-processing plant in southwestern Virginia owned by the Pittston Coal Group, which the UMWA had struck in April 1989. For four days, the miners—and a local minister—occupied the facility as thousands of other miners and supporters from around the country, staying up around the clock, blocked the paths and prevented state troopers, federal marshals and heavily armed, flak-jacketed company security guards from retaking the plant. It was the first major takeover of a plant since the 1937 sitdown strike by autoworkers at the Flint, Mich., General Motors plant. The event had every element of a good journalistic story: conflict, drama, colorful characters and, for television, tremendous footage. Yet, as far as the national media were concerned, the historic action did not occur.

Unlike the widespread coverage given the Soviet miners’ strike in June 1989, the dramatic action by US miners was not covered by the New York Times or any of the three television networks—the four outlets that most influence what television stations and newspapers around the country run and, by extension, what the US public is told is news. It rated one sentence in USA Today (9/19/89) and two brief mentions in the Wall Street Journal (9/20/89, 9/21/89). Miners at the seized plant expressed anger at the blackout. The media do not care about miners in America, they fumed.

This is by no means a feeling restricted to miners in southwestern Virginia. When the United Auto Workers lost a bid to represent workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., the New York Times ran a prominent front-page story with a huge picture. Where, several UAW members asked rhetorically, do you think the story would have been placed had the union won? Everywhere one travels—from paper mills in Maine to chemical plants in Louisiana to hotels in Las Vegas—the same complaint is heard: The corporate-owned media are anti-union and will not cover labor stories fairly or at all.

Is this criticism valid? The non-coverage of the Pittston plant takeover inspired an in-depth study analyzing coverage of US working people and their unions during 1989. A two-page questionnaire was sent to the 100 largest circulation newspapers. Computer databases—primarily Nexis—were used to analyze newspaper coverage. Using the Vanderbilt Television News Archive abstracts, the study compared an entire year’s worth of labor coverage with general business or economic coverage on the three nightly network news broadcasts. Finally, labor reporters, other media professionals and union representatives were interviewed.

The study found that the lives of 100 million working people—those who make the US economy and society run—are being routinely ignored, marginalized or inaccurately portrayed in the media. Although reporting about working people and organized labor has declined since the early 1960s, the last 10 years have seen an accelerated drop. This trend coincides with the rapid pace of concentration of the media in fewer and fewer corporate hands. The 1989 annual report of Time, Inc. (now merged with Warner Communications) brashly predicted that by “the mid-1990s, the media and entertainment industries will consist of a handful of vertically integrated worldwide giants Time, Inc. will be one of them.”

The monopolization of the media has had a direct influence on labor reporting. The media have done more than any single institution to turn the corporate executive into a star: the “Iaccocaing” of US business. Conversely, the message, stated as well as subliminal, that the lives of workers are less important has spread into newsrooms in every corner of the United States.


In 1989, during more than 1,000 broadcasts (roughly 22,000 minutes, based on 22 minutes of news per broadcast), the three network evening news programs devoted a little more than 2 percent of the total air time—511 minutes—to all workers’ issues, including childcare, the minimum wage, and workplace safety and health. While this total includes international labor stories, it does not count the massive—and almost entirely favorable—coverage given Poland’s Solidarity union, because the story was generally framed as a political and foreign policy story. Of the 511 minutes, only 265 minutes—a little more than 1 percent of the total available air time—dealt with US unions. And this coverage would have been practically undetectable if not for the Eastern Airline strike, which accounted for 192 minutes—72 percent of the air time.

• Business and economic reporting, on the other hand, received 1,012 minutes, almost double the time devoted to workers’ issues. This figure includes stories on retail sales, the trade deficit, interest rate reports and corporate mergers. It also includes the daily report of the Dow Jones average, a regular feature (with its own special graphics) on all three networks, whose unstated message is that a rise in the Dow is good news for all.

• Workers are virtually never interviewed or portrayed as experts, even though they are the people who know the most about safety and health issues, unemployment or equality in the factory. Instead, they are usually relegated to “person-in-the-street” interviews featuring the Joe Six-Pack stereotype. They are more likely to be asked for their opinions about Leona Helmsley’s tax- fraud conviction or Donald Trump’s love affairs than about their work. Of all the people selected by ABC World News Tonight as “Person of the Week” in 1989, not one was a worker singled out for anything to do with work.

• In the absence of a strike, stories about the campaigns of workers and their unions have, with few exceptions, disappeared from the printed page and TV screen. Strike coverage itself tends to be superficial. The words Walter Lippmann wrote in 1922 ring even truer in 1990: “If you study the way many a strike is reported in the press, you will find, very often, that the issues are rarely in the headlines, barely in the leading paragraphs, and sometimes not even mentioned anywhere.”

• The labor beat, once a respected assignment, no longer exists at most large- to medium-sized US newspapers. According to top former and current labor reporters, editors simply are not interested in allocating resources— either time or money—to labor issues. Reporters seeking to advance their careers see the labor beat as a dead end.

• “Workplace” beats have replaced labor beats. Typically, workplace beats are under the purview of the business editor, whose coverage is aimed primarily at managers and professionals. As a result, the focus of these stories tends to soften or ignore corporate responsibility for the lack of health care, safe working conditions or dignity on the job. Needless to say, while most newspapers have a daily business section, none have a daily labor section.

• There is a growing gap between the experiences of working people in the United States and the individuals who are supposed to report on their lives. In the workplace, workers’ real wages are dropping, the female workforce is growing, and people of color are dominating the lowest-paid, dirtiest jobs. According to questionnaire responses and interviews, reporters and editors covering workers’ issues are essentially white males from middle- class backgrounds making upwards of $40,000 a year (plus benefits). Only four out of 28 respondents were female; none of the women were full-time labor reporters and only one came from a working-class background.


The corporate media covers labor news (Konopacki)Based on responses to the study’s questionnaire, the reporter most likely to cover labor is a white, middle-class male assigned to the business desk. Labor reporting typically takes up no more than 20 percent of his time. Except for strike coverage, labor stories rarely get front-page placement. For example, the Denver Post (240,000 daily circulation) assigns a business reporter to labor, which is defined as a “workplace issues” beat. He spends 10 percent of his time on labor, covering other diverse subjects such as retailing, international trade and Denver-based companies like the stridently anti-union Adolph Coors Co. USA Today had Mark Memmont assigned to the labor beat four years ago, but he told FAIR that the “beats have been juggled. We don’t have anybody in the Money section covering labor. It’s assigned from general assignment.”

Other responses include:

  • The San Diego Union (250,000 daily circulation): A business reporter covers labor 25 percent of her time. She also covers tourism, Mexican economic issues and immigration.
  • The St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press (195,000): A business reporter also covers manufacturing and business law. The labor “beat [was I dropped for about a year,” the paper told FAIR.
  • The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call (185,000): The “vast majority” of the labor beat is covered by a business reporter, with some help from general assignment reporters.
  • The Arkansas Gazette (140,000): The Gazette covers labor through wire stories and from the paper’s business desk. According to the business editor, labor takes up “a couple of hours a month.”
  • The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News (200,000): The paper used to have a full- time labor reporter, but the beat was abolished. Now a business reporter who previously covered real estate spends 10 percent of his time on labor.

On the other hand, a few papers still have labor reporters, including Newsday (700,000), the Detroit Free Press (629,000), the Minneapolis Star Tribune (410,000), the Baltimore Sun (373,000) and the Buffalo News (360,000). The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (372,000) features an “On Labor” column written by Phil Dine. A recent column (7/19/90) describing the problems of two foreign union leaders, one from El Salvador and one from Ghana, stands out because violence and repression against workers in US-allied countries is rarely covered in the US press. The Los Angeles Times (1.2 million) has some of the best labor coverage of any daily newspaper—with a full-time labor reporter (Bob Baker, who replaced the highly regarded Henry Weinstein); a labor columnist, the veteran labor reporter Harry Bernstein, whose columns appear in the business pages; and a “workplace” reporter.

As workers’ issues are handed over to business or general assignment reporters, the quality of labor reporting suffers. The Wall Street Journal assigned a reporter to cover the United Mine Workers several years ago who had never heard of John L. Lewis, the legendary leader of the union who had been a significant political figure during the 1930s and 1940s. Business reporters tend to favor a diminished role for unions, and write more positively about arrangements where unions and management work hand-in-hand—reflecting the corporate endorsement of Japanese management/labor relations.

For example, during the past few years, the United Auto Workers union has gone through a fierce debate over strategy. An insurgent group, New Directions, argues that the UAW must return to a more adversarial role towards the auto companies. The group has mounted a challenge to the union’s leadership, garnering 10 to 15 percent of the delegates at the UAW’s convention in 1989. Yet coverage of New Directions has been generally sparse, erratic or uninformed. When the caucus sent out a five-point program geared toward the upcoming auto negotiations to 80 major media outlets, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News reported the story, but most other newspapers, including the New York Times, did not. At a recent UAW bargaining convention in Kansas City, Mo., UAW president Owen Bieber took an active role in defeating a New Directions-sponsored proposal to protect pensions with a cost- of-living index. The Kansas City Times and Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered the convention, but skipped over New Directions’ role.

Slanted labor reporting is not confined to blue-collar coverage. It can also be seen, for example, in the coverage of labor relations in sports. Especially in baseball and football, labor disputes are portrayed in the press as the fault of rich, greedy athletes who are hurting the fans (and sports writers) by threatening to strike or actually striking. The owners, many of whom are making millions from their teams, are criticized far less frequently.

Most papers ask their sports reporters, who typically came to the sports beat to cover what happens on the playing field, to write about labor relations. That presents an inherent conflict. Sports writers “serve at the pleasure of management,” then-Chicago Tribune labor writer James Warren told the Los Angeles Times (6/23-24/89). “Management lets them show up at their practice field, management lets them into the locker room, management lets them sit in their press box.” Warren believes this guarantees “implicit…shilling for management.” Indeed, although major league baseball owners were found guilty of colluding by not offering contracts to free agents during the 1985 and 1986 seasons, “no newspaper published a serious investigative story during the lengthy controversy,” according to the L.A. Times. The same is true for the collusion findings in the 1987 season.

Previous FAIR studies examined two of TV’s most prestigious news programs—ABC’s Nightline and PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. On programs with economic themes, labor issues received only 7 percent of Nightline’s airtime, while 20 percent focused on the stock market. Only one in 20 Nightline guests on economics shows represented labor, compared to one out of three who came from the business community. MacNeil/Lehrer featured 19 programs with 42 guests on economic issues between Feb. 6, 1989 and Aug. 5, 1989. Only four labor leaders appeared, all during the program’s five stories on the Eastern Airlines strike. In addition, PBS stations air the weekday half-hour Nightly Business Report, plus two weekly programs, Adam Smith’s Money World and Wall Street Week (hosted by anti-labor commentator Louis Rukeyser). PBS does not offer any regular labor-related show.

Cable News Network (CNN) has regular Wall Street updates from its “business desk” in New York, as well as a half-hour business wrap-up called Moneyline every weekday. No similar coverage is given to labor.

Anecdotal information suggests that labor coverage on local TV is even thinner than on network news. For instance, in San Francisco, KGO-TV assigns a business/general assignment reporter to cover labor, who spends 10 percent of his time on the subject for the No. 1 station in the area.

One radio outlet, National Public Radio, is worth mentioning because it is often touted as an alternative to corporate-owned media. Although NPR did have a labor reporter several years ago, and does run in-depth labor stories (such as a 7/16/90, 22-minute piece on discriminatory hiring practices at resorts in Myrtle Beach, S.C.), it no longer has a full-time labor reporter. Labor coverage will be “catch-as-catch-can for the foreseeable future,” said Leslie Cook, NPR’s newly hired business and economics editor. “I don’t think we do a great job of covering all the issues that fall within the broad umbrella” of labor.



Pittston strikers (Photo: Ilana Storace)

Miners supporting the takeover of the Pittston coal plant. (Photo: Ilana Storace)

On April 5, 1989, 1,700 members of the United Mine Workers of America struck the Pittston Coal Group. The strike had long-term implications for the UMWA, and for the entire labor movement. Pittston, a maverick coal company, sought to end its contribution to industry-wide pension and health benefit funds set up almost 40 years ago to guarantee miners, who retire from a dangerous and dirty job with black-lung disease and other health ailments, a small measure of security. The issues were clear and dramatic: If Pittston won the strike, every other unionized company would stand in line to demand the same concessions, dooming the union. The strike also underscored the growing corporate demand in every US industry for concessions on health benefits. Moreover, the strike highlighted an ongoing debate in labor over whether US labor law had ceased to offer real protection for workers.

On television, the UMWA’s strike against Pittston merited, over the course of nine months, a combined total of 22 minutes and 40 seconds on the three television networks. The sporadic reports gave no sense of the strike’s militancy and drama. The first mention of the strike on the nightly news came in a 2 minute, 20 second ABC broadcast on April 30—a Sunday, when national news viewership is lowest, 25 days after the strike began. CBS and NBC waited 10 more days before airing their first reports on May 10.

Print coverage of the Pittston strike held to a similar pattern. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, then a reporter in the newspaper’s Virginia bureau, wrote several solid stories and covered the processing plant takeover (although only after the third clay), but her stories ran mainly in the paper’s regional section. Area newspapers covered the strike regularly as a local news story. The Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News and the Bristol Herald-Courier Virginia Tennessean—both independently owned newspapers—had balanced coverage. Sojourners, an independent Christian monthly magazine, offered an in-depth 11-page article by Joyce Hollyday in its July 1989 issue.

But most national newspaper and television reporters had no grasp of the issues at hand, continually missing the emotional and economic importance of the pension and health benefit funds to the mining communities. “I’m not as upset about not having a ‘labor reporter’ as I am about seeing very few people who have any depth perception or sense of the history of the union and the [coal] industry,” says Joe Corcoran, the union’s public relations director during the strike, now chief of staff to UMWA president Richard L. Trumka. “Business Week, which slept through the strike for the first six months, sent in the first seasoned labor reporter, and he got it right the first time.” (Corcoran was referring to Business Week’s John Hoerr, a 20-year veteran labor reporter.)

During the summer of 1989—midway through the Pittston strike—Soviet coal miners also staged a number of strikes. The strikers, who were portrayed by the media as a shining symbol of the democratic challenge to the Soviet government, were showered by the network nightly newscasts with 37 minutes and 10 seconds of positive coverage during nine straight days from July 17 to July 25. The daily follow-ups describing the unfolding story declared that this was an important subject. The coverage included a four-minute lead story on CBS’s July23 broadcast, and an ABC segment (7/21/89) that vividly contrasted the living standards of Soviet bosses and coal miners—something no one thought to do in Virginia.

The July 28, 1989, New York Times illustrates the difference in the way the two strikes were covered. On page A4, an 18-paragraph story by Francis X. Clines ran below the headline “Mine Leaders Prove Quick Studies in the New Soviet Politics.” Clines described the strikers in glowing terms, calling one Soviet miner “an example of the scores of impressive young people who surfaced in the mine strikes to claim a stake in the new art of public protest.” On page A9, a different kind of miner is portrayed. A one-paragraph Associated Press story, headlined “UMW Is Fined Again,” quotes a judge castigating the union for “acts of terror” in justifying a $4.5 million fine for purported assaults and threats made by miners striking Pittston. No mention is made of the UMWA’s widespread use of nonviolent civil disobedience, in which thousands of men, women and children were arrested for peacefully blocking coal trucks. Flying in the face of the Times’ credo of objectivity, no union official is quoted responding to the judge’s comments.

Most of the Times coverage throughout the US miners’ strike was similar. When serious charges were brought by government agencies against Pittston, they were reported through wire stories and buried in the paper. The National Labor Relations Board’s extensive complaint charging Pittston with numerous unfair labor practices appeared as a July 12 Reuters wire story on the bottom of page A1o. On Nov. 30, a reader had to turn to page 28 to find an AP wire story on an appeals court ruling that Pittston had violated securities laws by using shareholders’ proxies to vote down union proposals. Long features on the pain inflicted on the communities by Pittston did appear in the Times—most of them as the strike was winding down.

During the takeover of the coal plant on Sept. 17, miners routinely asked why the media were not covering the event. For television, it was not for lack of access to tape. Local affiliates from all three networks shot footage for four days. Local newspapers covered the takeover daily on the front page with full-color photos. But the New York Times ignored one of the most dramatic labor events in recent time.

“The best labor coverage is at the extremes,” the UMWA’s Corcoran observes. “In the business publications like Business Week and the Wall Street Journal and in the left publications, basically Labor Notes and In These Times.” (Labor Notes is a Detroit-based monthly independent labor publication, while In These Times is an independent weekly newspaper published from Chicago.)


Eastern strikers (Photo: Jim Obst/Impact Visuals)

Workers on strike against Eastern and Continental airlines (Photo: Jim Obst/Impact Visuals)

The strike by thousands of machinists, flight attendants and pilots against Eastern Airlines commanded by far the most labor coverage during 1989. Thirty-seven percent of the network’s coverage of workers—and 72 percent of their union coverage—dealt with the Eastern strike (76 minutes on ABC, 61 minutes on CBS and 55 minutes on NBC).

The coverage seemed, at best, to have a schizophrenic quality. Reporting on Eastern owner Frank Lorenzo regularly cast him as simply a tough corporate executive fighting the vagaries of a deregulated industry. Eastern was typically described as “Lorenzo’s airline,” as if workers who had spent most of their working lives at the airline had less of a stake in the company. ABC business reporter Steven Aug (3/3/89–emphasis added) proclaimed that

this is a big gamble for Frank Lorenzo and his airline. If Eastern had continued to operate it would have gone broke in a couple of months. Lorenzo needed a strike to break the machinists union.

Did Lorenzo need a strike or a better approach to labor relations? What role did poor management—Lorenzo’s as well as his predecessors—have in racking up huge financial losses? And why should workers have to pay for mismanagement? Most reporters rarely, if ever, explored these questions.

On the other hand, ABC’s Morton Dean (3/8/89) had a strong report on Lorenzo’s “broken promises” at Continental. (He promised “not to move offices, he did. Not to sell planes, he did. Not to fire workers, he did.”) ABC’s Mike Von Freund (3/9/89) looked at the cost to the workers in a balanced tone.

What was lacking in most of the coverage—a problem endemic to journalism in general—was a probing look at Frank Lorenzo’s systematic looting of Eastern to prop up his non-union Continental Airlines. Just as most reporters have little skill or inclination to investigate the Savings & Loan looting, they were lost in the maze of the Lorenzo financial empire.

It was not as if the evidence was hard to find. Morton Dean’s March 8 report mentioned Lorenzo’s sale of Eastern’s highly profitable reservation system to Texas Air. “Some say that’s like robbing Frank to pay Frank,” Dean said. And PBS’s Frontline (1/31/89) broadcast a documentary, “The Battle for Eastern Airlines.” Produced by Alex Gibney and narrated by Robert Kuttner, the program dealt at length with Lorenzo’s financial and accounting gimmicks. The show featured interviews with people such as Farrell Kuppersmith, a partner in the accounting firm of Touche, Ross & Co., who once testified on behalf of Lorenzo during the union-busting efforts at Continental Airlines. “We represent corporate America and I think it’s in the system’s best interest not to allow it to be used as a weapon, which is what is happening at Eastern,” he said. “It’s a very clever corporate raid where the unionized airline is being dismantled for the benefit of the non-union carrier.”

Although this study did not undertake an examination of the link between favorable coverage of business and the power of corporate advertising, the Eastern strike provided a graphic example of the subtle influence ads may have on television broadcasts. On Feb. 27, just six days before the strike began, Lorenzo began pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a massive ad campaign on all three network news programs. Ads for Eastern and Continental Airlines often followed within a few minutes any reporting on the strike. The day before the strike, all three nightly network news shows carried Lorenzo’s ads. (CBS and NBC featured Eastern spots, ABC carried a promotion for Continental.)

The Eastern strike sent thousands of people into the streets, many of whom played active roles in their unions and communities. Yet ABC decided to single out as its April 7 “Person of the Week” not a machinist, flight attendant or pilot, but Peter Ueberroth, the corporate golden-boy who made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy Eastern from Frank Lorenzo.

The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post all devoted hundreds of inches to the story, with other papers following extensively through wire copy. It wasn’t until March 20, almost three weeks after the strike began, that the New York Times ran a story (page B5) that raised questions about some of Lorenzo’s deals, acknowledging that “the unions have maintained for more than a year that the transactions that built Texas Air are fraught with double-dealing.” In general, New York Times coverage followed the paper’s editorial line: “Labor Threatens the President” (2/24/89) was a typical editorial on the “cost of appeasing” the unions.

Of the business press, Business Week often had the most revealing coverage, including Aaron Bernstein’s report (5/1/89) on Lorenzo’s links to insider trader Michael Milken. The Miami Herald and the Atlanta Constitution and Journal also put several people on the story, because the two cities were major hubs for Eastern Airlines.

Again, the story, especially in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, was mostly covered by business reporters who tended to focus on Lorenzo’s financial strategy. Without a seasoned labor reporter covering the strike on a daily basis, both papers were unable to cover, for instance, the splits within the unions on strike strategy.


Reading the 1989 newspaper coverage of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, you might think that the union’s 1.7 million members—freight drivers, brewery workers, etc.—were all crooks. Reporting on the Teamsters takes to an extreme the media’s obsession with flamboyant, controversial figures—like former union presidents Jimmy Hoffa and Jackie Presser—and the mob. Lost is the sense of thousands of workers banding together for collective goals against recalcitrant employers.

Again, the New York Times set the standard for coverage. Of the 37 Times stories on the Teamsters in 1989, almost all highlighted organized crime and corruption; only six dealt with battles with employers, and these were typically buried deep in the paper. All eight stories in 1989 in the Washington Post were corruption-related; only two stories out of 26 in the Los Angeles Times had a non-crime theme; and of the Wall Street Journal’s 21 stories on the Teamsters, only six explored non-crime issues.

The overwhelming majority of articles focused on the government’s RICO suit, which in March 1989 led to a settlement where the union agreed to broad reforms. Without a doubt, the settlement opened up the possibility that the Teamsters’ members could regain control of their union. Under the terms of the pact, the rank-and-file would cast, for the first time, secret ballots to directly elect the union’s national officers in the 1991 elections.

Yet Nexis and the National Newspaper Index do not reveal a single in-depth story in the New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune or USA Today profiling Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the 14-year-old Teamster dissident movement that battled the leadership over democratic rule long before the government’s RICO suit.

The Wall Street Journal (3/14/89) acknowledged that “the terms of the settlement were greatly influenced by the concerns and platform” of TDU. The papers did not quote individual Teamsters as experts to gauge their reactions on how the settlement would change their union. Instead, government prosecutors were quoted extensively, with the few words heard from TDU giving little explanation of the organization.

Moreover, except for the New York Times, the papers did not carry any stories in 1989 on Ron Carey, the non-TDU opposition candidate for the Teamster presidency. After carrying several major page-one stories on the racketeering trial, the Times placed its one story on Carey—a 109-word AP short—on page B6 (9/18/89).

As for television, the networks carried five minutes and 10 seconds on the Teamsters. For loyal viewers of ABC, the union didn’t exist—it did not receive a single second of air time.


More than any time since the sweatshops of the 1920s and 1930s, US workers are being injured and killed on the job, according to safety and health experts and government statistics. Workers are exposed to hundreds of carcinogens that did not exist before World War II. Up to 70,000 workers die each year from cancers and heart, lung and other diseases that are linked to on-the-job hazards. About 10,000 more workers literally die at their jobs every year. Video display terminals (VDTs) are everywhere, causing crippling neuromuscular injuries and unknown other problems to thousands of people each year.

Yet the media virtually ignore safety and health stories and, at best, treat the issue sporadically, usually when a particularly egregious incident comes to light. During the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration systematically dismantled the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), newspapers covered the Washington bureaucracy story. But no major newspaper assigns a full-time reporter to occupational safety and health.

Why, despite the myriad dangers in the workplace, do safety and health issues go unreported? In These Times labor reporter David Moberg (4/25/90) looked at this question and found that

increasingly, reporters come from and live within a middle-class, well-educated social milieu and rarely encounter the people who suffer the most from workplace dangers.

Despite increased coverage of environmental issues, workers are overlooked when the risk to the public is raised. During the uproar over the use of Alar on apples, for instance, reporters almost never wrote about the danger facing workers who handle Alar. Nor are other toxic chemicals that pose environmental risks treated as workplace hazards. Moreover, as Moberg points out, the message communicated by the media is that “workplace dangers are thought to be an unavoidable part of a job, necessary for public good or ‘progress,’ voluntarily accepted by workers or compensated by a paycheck.”

The three networks devoted a total of 13 minutes and 20 seconds on the evening news to workplace safety and health in 1989; NBC found time for just 40 seconds on the subject. Contrast this treatment with the almost daily stories on “the war on drugs.” Compared to death caused by one’s job, fatalities from illegal drugs are minuscule.

In early 1990, two notable exceptions appeared on ABC’s 20/20 news show. The first (2/16/90), produced by Bill Willson, looked at the devastating working conditions in the poultry industry, specifically at the Perdue Co. The second (3/9/90), produced by Bernard Cohen, examined the slave-like lives of sugar cane workers in Florida who labor for pennies, live in subhuman conditions and suffer terrible physical injuries.


Who are the unemployed in the United States? Every month, usually on the same day, the three networks and most medium- to large-sized newspapers (usually through wire stories) report the unemployment rate as computed by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 1989, the message resounded strongly: The unemployment rate was low and workers should be proud of the US economic job machine. “US Jobless Rate Declines to 4.9 Percent, Lowest Since ‘73,” trumpeted the New York Times (4/8/89).

But the figures used by the media obscure the true scope of economic misery in the United States. As former New York Times labor reporter William Serrin pointed out in The Nation (1/23/89), the BLS statistics give very little weight to hundreds of thousands of people outside the narrow definition of “unemployment.” Millions of people work part-time because they cannot find full-time work, but the BLS still puts them into the employed column: Anyone who works just one hour a week is counted as an employed worker.

As Serrin explained, the BLS does release an unemployment figure, called U-7, which includes discouraged workers and less-than-full-time employment, but the media reports the lower, more conservative figures. In 1989, the media pegged the unemployment rate at 5.3 percent, while the more inclusive U-7 rate was 7.9 percent. (The Center on International and Public Affairs, a New York-based think tank, argues that the U-7 rate still excludes too many workers, and that a more realistic unemployment rate for 1989 is 11.3 percent.)

And few stories couple the BLS figure of new jobs created with a description of what those jobs pay. Overwhelmingly, the new jobs are in the low-paying service sectors such as retail trade, where the average annual 1989 wage is $9,828, compared to the average annual wage of $22,322 in the declining manufacturing sector.

Why do the media still exclusively use the lower figures? Laziness and habit, for one: It’s the way the story is always framed. But another political reason is at work: The figures the media feed the public present the rosiest picture of unemployment. To acknowledge the depth of joblessness and economic distress in the United States would undercut the rhetoric of recent years—accepted almost as gospel by much of the media—about “our strong economy.”

To date, Serrin’s picture of the true extent of unemployment has yet to be explored by major US newspapers or television networks.


The Bush administration and Congress battled in 1989 over how much the minimum wage should be raised. The overwhelming number of stories dealt with the legislative drama—would Bush veto the Democrats’ proposal to raise the minimum wage to $4.55 an hour? What compromise would be worked out?

The inside-the-Beltway storyline overshadowed the real story—that someone working full-time at $4.55 an hour would be making less than $9,300 per year, typically without benefits. For a family of four, that sum would not begin to reach the federally defined poverty line.

Most papers that responded to FAIR’s questionnaire used wire service stories to follow the minimum wage story. Few articles pointed out that the minimum wage hike would do almost nothing for the mostly female, single- parent worker. The New York Times explored these issues in a front-page story; the story appeared five months after the deal was struck to raise the minimum wage to only $4.25 by 1991—a figure that will fall 20 percent short of the minimum wage’s purchasing power in the 1970s, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

* * *

What effect does the undercoverage of workers and unions have on US society? We are culturally poorer because the deeds and struggles of workers are generally withheld from public consciousness. Decades ago, workers were extolled for their contributions to the community. Today, what they do is not celebrated and, as a result, a central part of the pulse of everyday life is deadened.

Workers, as individuals, know what their daily experiences are like. When those realities are not reflected in the nightly news or morning newspapers, it only increases the level of alienation felt by millions of citizens. People spend half their waking lives on the job, yet the media treat work as if it were just a fleeting moment in the day.

JONATHAN TASINI has covered labor and work-related issues for seven years for Business Week, New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, the Village Voice and many other publications. He is currently president of the National Writers Union. Additional research for this study was provided by Sara French, Joy Mitchell and Phil Mattera.

Funding for this study was provided by the Public Concern Foundation, W.H. and Carol Ferry, the Menemsha Fund, Kit Tremaine, Jennifer Stanley, Sallie Bingham, Edward Asner, Stanley K. Sheinbaum, Aaron and Alice Adler, and Ben and Beatrice Goldstein.


While a count of the number of stories or the aggregate number of TV minutes describes a stunning quantitative lack of labor coverage, it misses the qualitative problems in labor reporting. When workers’ issues, particularly those involving unions, do get covered, journalists often fall back on timeworn stereotypes, which have been even more pronounced in the last ten years. In his comprehensive December 1989 study, “Media Portrayals of Organized Labor,” William J. Puette of the University of Hawaii chronicled stereotypes of unions:

  1. Labor unions protect and encourage unproductive, lazy (usually fat), insubordinate workers.
  2. America is unable to compete internationally in open markets because big, powerful unions have forced the nation’s employers to pay exorbitant union wages to unproductive laborers.
  3. While some very poor and abused workers (particularly women and immigrants) may need to form unions to protect themselves, big international unions usually fail to represent the interests of such workers.
  4. Union leaders, because they do not come from the educated/cultured (privileged) classes, are more likely to be corrupted by the power they achieve than are business or political leaders.
  5. Unions should really be volunteer societies organized and led by unpaid, unprofessional staffs of selfless workers; nor should union dues ever be used to pay anyone’s salary.
  6. There was a time, long ago, when unions were necessary, but now things are different. Employers are enlightened and would not generally try to abuse their workers. In the few cases where they might, new federal laws are enough to provide reasonable protection against employer abuse.
  7. Unions institutionalize conflict. Unions came into being to solve a specific labor-relations problem. They solved the problem and, instead of going away, they remain to dredge up conflict where there would otherwise be perfect harmony.
  8. All unions are the same. All unions are, therefore, accountable for the corruption or excess of any one union or union leader and share the guilt or shame.

—J. T.

Veteran Labor Reporters Talk About Labor Coverage

Three of the most respected labor reporters have unfortunately left the labor beat—Business Week’s Robert Arnold and the Chicago Tribune’s James Warren, who are still with their respective publications, and William Serrin, who left the New York Times in 1986.

ROBERT ARNOLD came to Business Week in 1978 from the Wall Street Journal, where he had covered the United Mine Workers and the coal industry from its Pittsburgh bureau. He became the head of Business Week’s labor department in 1979. When Arnold was promoted to senior editor in 1985, he continued to oversee labor coverage for two more years.

I grew up in Oklahoma, where unions were considered the enemy. I got two pieces of advice when I started writing about labor. One, you can’t tell the story with one article a month—it’s too complicated. You have to bite off the story in smaller chunks. Second, you have to be incredibly enthusiastic. You have to stay up all night and drink bourbon all night if the [union people] want, and gain their trust. You need roughly a year of spade work to cover a union or an industry. Everything that happens is a reflection of what came before. There’s roots in the relationships that go back ten or 15 years.

Labor coverage has gotten scarce and more superficial because publications don’t devote the resources they used to. Organized labor is less important to the overall economy than it used to be, and without covering labor through unions, it’s harder to write about the workplace. In my lifetime, the labor beat has not been a vehicle to climb a ladder. People who cover it well do so because they love it, not because they’re trying to get ahead.

JAMES WARREN started writing about labor for the Chicago Sun Times in 1979, and continued when he moved to the Tribune in 1984. He left the beat in March 1989 to become the paper’s national media reporter. Ironically, the Tribune, which engaged in a fierce and ultimately successful battle to break its unions, became one of the few large newspapers to run regular labor stories. From the beginning, Warren insisted that he not report to the business desk.

I successfully resisted making this a business eat, because business editors have a skewed view on these stories and the business section tends to be a bulletin board for corporate America. I found that there wasn’t a whole lot of competition on the labor beat and there are great stories out there.

The general lack of labor stories has a dehumanizing effect. [When] people are confronted with fewer stories, they’re desensitized.” [Referring to a three-year battle in the Chicago area that led to a strike by 1,200 GE workers after Warren had left the beat:] The Tribune only at my prodding put in a one-graph story in the Saturday business section. A major local labor story and they were not interested. It showed gross insensitivity, not to mention a lack of good news judgment.

WILLIAM SERRIN was hired as the New York Times labor reporter in 1979, after writing a critical book on the United Auto Workers that did not endear him to the union’s leadership. When he moved on in 1986 to write a book on the collapse of the steel industry, the Times left the spot open for many months.

The [New York Times] editors never valued labor writing, although some were superb and supported me. To their credit, they hired me because I was a good writer and they wanted to cover work. They had a conventional way of covering labor and fell back on conventional definitions. There’s some goofy strike they want covered, instead of being out there doing path-breaking work. People look at the labor beat as something that won’t take you anywhere, plus it’s hard work.

The way to get ahead is to get into that fast track, go down to Washington, cover the White House or the Pentagon. If you want to do good labor journalism, a lot of it is uncharted and takes time, and then you will be compared, in terms of productivity, to the Washington bureau or the people in New York who never leave the newsroom. You have to come with a passion and confidence, because otherwise the editors will kill you, because they don’t think it’s important. I had the curious idea that you have to put workers in the paper like you put corporate executives in the paper. I was suspect, and the more good stories I wrote, the harder I did my job, the more suspect I was and the worse I was thought of.

I miss the place a lot because I miss doing good daily journalism. When the Times didn’t replace me, it was a signal that other papers didn’t have to value labor reporting.


Glasnost needed

When labor unionists talk about Pravda, they may not mean the Soviet newspaper, but rather the AFL-CIO News, the biweekly organ of the US labor federation. Ironically, the labor movement’s media—essentially newspapers and a few magazines—reflect a narrow perspective about workers. On a local level, many newspapers serve as little more than space to display pictures of union leaders—labor’s version of the “photo opportunity.”

Headlines in the Jan. 8, 1990 AFL-CIO News read, “Bad News 1980s End on Upswing” and “Labor Is in Good Shape After Weathering a Stormy Decade.” Who exactly is in “good shape”? Unmentioned were the numbers showing declining union membership, the decrease in organizing new members, and, more important, the freefall in wages and benefits.

As for free expression, a virtue the AFL-CIO fought for in Eastern Europe, the AFL-CIO News did not once mention rank-and-file movements such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union or the UAW’s New Directions in 1989. These movements did not rate a single word in their respective house organs, the UAW’s Solidarity magazine and International Teamster magazine.

Foreign union publications could serve as a model for giving members the news they need to democratically direct their unions The Swedish labor press, for instance, operates on the principle that “the union paper must reflect the realities that the union members live in,” said Martin Viredius, editor of the Swedish Transportworker. “Criticism from the members must have a given place, even if it is sometimes considered uncomfortable.”

US unions could give more independence to their publications by creating editorial bodies that include rank-and-file members; rotating the ubiquitous “president’s column” with other union members, preferably workers from the shop; and opening up the pages to more debate from members. (Most union publications don’t have “letters to the editor” sections.)