OPINION: The news media’s blind spots covering the working class

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: At the Labor Tribune, we take pride in sharing Labor’s stories. We see our work as a mission because, too often, the mainstream media gets it wrong when reporting on unions and working-class issues.)

By CHRISTOPHER MARTIN
Professor of Digital Journalism
University of Northern Iowa

At midnight on Sept. 15, 49,000 United Auto Workers-represented GM workers walked out on strike at locations nationwide, a day after their 2015 collective bargaining contract with General Motors expired and the union declined to extend the provisions of the agreement.

In a statement, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said, “While we are fighting for better wages, affordable quality health care, and job security, GM refuses to put hard-working Americans ahead of their record profits of $35 billion in North America over the last three years. We are united in our efforts to get an agreement our members and their families deserve.”

GOP President Donald Trump promised, then punted, on saving the GM jobs, and never seemed to imagine the UAW would later be leading the fight. Given their news coverage from earlier this year, neither did the New York Times imagine the UAW would take on GM.

While the auto industry is increasingly profitable, autoworkers have been suffering. Ground Zero of that story is the iconic GM Lordstown plant in northeastern Ohio, which lost the discontinued Chevy Cruze and was shuttered when GM moved production of the revived Chevy Blazer to Mexico.

Beyond its regular reporting, the New York Times committed an amazing level of resources to the story of the Lordstown closing, producing podcasts and a multimedia piece in July and a New York Times Magazine story earlier in 2019.

I have watched the episode on Lordstown several times, listened to the podcast many more times, and re-read the multimedia piece. I’ve also gone back to review the Times’ 1992-1993 editorials and opinions on NAFTA, the trade deal that eventually caught up with Lordstown and many other factories.

The Times’s impressive investment and multiple stories across multiple formats cover the human injury of GM’s boardroom decisions and note the unwritten rules of the “social contract” have changed. These workers are victims of changing times, and the story is told with drama and great empathy. It also misses the point of who really caused this disaster.

This is both a story we have heard before, and the kind of narrative that emerges with the built-in blind spots of a news organization focused on stories for upscale readers, listeners, and viewers.

MORE INTERESTED IN POLITICS THAN PEOPLE
The Times’ stories are mostly framed as national political stories, even as they acknowledge that the workers they interview are weary of that angle. The Daily podcast makes this clear, stating “There’s got to be some political fallout from [the Lordstown closing]. What is the consequence for Trump in this scenario?” In framing the issue this way, The Daily and The Weekly focus on white, male workers who voted for Trump.

To understand the politics of this and so many other “working class” stories since Trump’s election 2016, imagine the podcast interviewed a black woman worker from Lordstown who didn’t vote for Trump. The political angle would vanish in such a story.

The national media is more interested in politics than people. They would rather feature a white male worker who voted for Trump and who now (presumably) struggles with the cognitive dissonance of his beloved president not saving his job. This means ignoring the wide range of people who are working class – including those at Lordstown.

Conversely, the multimedia piece, featuring interviews and photos by an African-American freelancer, takes a different perspective. Not framed as a political story, it is also the only part of New York Times coverage of Lordstown that includes multiple representations of African-American workers and women workers.

“The system” the Times says is broken extends beyond their limited political framing of the story. It includes a blind spot about the paper’s complicity with that system.

COUNTERVAILING POWER
The nation’s newspaper of record ran many editorials in favor of NAFTA in 1992-93, labeling workers and their unions as “protectionist,” and stating that there would be only “a few visible losers” with “many in low-paid occupations.” The Times’ economics columnist wrote pieces with headlines such as “Job Loss In Pact Is Seen As Small,” and “Trade Pact Fears Seem Overstated,” which supported its editorial position.

In its recent reports on Lordstown, the New York Times fails to acknowledge how its editorial support of NAFTA contributed to what has happened to America’s “losers.”

In fact, a number of negative outcomes for Lordstown and the Mahoning Valley extend from NAFTA: Pressure for concessions and givebacks to save jobs, export of jobs to Mexico –where GM assembly plants grew from one to four after NAFTA – and the granting of millions in tax breaks and incentives to keep jobs. Those giveaways drained needed public funds for schools and municipal infrastructure.

The New York Times failed to be a countervailing power, to use the late John Kenneth Galbraith’s term, for working people in 1992-93, precisely at the time when it was most needed. Those are the years government, with majorities of Republicans, but not of Democrats, lined up in favor of NAFTA, failed to be a countervailing power for working people.

Government and the mainstream news media were in the corner of GM and other corporations. No one was in the workers’ corner – except Organized Labor.

Because of this, the Times also failed to recognize the UAW as a solution in their coverage. In the early 1990s, the union was a protectionist loser, and in 2019 it was an institution down for the count, whose members’ only remaining power was their individual ballots for Democratic or Republican presidential candidates with whom they could place their faltering hope.

POETIC JUSTICE
So, in 2019 there is a poetic justice for the UAW-GM workers themselves, all 49,000 of them, who decided to take a stand and be a countervailing power to the auto industry, despite the lack of support from the government or the news media.

Their audacity elicited a rarity from the pages of the Times a few days later: an opinion piece that avoided framing the UAW’s actions in the politics of Trump. David Leonhardt’s column, “Why I’m Rooting for the GM Strikers,” is a story long overdue for the working class.

Yes, Lordstown and the working class are political stories, but they are stories so much larger than that, too. They are even stories about journalism itself, and the role it has in “the system” that it often fails to see.

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