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Your Second Priority

Nicholas Johnson

Remarks to the

Iowa City Federation of Labor
Labor Day Picnic

September 5, 2005

[Note: These remarks address, among other things, a sub-set of the general issue regarding what tends to get in the way of the media's performing unimpeded journalism, as defined by the Society of Professional Journalists: "The duty of the journalist is to [promote the] public enlightenment [that] is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues." Society of Professional Journalists, Code of Ethics.

The sub-set involved in the following remarks is what appears to be a relative absence of organized labor's perspective on news having to do with the interests and welfare of working class Americans.

Another sub-set of the issue involves the media's limited coverage of -- or even recognition of the existence of -- the poor. Hurricane Katrina has put their presence on our television screens, and seems to have prompted at least some within the media to begin reflecting on why the poor were previously ignored. See, e.g., Rosa Brooks, "Our Homegrown Third World," Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2005, and Judy Muller, "Defining the Right Demographic," Morning Edition, National Public Radio, September 6, 2005.]

See below for the sources supporting the assertions in the following remarks.

"Whatever is your first priority, your second priority has to be media reform."

I've been saying that to gatherings of labor, and other progressive organizations, for 40 years now.

Your first priority may be a fairer shake for labor. Healthcare for Iowans. Rights for women and minorities. Improvements in local schools, or the environment. Electing your candidates to public office.

Whatever is your first priority, you have little hope of making any progress with it if you can't get media coverage -- fair and favorable media coverage.

For no group is this more true than for labor.

"Yeah, so what else is new?" I hear you say.

I'll tell you what's new.

For the first time in the history of Iowa, so far as I know, two currently sitting commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission -- Michael Copps and Jon Adelstein -- are coming to Iowa City because they want to hear from you.

The national organization Free Press is seeing to it that Wednesday, October 5th, a month from today, probably at the IMU, hundreds of Iowans will be coming forward to tell the FCC what they think about our local media.

There are petitions that give you a chance to participate. The petitions ask the FCC to at least hold hearings before automatically granting license renewals to Iowa's television stations.

All those Iowa stations have to file for renewal by October 1. If their licenses are renewed they will be able to keep up what they've been doing for another 8 years.

Meanwhile, a local group called Iowans for Better Local Television,, and anyone else in the state, has from now until the end of December to get comments and petitions to the Commission. IBLTV's Web site actually lets you sign the petition online.

So why should labor care?

You can probably answer that better than I.

Our hearts go out to those suffering in Louisiana and Mississippi. We grieve with them, and send them our money and our prayers. The dead and injured will surely end up numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands. And the media has been all over the story, as they should. Or think back on the aftermath to 9/11 and the over 2700 who died in that attack on the World Trade Center.

But you and I know that there are twice that number, 5000 to 6000 working men and women, killed in the workplaces of this country every year, year after year. Often because of unsafe working conditions. Every year over five million have injuries or diseases from their workplaces. And 2.6 million of those require recuperation away from the workplace, or a restriction of their duties. What do you ever see of this disgraceful, nationwide epidemic on the evening news? And as a result of the public's ignorance of these facts, few candidates for public office, Republican or Democratic, ever make it a campaign issue.

I could go on with this forever. You may think I already have.

This is, after all, a day to celebrate Labor, and its accomplishments for all Americans.

But we will have even more to celebrate, next year, if you will sign these petitions, and turn out Wednesday evening, October 5th.


Associated Press, "Final WTC Death Toll Said Down to 2749," January 23, 2004,
(estimates peaked at 6886; "stood at 2792 from December 2002 until October [2003];" and at 2749 "now matches the number of death certificates the the city [of New York] has issued").

Steve Chermak, Review of William J. Puette, Through Jaundiced Eyes: How the Media View Organized Labor (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1992), Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(5) (1995) 123-126,

Peter Hart, "Why Is Labor Off TV?; Chris Matthews Blames Union Leaders -- Not Himself," EXTRA! Update, August 2005, p. 3 [not online as of September 5, 2005] ("a FAIR study (Extra!, 9-10/01) found that in 19 months of coverage, featuring 364 guests, only two representatives of organized labor appeared on the networks' Sunday morning talk shows").

International Labor Communications Association, (ILCA Online FAQs, "What's wrong with the corporate media?" There is a growing consensus in the United States that mainstream commercial media are by and large not mainstream at all but instead are supportive of the corporate agenda. Of course, the largest media companies (which provide most Americans' news) and their large advertisers are themselves mammoth corporations. In addition to promoting policies that advance corporate interests, our major media often appear to place profits ahead of investing in in-depth quality journalism.),

Mokhiber and Weissman, "Killing Work," May 21, 1999, ZNet Daily Commentaries,

Norman Solomon, "Mass Media -- Hatred of American Labor?" AlterNet, posted April 26, 2000, ("Coverage of the economy is, more than international or domestic political coverage, dominated by one social sector -- the business class," Hoynes concluded after assessing programs on PBS stations. "Corporate representatives account for more than half of the sources," while 20 percent of sources represent
Wall Street. Overall, "three-quarters of the sources in economic stories are from the corporate or investment world." In sharp contrast, non-professional workers and labor representatives together account for less than 3 percent of the voices on the air.")

Worker Health Chartbook 2004, NIOSH Pub. No. 2004-146, (reports 5524 fatal injuries in 2002; 5.2 million non-fatal injuries in 2001 of which 2.6 million resulted in lost workdays from recuperation away from the workplace or the necessity of restricted duties).