FCC testimony on media ownership: David Groves

Hi, my name is David Groves. I’m the communications director for the Washington State Labor Council – the largest union organization in the state – which represents the interests of more than four hundred thousand rank and file union members. I thank you for the opportunity to come here and speak to you tonight.

One of my responsibilities at the State Labor Council is media relations which includes trying to convince the press to cover issues and events that unions would like more people to know about. Sometimes I succeed and more often I don’t. I suppose that’s probably true for a lot of people that do my work. But, in my experience, those of us in organized labor feel particularly disenfranchised by the ‘so called’ mainstream media and for good reasons – all of which are exacerbated by media consolidation. That’s why the State Labor Council and the national AFL-CIO strongly oppose any FCC proposal to relax media ownership limits.

Back in the day, newspapers used to have reporters who were assigned the labor beat and union news was much more common. Now, there are only business reporters… if that. They cover strikes and labor disputes and precious little else involving unions – except, perhaps, union political activity and criticism of it. Reporters I deal with often aren’t familiar with the different unions, how they operate, and who they represent, and the quality of their coverage suffers as a result.

Now, one can argue that the extensive coverage of labor occurred at a time when far more people belonged to unions and that may be true to an extent. But here in Washington, nearly 20% of the jobs are unionized – making us one of the most heavily unionized states in the nation. And, there are more than half of a million union members, all of whom are media consumers. I think they would like to learn more about what their unions are doing.

Many union leaders I have talked to have come to believe that the corporate media -- as they call it -- is predisposed against them and deliberately ignores union issues for ideological reasons. Although I understand their frustration (as a former newspaper copy editor myself), I wasn’t so sure that was true. I didn’t want to believe that was true. I thought there is nothing sinister about it; it is not a vast right-wing or left-wing conspiracy. It is just economics. The big media conglomerates that have been allowed to buy up newspapers, radio, and TV stations are making profit-minded decisions to cut costs.

The handful of independent and family-owned media that remain are often forced to do the same in order to compete. They end up shrinking their news departments or, in the case of some radio stations, eliminating them entirely. They end up broadcasting or printing more syndicated national content instead of locally produced programs and stories. And, that is excuse number one I hear from news editors about why they didn’t cover our issues -- that no reporters were available. They were just stretched too thin that day.

But, it is excuse number two that gives me pause to reconsider the argument that corporate media ideology is to blame. Often times, union news involves organizing drives where workers at a particular company are trying to form a union. These days in America, a multi-billion dollar union-avoidance industry exists. Employers hire these consultants to teach them how they can skirt or just plain break the law that says employers are allowed or not allowed to coerce, intimidate, or interfere with workers who support unionization. Employers can do this today with relative impunity because the law is so weak and rarely enforced.

That is why unions often send out press releases and seek media coverage of illegal employer harassment or outright firing of union organizers because the wheels of justice at the National Labor Relations Board turn way too slowly… if at all. So, media scrutiny of these potentially illegal actions is critical; but it rarely happens. An excuse I usually get from news editors is that ‘we don’t get involved in internal labor disputes except when it affects the entire community.’ My translation for that is that newspapers, radio, and TV stations have no interest in imputing and impugning area business – all of which are advertisers or potential advertisers based on the accusation of some angry worker or union.

I am here to tell you that the suppression of working people’s freedom of association does affect the entire community and deserves some scrutiny. We aren’t getting it today, and we have even less chance of getting it tomorrow if the FCC allows giant corporations to continue buying up broadcast outlets and newspapers. We need to go in the exact opposite direction to add more independent voices in the media. I thank you for listening.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey