Hermits Rock

Go to content Go to navigation

Sorkin & Unions

Sometime on TV this morning Andrew Ross Sorkin flippantly questioned whether any profitable companies are unionized, a question that was apparently met by silence onscreen but by warranted outrage online, prompting, for example, Talking Points Memo to compile a list of unionized US companies that turned a profit last year.

Sorkin’s ignorance also prompted Yglesias to observe that labor’s diminished footprint on the U.S. workforce is due to 50 years of union-unfriendly policies. Which is true enough. But Sorkin’s ignorance also reflects another pernicious problem: the fact that journalists don’t cover labor. I observed as much during the Kohler strike in Searcy, Arkansas (see here and here), but Peter Drier, here quoted by Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review in reference to the Los Angeles Times, summarized the state of business reporting in 2007:

In January 2006, I wrote an “outside the tent” op-ed column in the Times about the paper’s lousy coverage of working people. Soon thereafter (I’m not implying cause-and-effect), the paper brought in Joe Matthews to cover the long-vacant labor beat. That was a positive step, and Joe is a good reporter and does an excellent job, but it appears that his beat has been narrowly defined as primarily the link between labor unions and politics—in other words, unions as a political interest group—rather than the way business and the economy impacts the working and living conditions of the vast majority of residents in your circulation area.

In the past, a few of your reporters—Henry Weinstein, Hector Tobar, and Nancy Cleeland, among them—have excelled at this. The recent loss of Nancy Cleeland, who left the paper because she was frustrated by the paper’s unwillingness to cover the lives of ordinary working families, was a serious blow in this regard.

The LA Times has no full-time news reporter covering housing issues, despite the region’s serious housing crisis. It has no full-time reporter covering workplaces, despite the fact that the LA area is one of the most interesting and diverse regions in the country in terms of its occupational and economic sectors. It has no full-time reporter covering low-income neighborhoods—a reporter who can cultivate sources and learn about the daily twists and turns of live in these communities. These are topics that require expertise, knowledge of the subject, and cultivation of a range of sources that cannot happen overnight. They require, in other words, for the Times to make an investment in these beats, these issues, and the people and communities they impact.

In short, when business reporters’ beats are focused entirely on finance and earnings statements, they ignore 90% of what business is. Watching CNBC or reading Sorkin’s work in the Times, you would never know that “business” is the place that actual people work or that the decisions made with respect to those earnings statements hurt those workers, just like they hurt these folks: