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Working In These Times

Friday, Jan 28, 2011, 10:14 am

Why Do Most Media Ignore Workers’ Struggles?

BY Mike Elk

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Last week, I caused a minor controversy when Huffington Post “fired” me as a blogger for helping a group of construction workers disrupt the Mortgage Bankers Association conference in Washington D.C. (I put "fired" in quotation marks because I, like the majority of people who blog for the site, was never compensated for my years of writing for the website, nor did I ever sign a contract for the privilege of doing so.)

My actions have raised legitimate questions about journalistic ethics. But perhaps we should also ask questions about the twin crises of the labor movement and labor journalism.

I received media accreditation for the conference based on my Huffington Post status, and then shared my accreditation with a union leader in order to help him gain access to this event. Workers demanded to know why Pulte Group's vice chairwoman was leading the summit and how her company obtained $900 million in bailout funds in 2009. Union workers say no jobs were created with that money. Because the conference was disrupted, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC—and even the Huffington Post!—ran stories on the unionists' criticism of Pulte Group.

Was helping union workers disrupt a conference of bankers an ethical thing for a journalist to do? Maybe not; I directly assisted activists. In my view, though, it's unethical for publications like the Huffington Post to not have a single full-time labor reporter and for corporate media to routinely ignore workers' struggles. Outside of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and In These Times, no U.S. media—including the independent "progressive" press—regularly cover the labor movement.

Why are the struggles of workers so rarely covered by mainstream journalists? The celebrated polemical Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi wrote a whole book entitled Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That is Breaking America. After reading it, you would think that the collapse of the American economy occurred because Wall Street had robbed Americans of their assets during the Internet and housing bubbles. What Taibbi fails to note is that Americans only went on a credit binge because their wages (on average) had been declining for decades.

Peter Goodman, the Huffington editor and former New York Times reporter who fired me, has also missed the role that the decline of collective bargaining has played in the economic crisis. Goodman wrote a piece in November titled “Corporate Profits Hit New Records, but Workers Still Struggling,” in which he laments that corporate profits were soaring, but workers were struggling to bring home the “quality paychecks” so necessary for a real economic recovery. He failed to report that the reason workers could not bring a home a fair share of profit is that very few can engage in collective bargaining since private sector union membership has dropped to 6.9% - its lowest level in over 70 years. 

Coverage of workers' declining standards in most media typically paints workers as meek and incapable of doing things. Liberals often call on the government to do something to help workers, but miss the point that workers can act to change their situation by improving their own workplaces.

Why is it that so many well-intentioned writers miss this important point? Perhaps because the corporate owners of publications have completely eliminated their labor journalists. But even nonprofit so-called "progressive" publications like the Nation, American Prospect, and Mother Jones regularly cover gay rights, foreign policy, media policy, etc., but mostly overlook labor stories.

Why? One reason is that many journalists have little or no familiarity with organized labor or labor struggles, and are unfamiliar with what can be achieved through organizing and solidarity actions. Journalists tend not to see strikes and lockouts as national struggles about corporate power, since strikes in most industries typically occur only as part of a specific contract. Local strikes, however, tend to have bigger implications: If a company wins concessions from workers, other bosses in the industry may see it as an opportunity to go on the offensive.

Journalists also tend to see stories about workers getting screwed over by evil corporations as cliched, lacking in "news value." They also tend to view workers' struggles, which are often unsuccessful, as boring compared with grandiose debates by elite think tank policy wonks. In other words, journalists spend a lot of time relaying the thoughts of elite opinion-makers who offer top-down solutions.

By failing to cover labor struggles and presenting workers merely as victims, the vast majority of U.S. media outlets and their reporters and editors are doing the nation a great disservice. Workers will feel more inspired to organize in their workplace and communities when they see more positive stories about the labor movement appearing in publications they read regularly—or at least stories that show workers acting collectively to control and improve their lives.

Such inspiration is needed on a grand scale in order to rebuild the labor movement. The U.S. economy will never be nursed back to health until we restore the power of the labor movement. Otherwise, workers will never receive a fair piece of the corporate profits they generate.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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