Aug 1 2005

Why Is Labor Off TV?

Chris Matthews blames leaders--not himself

It’s a fact that labor unions are seldom heard from in the mainstream media. But when MSNBC host Chris Matthews brought up the issue (Hardball, 6/10/05), he blamed the problem on the labor movement.

“I watch Sunday television,” Matthews explained during an interview with Bill Moyers.

I never see a really good articulate labor leader on television. What happened to the George Meanys and the Walter Reuthers we grew up with? Where are the strong, articulate voices of the working person, the working family out there? That voice that you’re talking about, who worries about trade policy, who worries about tax policy, who worries about being trained for the job, where are those voices on Sunday?

Matthews is right that labor spokespeople are rarely heard on the Sunday shows; a FAIR study (Extra!, 9=10/01) found that in 19 months of coverage, featuring 364 guests, only two representatives of organized labor appeared on the networks’ Sunday morning talk shows.

Of course, Matthews doesn’t just “watch” Sunday television–he hosts a show of his own: NBC‘s Chris Matthews Show. A search of the Nexis database turned up no labor guests on the show since its debut in late 2002.

His daily MSNBC show Hardball hardly does any better. A search of the last 15 months of the show turns up only a handful of appearances by union representatives: AFSCME’s Gerald McEntee was briefly interviewed once (7/27/04), Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO made two appearances (7/29/04, 2/20/04) and Teamsters president James Hoffa was on three times (2/17/04, 3/2/04, 10/28/04). (Oddly enough, Matthews asked Hoffa during his latest appearance: “I haven’t seen a lot of union leader presence on television the last couple of months. What’s that about?”)

But Matthews wasn’t actually critiquing a problem with the media–he was blaming labor for not wanting to be on television, or not being good enough to appear:

They don’t have speakers. I’m telling you, I can’t think right now of a labor leader that could match wits with a Dick Cheney on television. They don’t want to get out there and debate like they used to…. Who are the great spokesmen against this administration’s trade policies or this administration’s tax policies? Who are they?

Matthews’ invocation of Cheney’s debating prowess is peculiar, given Cheney’s propensity for exaggerations and misstatements–not to mention the fact that Cheney rarely “debates” anyone at all.

Matthews has criticized labor for its lack of media exposure before (Chris Matthews Show, 8/31/03):

Where is the voice of labor arguing loud and clear for a better shake? Organized labor needs to crack through its encrusted seniority system and pick a leader it can put on the evening news and Sunday television and wake this country up to what it’s doing to the most basic, the most vital of all American institutions: the working family.

When Moyers explained to Matthews during their June 10 interview that there are many articulate grassroots labor activists, and that they deserve a place in the media debate, Matthews quipped: “Well, they should get elected to Congress. Then we will put them on.”

Matthews’ joke provided a more sensible answer to his question than his suggestion that labor leaders lacked the “wits” to debate with the likes of Cheney: There aren’t more labor leaders on Sunday shows because the Sunday shows are mostly reserved for powerful politicians–and it’s powerful journalists like Matthews that have decided that this should be the case.