Highlighted Selections from:

The Heyday of the Labor Beat


DOI: 10.1215/15476715-2071679

Witwer, D. “The Heyday of the Labor Beat.” Labor Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 10.2 (2013): 9–29. Web.

p.9: The “labor beat” emerged in the 1930s when a critical mass of reporters working in the the mainstream media came to identify with a distinct approach to covering labor. They were not the first journalists to specialize in writing about unions, yet before the strike waves of the 1930s, as Time magazine noted in 1937, “the number of Grade A labor specialists among reporters could be counted on the fingers of one hand.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.9: The rise of the labor beat is an important story because it marks a moment when an alternative journalistic tradition offered hope for the labor movement. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.9: In the end, the promise of this version of the labor beat was supplanted as a more critical version of labor reporting gained ground in the 1950s. Unions received significantly more journalistic coverage during the heyday of labor reporting, but the nature of the labor beat’s evolution meant that such coverage both bolstered and undermined the labor movement. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.10: A recent report noted that of the twenty-five leading newspapers in the United States, only four assigned full-time reporters to cover labor issues. In the rest of the newspapers, labor stories now go to correspondents who usually cover business and whose knowledge of unions and working people’s concerns is necessarily slim. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.10: Many observers argue that the Fourth Estate has lost touch with the nation’s working class. As Michael Massing recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, “the staffs of our top news organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of the upper middle class living mostly on the East and West Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.10: “There was a time when the labor beat held front rank,” recalled veteran journalist Murray Seeger in a 1999 article in Nieman Reports. “It attracted first-class reporters, produced great human-interest stories on a broad front of social, economic and political issues and brought readers to newspapers.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.10: In that earlier time, labor beat reporters produced news coverage that went far beyond the standard accounts of strikes. They offered readers a broad array of stories on labor issues, ranging from the legislative contests involving unions to political battles within organized labor. They filed stories about ongoing workplace problems, presenting the issues that often later boiled over into full-blown walkouts. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.11: labor beat coverage of unions was often quite critical. Some of the most influential reporters on this beat gained national fame for their exposés of union corruption and critical reporting of leftwing influence in labor unions. From 1941 to 1960, four reporters won Pulitzer Prizes for their reports on corruption in organized labor: Westbrook Pegler, Malcolm Johnson, Clark Mollenhoff, and John Brislin. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.15: The model that Stark offered these labor beat reporters emphasized a combination of personal engagement and objectivity, contradictory tendencies that gave this brand of journalism its particular impact. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.17: However, the labor beat as practiced by Stark also embraced the goals of objectivity and balance in reporting. This distinguished labor beat reporters from the union publicists and the writers working for union publications, despite the fact that they shared similarly close ties to the union movement. There was a certain amount of overlap. Individual journalists, including Mary Heaton Vorse and Carroll Binder, spent part of their careers at union-oriented media outlets, such as the Federated Press, a wire service that provided articles for union publications, and labor beat journalists mined labor journals for news material. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.17: By one estimate, in 1955, labor unions at the local and national level produced more than a thousand newspapers and journals. A study done for the Republican Party that year worriedly noted that “their readership extends to a very large proportion of the 16 million organized workers and their families.” Still, from the viewpoint of many readers, these publications provided not news so much as a steady stream of editorial content. The GOP’s study of the labor press asserted that its “news columns presented very little information in the ‘news’ sense, but involved extensive editorial commentary on the particular issue.” 22 2 Union publications advocated labor’s cause and made no pretense of objectivity or balance. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.18: Stark embraced this goal of objectivity. In a handwritten notebook entry that was included in his rough notes for a memoir, he described the careful balancing act a labor beat reporter needed to perform in covering strikes. The labor beat reporter, Stark believed, had a duty to explain fairly both the union’s and the employer’s points of view. In the “tangled web of negotiations, charges and counter charges have to be so presented so as to give the reader [a] fair picture. Either both sides [are] pleased or displeased. [A] reporter falls down when one side [is] pleased + [the] other sore.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.19: However, he was deeply troubled by signs that Newspaper Guild officials did not intend to protect press freedom for their membership. He described Guild conventions where delegates “have denounced the writings of men at the press table, some already members of the Guild.” “Such a situation has disquieting aspects,” he asserted. “A union which uses its power to let its writer members know that its policies must be taken into account sufficiently for them to depart from objective standards of reporting is as culpable in subverting a free press as a publisher who directly or indirectly conveys to his staff that his own views, opinions, and interests require a ‘slant’ in the news columns.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.19: The creation in the late 1800s of a professional ethic within journalism that celebrated such values, these scholars explain, occurred because it served the interests of an emerging corporate-dominated news media system. Robert McChesney asserts that these norms, and the professional journalism schools created to inculcate them, arose “to make a capitalist, advertising-supported media system seem —at least superficially —to be an objective source of news to many citizens.’” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.25: They should also explain the “background of these controversies.” As he put it, the labor beat reporter “must be able to grasp the drama of the more or less everyday business of the unions and in their relations to management, industry, and the nation.” He needed to present the quotidian issues of American workers and their organizations “vividly enough to enlist the attention of the newspaper reader” in ways that could merit “sympathetic consideration and understanding.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.26: In Frank’s case it was an effort to purge the labor movement of radical communist influence. A letter he wrote in 1953 referred to “a consistent stand that I have taken in my stories in the WorldTelegram for the past nine years.” This stand involved denouncing communist influence in unions and bolstering the position of union leaders who turned against the Communist Party. “I have blasted Communists wherever and whenever the occasion offered,” Nelson explained, “and I have endeavored to assist those who wanted to break with the party by giving them such aid as I could when they needed it most.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.26: Internal FBI records from this period described Riesel as “a good friend both of the Bureau and of the NYO [New York Office of the FBI]” who was reliably willing “to cooperate with the FBI.” He had close ties to sources within the labor movement who were actively waging a campaign against communist influence. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.27: His syndicated column, “Inside Labor,” which went out to two hundred newspapers across the country, portrayed a labor movement under siege from intertwined threats of communism and organized crime. In often hyperbolic prose, Riesel warned that this “underworldCommunist combine” sought control of strategic unions, thus endangering the nation’s security. To take one example, in 1952, a column by Riesel focused on the possibility of a “ghoulish combination of crooks and communists” coming together to “move in and take control of one of our most strategic areas — the [East Coast] waterfront.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.28: Riesel’s significance as an expert on labor, especially union corruption, grew after a hired thug threw acid in his face in 1956, leaving him permanently blind. The attack appeared to vindicate his claims by demonstrating that the targets of his columns wanted to silence him. As the Des Moines Register put it, “The circumstances make it impossible to separate the attack from Riesel’s crusade against the labor mobsters.” The paper’s editorial, like many others, saw the incident as a call to action. “It can only be hoped that the blindness he has suffered will open the eyes of others.” 65 Riesel embraced this role. “The attack on me,” he wrote at the time, “was an attack on the entire free press, challenging its right to expose crime and injustice.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.28: Riesel’s power —and by extension the power of other members of this exposé wing of the labor beat —lay in their ability to effectively claim a prolabor position even as their reporting focused almost solely on the misdeeds of the union leadership or the menace of union power. This was the appeal that his advertising flyer had highlighted by tagging Riesel as “no labor coddler.” Reformers working within the labor movement recognized both the slant in this kind of journalism and its failure to offer anything useful to rank-and-file union members. -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014

p.29: The fact that the news media only covered Hoffa and other similar union leaders did nothing to help the efforts of reformers while at the same time tainting the entire union movement, Luken stated. He closed with a generalization that included Riesel: “No newsman is as much interested in good solid citizens as characters; the clean union is not news, only the dirty.” -- Highlighted mar 12, 2014