“Why Is the Media So Anti-Union?”

Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, leafletting Louisville packing plant. (Photo: Mandy Dixon)

“Why is the media so anti-union?”

This old reporter-turned-history-teacher could retire if he had a dime for every time he’s heard a union brother or sister ask why the media is anti-union biased.

Usually, by the media, they mean Fox News and local newspapers and TV and radio stations.

Everybody knows Fox News is the Republican Party’s propaganda ministry. More than a few small town media owners are Fox fans. But a lot of their anti-union bias is rooted in old-fashioned Rotary Club-Chamber of Commerce-style boosterism, which Sinclair Lewis satirized in Babbitt, his famous 1922 novel.

Most local newspaper publishers and TV and radio station owners would fit right in with George Babbitt and the other members of the “Good Citizens’ League” branch in “Zenith,” Babbitt’s Midwestern “hometown.”

The Good Citizens battled unions, claiming “the…American way of settling labor-troubles was for workmen to trust and love their employers,” Lewis wrote. “All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary.”

Generally, the smaller a paper or TV or radio station is, the greater its bias against unions. Their anti-unionism is sometimes as plain as their front doors, which are often plastered with decals or stickers proudly proclaiming chamber membership. The fact that the chamber is openly pro-business and anti-union apparently doesn’t trouble local media owners about conflicts of interest.

Bill Londrigan (Photo: Berry Craig)

Like the chamber, almost all small-town newspaper publishers and TV and radio station owners believe that what’s best for businesses – including their media businesses, of course – is best for the community. So local business leaders — and fellow Rotarians — get a lot of ink and on-camera time. They are depicted as “solid citizens” who are “pillars” in their communities.

On the other hand, union leaders almost never get such positive press. The president of the local chamber of commerce is in the paper or on TV or the radio all the time. The president of a local union almost never is, except when there is a strike.

Reporters commonly call strikes “labor disputes,” not “labor-management” disputes. “Labor disputes” implies, on purpose on not, that unions are solely to blame for work stoppages.

Strike stories seldom focus on why workers go on strike. They usually concentrate on how strikes inconvenience the public.

Therefore, newspaper readers, TV viewers and radio listeners are led to believe that the public is the innocent victim in “labor disputes.” Striking workers, no matter how aggrieved, come off as greedy malcontents who just cause trouble, not only for their employers, but for everybody.

Part of the media bias is rooted in a lack of understanding on the part of reporters. Not that many small town newshounds even have a basic idea of how unions and collective bargaining work.

Almost no small-town papers or TV or radio stations are union. Few reporters have ever been in any kind of union.

Of course, any company’s PR department is always glad to “help” the reporter with skillfully spun news releases.

Like PR staffers, most reporters are middle-class, college grads. Hence, many reporters naturally sympathize with management.

Never mind that small town reporters don’t make big bucks. Many of them see themselves as “professionals,” like company flaks, whose station in life is above that of working stiffs.

Even reporters who consider themselves “liberal” often stereotype union members as dimwitted, Archie Bunker-style bigots.

Anyway, good labor reporting is specialized reporting. Time was, big city daily newspapers recognized that fact and had full-time labor reporters.

Few do any more. (But large or small, almost all papers have business pages or sections.)

“Labor reporters knew how unions functioned and why they existed,” said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. “They tended to be more balanced in their labor reporting.”

Londrigan added that it’s no accident that labor reporters are all but gone. “It was coincident with the corporatization and concentration of media ownership.”

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on June 21, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.