Writers and photographers during the Vietnam war considered it their responsibility to expose the lies of the Pentagon’s propaganda machine, and they often did so brilliantly. But reporters during Desert Storm and in the war 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 saw themselves as advocates for racial equality, while today newsroom culture discourages journalists from identifying closely with social justice movements in communities and union halls. In analyzing this shift to the right, media critics on the left generally contend that the growth of monopoly media corporations has created a political monoculture that has successfully removed the left from the spectrum of acceptable debate.

Linda Foley, national president of the Newspaper Guild met with striking guild members and supporting union members outside the front entrance of the Seattle Times (monday) giving her support along with that of the national organization and the money it has in its fund.   Photo by Steve Ringman
Linda Foley, national president of the Newspaper Guild met with striking guild members and supporting union members outside the front entrance of the Seattle Times (monday) giving her support along with that of the national organization and the money it has in its fund. Photo by Steve Ringman

Due to that shift, should the movement for media democracy 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?

A potentially progressive element in the mainstream media is the media workers’ union. 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 now in the union leadership. This poses 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 such leader is Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America. Foley grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, went to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and worked summers on community newspapers. After graduating, she worked the copy desk at the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader, a Knight Ridder newspaper, then became a reporter, feature writer, and makeup editor. By age 24 she was president of Local 229 of the Newspaper Guild. In 1984, she went to work full time for the guild in Washington, D.C., in the collective bargaining department. She was elected secretary-treasurer of the Guild in 1993 and Guild President in 1995.

Journalists Can Be Fighters for Social Justice

Interview with Linda Foley, President of The Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America

by David Bacon

MediaFile: Do you think that journalists should be involved in changing the world?

Absolutely. I was part of the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein generation. I felt and still feel that it’s a noble profession, the kind of work where you can actually make a difference. 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 shines 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.

MF: The Guild was founded by people like Heywood Broun, who had a reputation as a very radical person.

Foley: 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. 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 and contraception.

He felt reporters at the time were very exploited. Though he was the highest-paid columnist in the country, he looked around and saw that his co-workers were miserable. Printers were the highest-paid workers at newspapers, and reporters weren’t making anywhere near what they were making. He wrote a column calling for journalists to organize, saying he would lead the charge. Because he was so widely known, he instantly galvanized people, and the Guild was formed almost 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 they 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.

MF: 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?

Foley: 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 Broun pushed.

The culture among journalists in the Guild hasn’t necessarily kept strictly to that principle. 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. A lot of red-baiting went on. The Guild took a turn to the right at that point and bought 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.

MF: When you were elected president of the Guild, a lot of people thought the organization was making a turn back toward the founding ideals.

Foley: I hope so. For the past 60 years the Guild has been giving an award in the spirit of Broun, the Heywood Broun Award, which is now probably second 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 an award in his name as well. Both awards further those ideals. At the awards banquet this year, it was great to spend 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.”

MF: Does the Guild have a program opposing the trend of increased consolidation of media ownership?

Foley: I’m not sure that trend can be bucked, given the structure of our society, the political climate and the culture. But wherever we can, despite the business pressures, we have to maintain independent voices, both in the mainstream media and outside it.

We can’t just forget about the mainstream media and concentrate on alternative media to get our voices out. We have a committee on the future of journalism, and we focus on how people can do their work, given the pressures they face. We 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 be 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 Joint Operating Agreement partner decided to close the 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. That 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.

MF: Does consolidation affect the ability of media workers to cover social struggles, whether union organizing campaigns or those in the community?

Foley: Yes. It’s not so much out-and-out censorship, although there is some of that. It’s more that the decision about what to cover gets made in terms of how many people are available 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.

MF: Some media critics say that both the journalism schools and the corporatization of the newsroom encourage a culture of self censorship by journalists, that they know what’s expected and they know the spectrum of acceptable opinion as viewed by publishers. Do you agree?

Foley: I think that’s true. That wasn’t occurring when I was working day-to-day at a newspaper, not 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 their idealism? How do you train them to use reporting skills in a way that adheres to those ideals and principles?

MF: Some of the criticism is also focused on demographics. The increase in hiring of workers of color in the newsroom has slipped backwards.

Foley: The criticism about diversity in terms of people of color is absolutely true. 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. 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.

MF: What is the Guild doing about this problem?

Foley: We haven’t done as much in promoting diversity as we should. But 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?”

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 committed to journalism and social justice?

MF: 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?

Foley: 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?” What we want to ensure is that those who have a propensity to promote social justice can do so without facing retaliation or having barriers in their way.

MF: Mainstream newspaper publishers aren’t sympathetic to unions. Doing in-depth coverage of a strike, following radical community struggles, or taking a critical view of US foreign policy 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?

Foley: 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. That the owners of the presses are cultivating certain ideas — is 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. however, it is 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.

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 that process by engaging in it 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 are a lot of organizations trying to address these concerns, like the Society of Professional Journalists. But there’s only one group that solely represents 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.

David Bacon is a freelance journalist and Media Alliance Board member.