Working-Class Media Needed in United States

The United States needs “a working-class media” to “recover” control of the national conversation about income inequality, class and race and their intersection, social justice journalist Carla Murphy told organized labor communicators.

Murphy said that without such a working-class media—now nonexistent except for the People’s World of Chicago and a few other outlets—the corporate class and its mischaracterizations, or worse, of workers still would dominate the national discussion. And that discussion also excludes the linkage between class and race, she told the International Labor Communications Association biennial convention.

Murphy keynoted the convention, which drew many of the nation’s top union communicators to the Tommy Douglas Conference Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, a Washington suburb, on Nov. 14–15.

The convention also featured panel presentations on new media and its uses, labor-community coalitions—with the successful fight against Missouri’s "right to work" law showcased—use of social media and online and offline organizing. Whole-group sessions saw two California union communicators explain how they changed the populace’s view of workers and unions in the Golden State, and a discussion on organizing to combat wage theft in Minnesota. An awards banquet honored the best labor journalism of calendar year 2018.

Murphy explained that labor media, if it grabs the opportunity, can refocus the socioeconomic discussion by addressing such issues as widespread anger at flat or declining incomes since 1970, why there should be “a view of power from the underside” of the income scale, and how the 1% abuses its control of politics and the economy. That anger spans races, incomes and political affiliation, she noted.

The void labor media could fill was created by the decline of the mainstream media—due to the collapse of revenues thanks to the Internet and the mushrooming explosion of alternative outlets such as blogs, cable channels, talk radio and Twitter. The anti-worker right has exploited that void, Murphy said. Workers and their allies have not.

“Media is an ecosystem to establish the terms of the debate” over the future of U.S. workers, she said, not just in terms of income but in terms of workplace control. “Fox and talk radio established that” ecosystem “for the Republicans.” But the United States needs funding to find, train and staff working-class people on their own media system, she added. “Organized labor should turn its attention to the mediascape in a massive way.”

“Labor is not present in the media,” and that means “it is ceding a power position” to the corporate elite, the right wing and their political allies, she pointed out.

But if and when labor decides, as a movement, to create its own alternative media ecosystem—the AFL-CIO was lobbied to do so in past years, but did not—it also must not make the same mistakes the mainstream media has in terms of who it hires and the perspectives they bring.

Murphy noted the nation’s remaining newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white, male and, now, college-educated. That’s even though the number of newsroom workers has declined by approximately half since 1990, federal data shows. Meanwhile, the number of social media workers more than tripled, and is now double newsroom employee rolls.

The demographics of the nation’s newspapers and TV networks—before everything broke up—did not reflect the nation’s population, she said. And they still don’t. Women and people of color are vastly underrepresented, and 80% of news media workers have college degrees, while only one-third of the population does. As a result, the views and even the regular lives of women, people of color and other minorities get and got short shrift, if they’re covered at all, she noted.

That fosters massive distrust of the mainstream media in the uncovered communities, Murphy said. And that mistrust predates the collapse of the mainstream media with the advent of the internet and its takeover of the mainstream’s revenues. It also predates the rise of the right-wing media ecosystem.

“But the internet also democratizes the media,” Murphy noted, both by lowering barriers to individuals entering the news stream and by letting people force to the fore topics the mainstream media previously ignored. She gave as an example the “turning point” of the Occupy movement, precursor to “Fight for 15 and a Union.” Both brought income inequality and the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us to the fore, Murphy noted.

They’ve stayed there ever since. But even when the mainstream media covered those issues, its outlets did so from the perspective of their readers—especially the 1%—and corporate advertisers. That gave workers little space or attention, she noted. That’s also where the labor press can come to the fore, Murphy said. It can do so not just in print and over the internet, but through social media, podcasts and other forms of new media. But it also needs to find—and to have somebody fund—“working-class reporters to write about working-class issues.”

Those issues transcend race, she stated. “The common interest” of working-class issues of income, wealth and imbalance of power “bonds the American working class more thoroughly than race-based residence,” segregation and other differences “divide us,” Murphy said.