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Corporate Media Largely Ignore Labor Issues. Let’s Make Them Visible.

For years, the establishment press has utterly ignored workers and news about labor issues. Change is long overdue.

A truck hauls a piece of John Deere equipment from the factory past workers picketing outside of the John Deere Davenport Works facility on October 15, 2021, in Davenport, Iowa.

A year ago, VICE’s Motherboard published an account of the underhanded tactics used by IRI Consultants, the “union avoidance” firm Google hired to prevent its employees from unionizing. The report used leaked files to show how IRI gathered private information on the personalities, work ethics, and motivations of its clients’ employees and then used that data to target individual workers in an effort to sway their votes in union elections.

While the corporate press has lately reported on the upsurge in unionization efforts by workers at Big Tech companies, it has mostly ignored how these companies regularly hire union-busting consultants to thwart those organizing efforts. Project Censored identified Motherboard’s report on Google union-busting as one of the most important but underreported news stories of 2020-2021. There has been no subsequent corporate news coverage of the sensational leaks that Motherboard released last January. The only other coverage of the Motherboard leaks was a January 8, 2021, post on the independent, grassroots labor news site Payday Report, which discussed IRI’s attempts to stop Seattle health care workers from unionizing but did not mention IRI’s work for Google.

Corporate news media’s lack of attention to this story is symptomatic of its refusal to focus on workers, workers’ rights and the labor movement, not to mention the economic realities of social class in the U.S. The perspectives and interests of working people seldom feature in “business” news. The result is a one-sided view of work and workers.

One Missed Story After Another

Every year, Project Censored spotlights stories that were reported by independent outlets such as Truthout, Common Dreams, Labor Notes and Payday Report, but ignored or underreported by CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the rest of the commercial, for-profit news media. A glance at some of labor-related stories from the Project’s recent top 25 “censored” story lists illustrates just how oblivious the corporate media is toward workers and the realities of their working lives.

The Project identified a 2019 International Labor Organization study, which found that low-wage workers face dramatically increased risks of premature death, stress- and fatigue-related illness, burnout and declining mental health as one of its top stories from 2019-2020. The study was covered by alternative news outlets like Common Dreams but completely ignored by the establishment press. That same year, the Project tabbed the actions of the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as another important but overlooked story. The Trump NLRB changed the rules for union certification elections, without advance notice, in ways that disadvantaged workers and made it much easier for employers to decertify legally recognized collective bargaining agents. The story was reported by Truthout, Common Dreams, The Nation and some legal trade publications, but received no attention from the corporate press.

Looking even further back, in 2012, Project Censored spotlighted the legislative attack on the U.S. Postal Service by the Republican majority in Congress as a thinly veiled attempt to destroy the powerful postal workers’ union. Allison Kilkenny wrote about this attack in an article for Truthout, and Matt Taibbi raised the alarm about it in an editorial for Rolling Stone. While the corporate press reported on USPS’s financial woes and the possibility that the postal service would eliminate Saturday deliveries in order to balance its books, very few of these outlets traced those woes to the GOP’s anti-union animus.

Even when the corporate media do cover workers’ demands for better pay and working conditions, this coverage is usually shallow, lacking in context and often tardy. A case in point is the great wildcat strike wave of 2020-2021 unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which Project Censored identified as one of 2020’s top censored stories in this year’s book, State of the Free Press 2022. Almost as soon as the U.S. went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, millions of essential workers — including meatpackers, delivery drivers, nurses, teachers, janitors, warehouse workers and grocery clerks — began staging short strikes and walkouts in the face of dangerous working conditions to demand better pay, protective equipment and health benefits.

Payday Report, a two-person operation based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, consistently tracked this unprecedented burst of militancy in a COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map that has identified some 1,750 strikes since March 2020. A few other alternative news outlets, including The Guardian, also reported on the surge in work stoppages. But the corporate news media mostly ignored the year’s unprecedented wave of labor actions — except for a brief period in August 2020 when big commercial media reported on strikes by professional athletes protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police. Finally, in October 2021, when thousands of workers at John Deere and Kellogg’s struck for better pay and benefits, the establishment press began breathlessly reporting on “Striketober,” a full year and half after independent news outlets first drew attention to the strike wave.

Workers’ Issues Steadily Disappear From the Mainstream Media

What explains the corporate media’s abysmal coverage of workers, their issues and their movements? After all, however you define and measure it, the working class makes up the majority of the country’s adult population. Why have establishment media written off workers and their concerns as undeserving of serious, sustained attention?

News critics and scholarly media analysts have long noted the lack of corporate news reporting about workers, labor unions and labor issues. In his pioneering 1979 study Deciding What’s News, sociologist Herbert Gans observed that “most news is about affluent people, almost by definition,” and he noted that working-class people who were once covered in the news had by the 1970s “virtually disappeared.” Four decades later, workers are, if anything, even less visible in the news. In his 2019 book, No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class, Christopher Martin documents how the newspaper industry’s interest in cultivating an increasingly upscale audience led papers to eliminate the “labor beat” — journalists who specialized in reporting on unions and the labor movement — and to frame coverage of labor actions from the perspective of management and middle-class consumers rather than workers. Martin writes that, “across the nation and in nearly every city and town, no consistent beat covers labor or workplace issues. The occasional stories that do appear lack any sense of continuity or content.”

Commercial news outlets’ efforts to attract the high-income audiences coveted by advertisers partly explains why workers have disappeared from the news. University of Illinois professor Nikki Usher, in her book News for the Rich, White and Blue, points to another likely cause: Many journalists now come from professional, upper-class families, have college degrees and live in big cities. Usher notes that 90 percent of journalists have college degrees (versus 25 percent of all U.S. adults). She also observes that the route to most jobs in journalism require unpaid or low-paid internships and cites a study by the Asian American Journalists Association that found that 65 percent of the most desirable internships with prestigious national media outlets are awarded to students attending a handful of elite, highly selective colleges. As a consequence, she concludes, “journalism is increasingly for and by the rich and white.”

To this we could add the fact that corporate media’s coverage has been increasingly shaped by a steady stream of “flak” and “propaganda” from business-affiliated, anti-union think tanks, institutes and advocacy groups such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the State Policy Network and its numerous affiliates, the Manhattan Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Make Workers Visible Again

In order to make workers and labor issues more prominent in the news media, news consumers will have to take steps to hold news organizations accountable for ignoring the lives and concerns of the vast majority. Media monitoring and news literacy programs such as Project Censored and the Critical Media Project can do a lot to call out class biases and gaps in corporate news coverage. Supporting genuinely independent news outlets such as Truthout, Labor Notes and Payday Report, which treat workers’ struggles for better pay and working conditions as newsworthy, can also help to amplify workers’ voices throughout the media ecosystem. Sharing these independent outlets’ stories and contributing donations to ensure that they have the funding necessary to continue their work are direct ways to support them.

Finally, we need to pressure news organizations to diversify their newsrooms, including more reporters from low-income, blue-collar class backgrounds and more people from non-elite educational backgrounds. As labor militancy continues to grow, let’s make sure the whole country knows about it.

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