Journalists Can Be Fighters for Social Justice: Interview with Linda Foley, President of The Newspaper Guild, CWA
by David Bacon
Washington DC (5/20/02) - Media critics on the left generally believe that the growth of monopoly media corporations has created a political monoculture, in which the spectrum of acceptable dialogue starts on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party and moves to the right. In that world dominated by corporate giants, is it even possible to create the space for discussing political alternatives -- ideas about social justice and criticism of globalization, for instance -- or to fight the exclusion of social movements of workers and communities of color?
Trying to answer this question, many progressive activists focus on building alternative media institutions, while fighting to at least prevent the further consolidation of existing outlets, if not the breakup of monopolies themselves. But while there's obviously a connection between the growth of monopoly and the rightward drift in US politics, nostalgia for a less-monopolized era does not always create an accurate picture of the politics of the media in the past.
There's no doubt that the New York Times, for instance, failed to carry a single photo or story about the huge demonstrations April 20 in Washington and San Francisco protesting the Bush War on Terror and Israeli attacks on Palestinians. But during the McCarthy period and the height of cold war, that the same newspaper refused to cover May Day demonstrations in Union Square or the millions of people worldwide who signed the Stockholm Peace Appeal opposing the development of nuclear weapons. And Time magazine at the hands of Henry Luce was even more rabidly anti-Communist and conservative than the huge Time/Warner conglomerate is today.
Journalists create the content of the mainstream media, and while it's dictated in part by those who own and direct giant corporations, that content also reflects the political atmosphere in which journalists live. Journalists in Vietnam during the war considered it their responsibility to expose the lies of the Pentagon's propaganda machine, and often did so brilliantly in words and photographs. Reporters during Desert Storm and in Afghanistan have generally accepted a different role, willingly or unwillingly, and pictured those wars within the political limits dictated by Generals Schwartzkopf and Franks. At home, many reporters during the civil rights movement looked at themselves as advocates for racial justice, while today newsroom culture discourages journalists from identifying too closely with social justice movements in communities and union halls.
Looking at that shift to the right, should the movement for media democracy then just write off the mainstream press until such a time as the power of the monopolies is broken? Or is it possible to fight for the political consciousness and understanding of people who work in the mainstream media -- for their right to give a fuller and more accurate picture of the world, and to voice progressive ideas about social justice?
One of the most important institutions in the mainstream media are the unions of media workers. Founded by radicals in the 1930s, organizations like the Newspaper Guild became more conservative during the cold war, and abandoned their role as advocates for a political agenda beyond better wages and conditions for their members. But in the last decade, that direction has begun to shift again, partly because media union activists who were themselves participants in social justice movements, are helping to lead them. And this poses even more questions for advocates for media democracy -- do media unions play an important role in the fight for that goal? Could that role be strengthened? Are coalitions between media unions and other alternative institutions, like independent media centers, possible and desirable?
One of those new leaders is Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild. In this interview she speaks about the political roots of media unionism. She gives her opinion about the extent to which media unions can help encourage advocates of progressive politics, working in the newsrooms of the mainstream press.
DB: What kind of background do you have as a journalist, and how did you get to be president of the Newspaper Guild?
LF: I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, a very union town, and wanted to be a journalist for a long time. I went to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and worked during the summers on community newspapers. After graduating I got a job on the copy desk at the Lexington, KY, Herald-Leader, a Knight-Ridder newspaper. I eventually became a reporter, a feature writer and makeup editor.
There I got active in my local union, Local 229 of the Newspaper Guild. It was a very small local, and I became its president when I was only 23 or 24. In 1984 I came to work fulltime for the Guild in Washington, in the collective bargaining department. I was elected secretary-treasurer of the Guild in 1993, and in 1995, as we were voting on our merger with the CWA, I was elected president.
DB: When you look back at the things you wanted to do as a journalist, what did they have to do with going to work for the union?
LF: I was part of the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein generation, and wanted to change the world. That was a big part of the reason why I went into journalism. I felt and still feel that it's a noble profession, the kind of work where you can actually make a difference. But I got frustrated because the business side of it had already become stifling, although not nearly as much as it is today. I got active in the union because I wanted to meet other journalists who had the same ideals I did, and I felt that it was important to stand up for people. The same principles that got me into journalism are the ones that attracted me to the union.
DB: Do you think that journalists should be involved in changing the world?
LF: Absolutely. That's why the Constitution has the First Amendment, that guarantees a free press. It's important for journalists to be engaged in a way that makes a difference to society, to shine a light on things ordinary people otherwise wouldn't know. By the very nature of what we do, we're involved in changing the world.
DB: Who belongs to the Newspaper Guild?
LF: We have about 35,000 members across the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. We've gone way beyond the newsroom. For many years we've represented workers in the advertising, circulation, customer service, and other non-production areas of newspapers, as well as reporters, editors and support people at wire services, magazines and other publishers. We've begun to branch out into related fields. We have a group in Washington state of independent software writers and programmers -- WashTECH. Recently translators and interpreters affiliated with the Bay Area Court Interpreters in northern California, the California Federation of Interpreters in southern California, and another group in Cook County, IL, have joined the Guild We represent artists, and in Canada we represent the whole non-technical side of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. through the Canadian Media Guild.
DB: The Guild was founded by people like Heywood Broun, who had a reputation as a very radical person. How did it get organized?
LF: Heywood Broun was probably the most prominent journalist of his day, in the 1920s and 30s. He had always taken up activist causes, both in print and in his life. He ran for Congress once on the Socialist ticket, and that's pretty unimaginable today -- that the most prominent journalist in the country would do something like that. He was a champion of the underdog, and became famous during the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, where he really took up the cause of immigrants. If you read his work, he was very progressive in a number of areas, including civil rights. I read a piece of his on contraception, which was pretty interesting for those days.
He felt that reporters at the time were very exploited. He himself was the highest-paid columnist in the country, but he looked around and saw that his coworkers were miserable. At that time, the printers were the highest-paid workers at newspapers, and reporters weren't making anywhere near what they were making. It disturbed him and he wrote a column calling for journalists to organize, saying he himself would lead the charge. Because he was so widely-known, it instantaneously galvanized people, and the Guild was almost formed overnight in 1933. Chapters began springing up all over the country.
They took on the publishers, who refused to accept that the National Recovery Act applied to journalists. They didn't want the 8-hour day to apply to newspapers, and claimed (as they still do today when they don't want to do something) that the First Amendment protected them from any kind of government regulation. Led by Broun, the Guild prevailed, and that further galvanized support for the union. They got the first collective bargaining agreement in Cleveland, and then Minnesota, followed by New York. After that, it just took off.
The Guild reached its peak in membership in the 50s and 60s. Then we started to slide, when the news industry consolidated and the balance of power with unions changed, with the introduction of computers and cold type. But since we merged with CWA in 1997, our membership has grown by several hundred a year.
DB: Did Broun have in mind an organization that would defend reporters and photographers in writing and photographing what they felt was true, even when their bosses didn't like it? Did he think that the union should encourage reporters to take the same progressive attitude toward social struggle that he did?
LF: It seems to me he did feel that way. From the beginning of the Guild, we've maintained that no one should be disciplined or fired for anything they write for publication. That was the direction in which he pushed.
The culture among journalists in the Guild hasn't necessarily kept strictly to that principle, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Early on in our history, during the McCarthy era, we had our own red scare. There was a pitched battle for control of the Guild, and the more liberal, socialist wing was pretty much shut out. They said they were trying to rid the Guild of Communists, and a lot of red-baiting went on. The Guild took a turn to the right at that point, and bought more into the idea that journalists should be completely neutral, even to the point of being bland. The culture of the news media in this country moved in that direction as well. It became more difficult to maintain the fervor to change the world with our work, and to promote those ideals.
DB: When you were elected president of the Guild, a lot of people thought the organization was making a turn away from what you're describing.
LF: Maybe. I hope so. I think it's important for journalists to be viewed as being fair and objective, and that's different from trying to right a wrong, or correct an injustice. But I hope that people feel the Guild is moving in that direction.
For the past 60 years we've been giving an award in the spirit of Broun, the Heywood Broun Award, which is now probably second place in prestige to the Pulitzer Prize. This year, Herbert Block, the Washington Post cartoonist known as Herblock, left the Guild an endowment, and we established another award in his name as well. Both further those ideals. At the awards banquet this year, it was great to have an evening talking with journalists about how their work made a difference. Not just "I wrote this great story," but "Here's what my story did. Here are the results of my actions."
DB: So you're looking not only at the story itself, but that one of its purposes should be to cause some sort of social change?
LF: I totally agree with that. That is the critical mission of journalism.
DB: What program does the Guild have for pushing against the trend of the increasing consolidation of media ownership?
LF: I'm not sure that it can be bucked. Given the structure of our society, the political climate and the culture, it's very difficult. But wherever we can, despite the business pressures, we have to maintain independent voices in the media, both in the mainstream media and outside of it.
I don't believe we should just forget about the mainstream media and concentrate on alternative media to get our voices out. I think it's important to have strong independent voices within the mainstream media. Our awards, for instance, highlight the work of journalists who promote social justice and actually make some changes in that area. We also have a committee on the future of journalism, and we focus on how people can do their work, given the pressures they face. We've worked with the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and academic groups like the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, to try to promote the idea that free speech in a corporate atmosphere means more than just working against government censorship. We need to be much more vigilant in our own work environment, to organize and get a voice for media workers themselves.
That doesn't mean we don't try to beat back the voracious appetites of the newspaper chains. One of our greatest successes was actually being able to save a newspaper in Honolulu when Gannett and their JOA partner decided to close the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. We stepped in and helped organize a community group which still exists today, Save Our Star-Bulletin. With the help of the state attorney general. we said it was illegal to act as a monopoly, closing down a competitor. We were able to keep it open. That was in one specific place at one specific time. But it was a pretty big victory, considering that Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, had invested in other plans.
Today the Federal Communications Commission is moving to drop many of the regulations that allow for multiple voices and multiple owners of broadcast media. We're trying to stop the repeal of the newspaper/broadcast cross ownership rule, which prohibits ownership of newspaper and broadcast outlets in the same city by the same entity. But it's a very difficult fight. I think the most important thing we do is organize and educate our own members and potential members about their need to speak with one voice. If you can't stand up for yourself in your own workplace, I don't know how you can stand up for others who can't be heard elsewhere in society. This is the most difficult challenge we face.
DB: Does consolidation affect the ability of media workers to cover social struggles, whether union organizing campaigns or those in the community?
LF: Yes. It's not so much out-and-out censorship, although there is some of that. It's more that the resources are diverted elsewhere. The decision about what to cover gets made in terms of how many people are available to cover the news and where they're assigned. That's why so many things go uncovered. If your resources are limited, you're going to focus on things that are easy, and do what's expedient, rather than look at what really needs to be covered. These companies certainly have resources at their disposal. It's how they deploy the resources that really matters.
DB: Some media critics say that both journalism schools and the corporatization of the newsroom encourage a culture of self-censorship by journalists, that they know what's expected and the spectrum of acceptable opinion, as viewed by publishers. Do you agree?
LF: I think that it's true. That wasn't occurring when I was working day-to-day at a newspaper, to the extent that it's happening now. It's not good if everybody is a business reporter. And journalism schools, although not all of them, are focused on training business reporters. I think people are hired sometimes who are good at the technology, but there's less emphasis on honing their skills at doing investigation and in-depth stories. Sometimes it's just a lack of training and exposure. Still, today there are young people going into journalism who feel the same way I did. The question is, how do you encourage that idealism? How do you train them to use those reporting skills in a way that adheres to those ideals and principles?
DB: Some of the criticism is also focused on demographics. The increase in hiring of workers of color in the newsroom has slipped backwards. There are also questions about the economic level from which most reporters are drawn -- people with enough money to go to college, for instance.
LF: I don't necessarily agree with the second point. These days college campuses are hotbeds of activism. We have a generation of college students now with a social conscience, who are much more active and engaged in social justice issues than was true a few years ago.
But the criticism about diversity in terms of people of color is absolutely true. It's a domino effect. People are comfortable talking to and giving information to people like themselves. People from diverse communities have an identity and an understanding of the culture from which they come. If you want to cover a community thoroughly, you need to have as diverse a workforce as you can. All kinds of economic backgrounds. All kinds of ethnic and racial backgrounds. You want to have a newsroom where all segments of the community are adequately represented, so the information flows from both sides -- reporters who are in tune with all the cultures and networks, and communities who then trust the reporting staff to tell their stories in an accurate way. There just isn't enough of that diversity.
DB: What is the Guild doing about this problem?
LF: We haven't done as much in promoting diversity as we should. This year at our annual conference we focused on retooling our human rights program so that we'll have a human rights and diversity coordinator in every Newspaper Guild local. They can communicate with us on a national level, as well as work on these issues on a local level. Our union work, organizing and collective bargaining, should always have this component. There should always be someone there asking, "How are we making the union more diverse?"
What flows from that is that we put pressure on our employers. We can bargain over this, and we have. In past years, we've had a strong human rights program, but recently the results in the industry have been pretty bad.
In addition, as a union we haven't spent enough time on the issue of retention, which really affects minority communities. There will always be a pool of young people interested in doing this work, but how do we keep them? It's hard work to begin with, and then when you add the pressures we've been discussing, plus the job security concerns of a cyclical industry, people sometimes say "just forget it." How can we do a better job of retaining people who are committed to journalism and the goals of social justice? We need to look hard at that.
DB: Does the Guild talk to its members about the content of what they produce, in addition to the economic issues of wages and working conditions?
LF: We haven't done that, and I don't think we would ever do that in an overt or concerted way. I have a lot of faith in our members, notwithstanding the culture and what the journalism schools are teaching. There's a lot of talent, and heart and soul, that goes into what people do. I don't believe that it's the proper role of the Guild to get into "What are you writing about?" and trying to influence the work. More important for us, we want to ensure that those who have a propensity to promote social justice can do that without facing retaliation or having barriers in their way.
DB: Journalists in mainstream newspapers have to function in a climate in which their publishers aren't sympathetic to unions, however. Doing in-depth coverage of a strike, for instance, is not a popular idea, and in fact the labor beat, when it even existed, was seen sometimes as being sent to Siberia. Same thing about radical community struggles, or taking a critical view of US foreign policy. These things aren't encouraged in newsrooms in part because of who owns the newspapers. Does the union have a role to play in creating more political space in which journalists can write about these kinds of things?
LF: We want to make sure that journalists are as free as possible to do their work in a way that's credible, and accomplishes the goals they set out for themselves. The idea that the owners of the presses are cultivating certain ideas -- that's not so different from what it used to be. Look at William Randolph Hearst. What has changed is where resources get deployed.
I don't know that it's our job to make sure that the labor movement gets covered in the newspaper. I think it's our job, if there is legitimate news to be covered in the labor movement, to make sure that reporters who write about that are free to do so, without fear of retaliation or censorship. That's the best we can do. I don't think it gets us anywhere to advocate political activism on the part of reporters, in their work as journalists. I think it's an unrealistic goal to think we can get back to the days of Heywood Broun in that sense. I'm not sure we can make that come about by advocating or promoting the idea that reporters should put in print what we, the Guild, think constitutes social justice. I think that would backfire on us, actually. We have to think of other ways.
But I very much believe that off the job, reporters and journalists need to participate in political activism so long as it doesn't present a conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest in their work. As workers who have a stake in the democratic process being effective and engaging, I think they should promote democratic processes by engaging in them as citizens.
What's important is that journalists themselves have a voice within the media corporations where they work. The only way that's possible is for them to organize. That's why the Newspaper Guild is so important, more now than ever. None of our values are going to be held anywhere in these companies if journalists don't organize and come forward and promote them with one voice.
There is a lot of hand-wringing in the profession about what's happening to journalism today, because of the consolidation of media ownership, the changing nature of technology, the rapid pace of the world and the political climate. The resignation of Jay Harris from Knight Ridder is just an example. And there are a lot of organizations trying to address these concerns, like the Society of Professional Journalists. But there's only one group that represents solely the interests of media workers, and that's the Guild. We can be a true conscience of this industry, because we have just one constituency, and that's it. Media workers themselves.
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