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Labor Media May Be Our Best Hope Against the Corporate Version
May 18, 2004
By David Swanson

There is a growing consensus in the United States that mainstream commercial media are by and large not mainstream at all but instead are supportive of the corporate agenda. Of course, the largest media companies (which provide most Americans' news) and their large advertisers are themselves mammoth corporations. In addition to promoting policies that advance corporate interests, our major media often appear to place profits ahead of investing in in-depth quality journalism.

To be sure, there are numerous web-based, alternative, and community-supported media challenging the corporate consensus. But for all their integrity and brilliance, these media outlets cannot challenge corporate power. They're too small, they don't frame issues on a national scale, they don't win debates, and they don't set the political agenda.

But there is a sleeping giant among these alternatives, one that was a major force in our country in the past - and which could be so again. Some of its overseas counterparts already have demonstrated their power as opinion shapers. This giant has its own potentially enormous supply of funding - one that comes without corporate ties attached. And it is uniquely positioned to shift our habits of media consumption and participation.

I'm talking about the labor media.

I don't mean the handful of remaining labor reporters at daily newspapers or their talented but equally limited counterparts in the progressive magazines. I mean the actual or potential newspapers, magazines, radio shows, TV shows and websites produced by the thousands of labor unions in this country, the 64 international unions, the central labor councils, regional labor press associations, state federations of labor, the AFL-CIO and the ILCA (International Labor Communications Association), as well as numerous independent outlets that focus on labor and workers' issues from workers' points of view. The labor media are "member-supported" entities with an unmatched membership base, but they need more support from union members and leaders if they are ever to realize their full potential.

We've done it before. We used to have thousands of labor publications, but now are down to a scattering of national magazines, a couple of scholarly journals, and small and struggling newspapers or none at all at many unions. While this decline has paralleled that of organized labor, it's not necessarily for lack of resources. Rather, labor has spent entirely too much on advertising on corporate media and on attempts to spin corporate reporters, instead of putting its energy into its own media presence. And by carefully accepting more advertising from union companies not engaged in labor disputes, labor could increase its media resources.

If we set our minds to it, the labor movement is capable of producing much more substantial publications, including major national weeklies not written solely for the membership of any one union, but for the vast majority of Americans who are being shortchanged by the corporate media. That includes the 42 million Americans who say they would like to join a union but haven't been able to. Better labor radio and TV shows are entirely within our grasp as well. But to achieve these goals we'll also have to increase labor media democracy, making our publications inclusive of more workers' views -- including those who disagree with union leaders. Otherwise, the labor media will not be credible to readers in or out of the organized labor movement.

As documented by Andy Zipser, in an article titled "The Labor Press: watchdog, lapdog, or canary in the mine shaft?" the labor movement has done this in the past. Indeed, the labor press was so large 50 years ago that the Wall Street Journal worried, prior to the 1952 elections, that "the influence of the labor press could be a potent factor in determining voting results." The labor press was important enough to prompt President-elect Jack Kennedy to send a message to the 1960 convention of the ILPA (predecessor to the ILCA), expressing his "deep gratitude for the unprecedented support which the labor press gave to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket."

Four years later, the ILPA convention included a televised speech by Johnson, followed by questions from labor editors. The 1966 convention included an address by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a reception at the White House, at which Johnson again spoke.

But in subsequent decades labor unions, feeling financially pinched, began turning inward - and one place where cutbacks have hit hard is in publications. Many unions now are lagging in the development of websites, and precious few radio and television shows address workers' concerns. In addition, many labor papers fail to make room for letters to the editor or guest columns by members dissenting from viewpoints expressed by a union's leadership.

At the ILCA, which is the professional association of labor journalists, we see our mission as one of assisting labor editors with resources that will free up more of their time for reporting, and of advocating within the labor movement for greater investment in the labor media and in more democratic labor media. To these ends, we are developing a clearing house to put journalism students in touch with labor media internship programs. We are creating a certificate program in labor communications, to be made available at various locations around the country. We are working with advertisers to place more advertising (and money) in labor publications. And, in the coming months, we will be turning our website at ILCAonline.org into a source of articles on labor that can be shared among ILCA members, as well as national reporting from independent media sources.

Our goal is to create an alternative to the corporate news that currently obscures more than it reveals about the lives of American workers. Although such efforts will be subject to accusations of bias, we believe that by openly contrasting news for working families with the corporate press, we will enhance the growing public awareness that corporate news is not "objective" or "viewpoint-free." This shift in understanding might even prod existing media outlets toward more responsible journalism, in which issues are not covered by simply quoting sources with two opposing points of view, but in which reporters are expected to comment on whether the facts support the opposing claims.

A powerful labor media presence would alter our public understanding not just of workplace issues but of all politics, including foreign affairs and wars to which working people are sent to kill and die. On workplace issues, the labor media are needed to force into public discussion the hidden world of union busting. Such stories need to be told, and purchasing ads or putting out press releases will not get the job done - as we've already seen.

Beyond coverage of unions, strong labor media would alter the terms of discussion of other issues. Anything that was jobless would not be labeled a recovery. Any trade policy that cost jobs, pay, benefits, rights, and environmental quality would not go by the name "free." News coverage of a war costing hundreds of billions of dollars would not remain silent on the war's impact on the U.S. budget, economy, and jobs.

The labor media may be the secret weapon that our other "alternative" media, as well as activist organizations whose work is ignored, need if they are to become more than "alternative." The potential reaches beyond what we can reasonably expect to achieve through current media reform efforts, and does so by truly allowing working Americans to become the media. As the Wobblies used to sing: We have been naught, we shall be all.


David Swanson is Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, http://ILCAonline.org

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