Does the Media Care About Labor Anymore?

December 5, 2014

By Timothy Noah via Politico

Steven Greenhouse, the labor correspondent for the New York Times, took a buyout this week. That decision immediately reduced by 50 percent the number of reporters at major U.S. newspapers who cover labor full-time—even as the dismal situation of the American worker becomes a central preoccupation for American politicians and policymakers.

To some extent, labor reporters are falling victim to the very same workplace trends they cover. “Newspapers are under the gun financially,” observes Greenhouse, “and they’ve laid off a lot of workers.” Editors, he said, don’t view labor as “the sexiest beat.”

Labor coverage’s decline—like that of labor unions—long predates print journalism’s circulation slide. At Newsweek, for instance, as long ago as 1985, covering labor was no more than an entry-level job. Bob Cohn (today president and chief operating officer at the Atlantic, then my fellow grunt at Newsweek) became labor and workplace correspondent at the tender age of 22. Back then, he and I would swap wisecracks about what a backwater the beat had become.

But by today’s standards, labor and workplace coverage was flooding the zone. “The 10 to 15 biggest newspapers all had labor writers,” Cohn recalls. “The newsmagazines all did.” Now, with Greenhouse’s departure from the Times, the only full-time labor reporter left at any of the big newspapers will be the Wall Street Journal’s Melanie Trottman.

Will the Times replace Greenhouse? It won’t say. “Given that we’re still in the middle of this [buyout] process,” said Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy in an e-mail, “questions like this one are not likely to be settled until early in the new year.” For his part, Greenhouse says, “I’m sure they will name someone to replace Bill Carter as TV reporter”—Carter is also taking a buyout—“and I’m hoping they will name someone to replace me.”

The logic of mainstream news outlets losing interest in the labor beat over the past 40 years goes something like this. In the middle of the 20th century labor was a big story because labor unions and working people generally were major players in American life. During the 1960s, even children (I was one) knew the names of prominent labor leaders—George Meany at the AFL-CIO, Walter Reuther at the United Auto Workers, Jimmy Hoffa at the Teamsters. Give yourself a gold star if you can name the three people occupying those jobs today. (Hint: the third name will sound familiar.) Even A.H. Raskin, who covered labor at the Times during the Great Depression and the four decades that followed—and whom Greenhouse met  “when I was a little copy boy here a year out of college”—achieved minor celebrity.

Between 1948 and 1964, the historian Judith Stein points out in her book Pivotal Decade, every Democratic presidential nominee kicked off his general election campaign with a Labor Day rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square. But as the proportion of private-sector workers covered by union-negotiated contracts declined from about 40 percent in 1954 to less than 7 percent today, the American worker largely fell off the media’s radar. It probably didn’t help that these were also the years during which the most prestigious newspapers chased an ever-higher income demographic to impress advertisers who were ever-more-focused on the luxury market. (As I write, the Times is just concluding an international conference about luxury itself.)

Today, of course, labor unions are so weak that the very phrase “Big Labor” has come to sound like a cruel taunt, like calling a bald person “Curly.” By the logic of media coverage, that means neither they nor the American working class that (not coincidentally) has declined along with them warrant much media attention. Even within the left press, only In These Times and Labor Notes cover labor with any real consistency.

Surely, though, the labor story warrants more attention today than it did during labor’s heyday. Think of wage income as water. When there’s plenty for everyone, water isn’t much of a story. When there’s a drought, it should be front-page news. Nobody disputes that America is in a wage drought, and has been for some time. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our nation’s median household income, at $51,939, is lower not only than when the recession began, in 2007 ($56,436), but also than when it ended, in 2009 ($54,059), correcting for inflation.

Newspapers aren’t oblivious to this. Indeed, there have been a fair number of excellent newspaper features lately illustrating the dismal wage trend and the general powerlessness of American workers. The Times’s Jodi Kantor, for instance, published an excellent story in August spotlighting a Starbucks barista’s struggle to provide care for her child when her managers were constantly changing the hours she worked and giving her almost no advance notice. But such stories have been one-offs, commissioned at least partly to catch the attention of the Pulitzer committee’s jury for public service prizes. They’re no substitute for covering the labor and workplace beat on a regular basis—that is, covering working people’s struggles as they’re lived, day by day.

To the Journal’s Trottman, the beat’s last survivor within the big dailies, the continuing significance of labor is self-evident. “I’m not sure what others are doing,” she said in an e-mail, “but the labor beat remains a lively and important one that draws strong interest from the business community, workers, unions, policy makers and others. The Wall Street Journal has readers from all those areas, so I’m glad the paper has remained committed to the beat.” In the same vein, Greenhouse says he’d have to be “a colossally bad reporter” not to recognize at least five good labor stories he could be chasing on any given day.

The good news is that the culture is starting to wake up to the topic. In 2011 Occupy Wall Street drew a level of national attention to the problem of income inequality that has now largely outlasted the Occupy movement itself.  In January, President Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick, “I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class.” Labor economists, improbably, have gotten sexy. Thomas Piketty landed on the best-seller list with a book that said wage growth, and indeed all economic growth, can never keep up with the return on capital, barring some worldwide cataclysm or a degree of government intervention in the economy that looks pretty unlikely.

More heartening still, the labor beat is stirring back to life online, where a bumper crop of excellent new reportorial talent is bursting forth. Josh Eidelson covered the labor beat full-time at Salon before moving on to Bloomberg Businessweek.  Dave Jamieson is doing similarly strong work as the Huffington Post’s full-time labor reporter, as is Ned Resnikoff, previously MSNBC.com’s full-time labor reporter, now at Al Jazeera. Buzzfeed is ramping up its labor and workplace coverage with reporters like Jacob Fischler and Chris Hamby; the latter won a Pulitzer this year for a series on black lung at his previous gig, at the Center for Public Integrity. At the big dailies, Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post and Alejandra Cancino of the Chicago Tribune aren’t yet covering labor full-time, but (shhh!) they’re edging ever-closer.

Then there are the Nerds—the explainers of new economic research at VoxFiveThirtyEight, the New York Times’s Upshot blog, and the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. These reporters don’t cover labor per se, and sometimes their reportage is too bloodless to rate as good journalism, while also too lacking in rigor to rate as good scholarship. Yet the academic papers that catch their attention as often as not measure the ill health of the U.S. labor force and American workers. The Nerds are making a contribution, too.

But it’s straight news coverage at the big paper-and-ink newspapers that, for good or ill, still sets the agenda for our splintered media landscape, to the extent anyone does at all. These papers need to dig deeper into the labor story. That means paying daily attention to how labor unions, government regulators, works councils and the various other types of institutions meant to serve working people manage actually to do so, and hearing out anyone who might have a bright idea how to strengthen them without bankrupting the private businesses that make the economy thrum. Indeed, there’s a growing suspicion among experts that the economy will never really thrum without first improving dramatically the economic circumstances of American labor. These are all complicated, difficult problems, and they can’t be figured out on the run. We need labor reporters out there gathering all available evidence—not just occasionally, but all the time.

Timothy Noah is the Labor & Employment editor at Politico. He has previously written for the New Republic and Slate, and is author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (Bloomsbury, 2012).

Photo: Ian Britton