Media May Be Our Best Hope Against the Corporate Version
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
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
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
David Swanson is Media Coordinator for the International
Labor Communications Association, http://ILCAonline.org