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Journalism’s Dirty Little Secret

a protest sign that reads 'Stand Up for Workers' Rights! Communications Workers of America' held aloft over a crowd
CWA signs at the "We Are One" rally in New York City, April 2011. Photo by John Maugeri.

Many journalists like to inveigh against “dark money” at every opportunity.

They criticize undisclosed spending not just in politics and other spheres of public life, but in purely private contexts too. When a wealthy individual chooses to buy a piece of property using a privately held entity – the sort The New York Times and others have called “shell companies” regardless of how much wealth is placed inside the so-called shell – they are quick to cry foul.

They demand disclosure when doctors perform work for drug companies, or when politicians receive loans or gifts from real or phony friends, or when stock analysts hold a position in the securities they discuss in the media. They sue for public officials’ emails and other public records.

But when it comes to discussing their own private financial interests and political affiliations, they clam up. You will look long and hard to find a story acknowledging the union membership of journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other prominent news outlets.

Most of the journalists whose bylines you read in these august journals are represented by an arm of the Communications Workers of America. The CWA serves as an umbrella union for journalists at many publications, but also for workers in education, law enforcement, manufacturing and a variety of other fields. It is also an active donor to Democrats and an advocate for a variety of liberal social causes.

Yet you will almost never find the fact of journalists’ membership disclosed even in articles about the CWA, let alone those that discuss candidates whom the union has endorsed, such as Bernie Sanders. You will not find such a disclosure in articles discussing legislation favored or opposed by unions including the CWA, such as the push for sharp increases in the minimum wage. You will not find it in articles discussing decisions by the National Labor Relations Board.

Basically, you will not find it at all except once in a blue moon, when an article discusses negotiations between the union and a publisher – and even in that context, details will be scant indeed. It is a base form of hypocrisy.

It is also one to which I will plead guilty, although I can invoke the statute of limitations. From 1978, when I joined The Associated Press after I graduated from college, until 1986 when I left the industry, I was a member of the Wire Service Guild, an arm of The Newspaper Guild. At the time the Guild was not yet part of the CWA, although it did belong to the AFL-CIO umbrella. This relationship should have been disclosed in relevant AP stories. It wasn’t.

The AP was an “agency shop.” To work there, you had to either join the union or pay an equivalent amount in dues. I did not object to the union at the time, so I was a card-carrying member. This is not the same situation as the one under scrutiny in the recent Supreme Court case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which dealt with whether public employees could be required to pay fees to a union for representing them in bargaining. As a private enterprise, The AP’s agreement to require members to financially support the union did not trigger the same set of government-enforced speech and association issues that were implicated in the California teachers’ case. The AP had every right to proceed the way it did – but readers still should have been apprised that AP writers like me who covered labor union matters were also members of a labor union.

The Guild was about the only organization I joined during my stint at The AP. As a young political reporter, I took my independence seriously and refused to register to a political party or otherwise associate myself with any organization or position that I covered. But thanks in part to my assignment covering the state Legislature, I wrote about labor and economic matters often enough that my audience deserved to know about my union affiliation.

Today’s journalists are aware of the sensitivity of this point. They just don’t want to confront it. So they choose not to talk about it; after all, the situation is embarrassing. For readers like me, who believe institutions like The Times and The Washington Post have largely shunted fairness and objectivity aside regardless in their coverage of partisan political and economic topics, this omission smacks of outright deceit. I neither expect nor trust The Times, in particular, to be fair in its coverage of such issues – let alone objective, which is more of a goal than an expectation anyway. In fact, I do not even expect The Times to try to be fair. I am seldom disappointed.

A decade or two ago, this subterfuge could be reasonably effective because most readers only had access to a handful of news sources. Today, the situation is different. Upstart outlets like Politico, whose Washington coverage takes priority over that of The Times in my reading list, and a multiplicity of blogs covering every topic from every possible perspective offer a wealth of alternatives, with Google and other search engines ready to organize it all. In this world, journalists’ deception fools nobody who cares enough to know and who knows enough to care.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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