Detroit newspaper strike pits reporters against profits
Janine Jackson/Extra!
November/December 1996

Corporate-owned media outlets usually demonstrate their bias against organized labor with negative language and unbalanced reporting. For the past ten months in Detroit, media giants Gannett and Knight-Ridder have been demonstrating their antiunion stance much more dramatically--with pepper gas sprayed into crowds and truncheon-wielding "security guards".

The strike by six union locals representing 2,500 reporters, circulation workers, printers and mailers against Gannett's Detroit News and Knight-Ridders's Detroit Free Press has seen no shortage of drama. An important test of labor's strength in a key union town, the nearly yearlong action has included mass demonstrations, boardroom confrontations and hundreds of arrests. "It's real, and it's war," striking Detroit News reporter Kate DeSmet told a gathering of New York labor editors recently. "It's also one hell of a story."

Yet a search of major U.S. dailies turned up just a handful of articles, mostly wire reports, in the last few months; television has virtually ignored it. Says DeSmet, a 17year newsroom veteran, "As a journalist, I'm just shocked at how it can be so roundly ignored".

Ironically, papers during this same period have been full of reports on various mergers and takeovers in media corporations. These accounts of "happy marriages" and "synergy" don't often dwell on the fallout--lost jobs, slashed benefits and the decreased control workers have in the "reengineered" workplace. Detroit is a vivid illustration of that side of the story, but mainstream journalists seem to grow timid when it comes to telling the truth about their own industry's treatment of workers.

See No Evil
Perhaps it isn't surprising that Gannett papers, like USA Today, aren't giving news from Detroit a high priority; their image would hardly be helped by an account of the night Gannett delivery trucks unexpectedly rammed a line of peacefully gathered pickets, for instance, or by photos of one of DeSmet's colleaguesbeaten so badly by a private security guard that he suffered brain damage.

Readers might also be influenced by the news that since the strike began, a parade of community leaders, including a bishop and the chairman of the city council, have been arrested while protesting management's behavior.

Since strikes depend on public understanding and support, the lack of accurate reporting only strengthens the owner's hand.

Of the few articles that have appeared, several seem to be more about corporate solidarity than journalism. For instance, several accounts (e.g., Christian Science Monitor, 1/12/96; Wall Street Journal, 4/11/96) seemed to cast doubt on the strike's effectiveness by pointing out that the companies are still reporting profits, or that, with some 1,400 replacement workers, they are "still putting out a paper."

This analysis rings false, of course, because a newspaper's value isn't in paper and ink, but depends on the skill and integrity of reporters and editors. And, profit margins aside, the Detroit News will need help salvaging its journalistic credibility after printing months of laughably skewed strike coverage.

"Newspaper Strikers Urged to Bring Kids to Picket Lines" was the headline on one story (5/5/96), which detailed the damage pickets were inflicting on their children. The main source was a psychologist who asked: "What are we teaching them? That if you have a cause and you want to break the law for that cause, you can get out of school, too?"

Merge & Purge
Much of the current conflict at Detroit's dailies from the 1989 Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) that combined the advertising and circulation departments of the News and Free Press. Knight-Ridder threatened to close the Free Press (which it claimed was unsalvageable "downward spiral") unless it got the deal, which was staunchly resisted by Detroit's Mayor, the unions and the antitrust division of the Justice Department.

The debate raged for years, with Knight-Ridder and Gannett publicly lobbying Attorney General Edwin Meese, whose approval was required. Knight-Ridder even warned its cartoonists to avoid drawing pictures of Meese--an outrageous intervention which the company dubiously claimed "was not a conflict of interest, but an attempt to avoid one by preventing the sketchers from trying to curry favor." (Washington Post, 11/21/89).

The ranking Justice Department judge finally recommended that the JOA be denied, that the public interest was better served by keeping Detroit a twopaper town. As for the heavy losses the papers claimed, the judge cited belowmarket ad rates and cheap cover prices, echoing the widely reported charge that "the two papers had lost money, at least in part because each was engaged in a deliberate strategy to destroy the other forgoing profits now for a monopoly later." (Los Angeles Times, 11/14/89)

But in 1988, Attorney General Meese overturned the decision, a ruling ultimately given backhanded approval by a deadlocked Supreme Court. In contrast to their current apathy, reporters at the time railed against the outcome, which the Washington Post (11/21/89) said "cannot help but contribute to the growing disillusionment, suspicion and downright cynicism with which all journalists are viewed by our readers."

As if to prove critic's fears, Knight-Ridder and Gannett responded to the freedom from antitrust laws the JOA gave them by immediately doubling ad rates and raising prices at both papers.

They also set about "streamlining" operations, cutting hundreds of jobs and demanding concessions, including a wage freeze, from remaining staff. Employees were asked to help the company "get back on its feet," DeSmet recalls. But when Gannett and Knight-Ridder continued to call for sacrifice after recording profits of $56 million for 1994 (Editor & Publisher, 3/16/96), workers resisted, finally walking out on July 13.

What's at Stake
For the Newspaper Guild, representing newsroom staff, complaints included management's attempt, after freezing pay for six years, to institute a "merit" system (meaning the bosses decide who deserve a raise), and the demand for further givebacks in health benefits.

Circulation and distribution workers reacted to the push to cut union jobs that management calls superfluous "featherbedding" and to move work from full to parttimers and from union to nonunion workers within the company.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that the companies forced an unfair labor practices strike; Gannett and Knight-Ridder have appealed the ruling.

Both companies have hired replacement workers they have no plans to fire. "They helped us survive and we're not going to back away from them," Free Press publisher Heath Meriweather told the Chicago Tribune (2/11/96).

Detroit News publisher Robert Giles isn't evasive about his ultimate goal: "We're going to hire a whole new workforce and go on without unions, or they can surrender unconditionally and salvage what they can." (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 9/2/95)

If the strike is to be judged to be over labor practices, the hiring of permanent replacements will be ruled a violation of labor law. In the meantime, unseasoned "replacement journalists" have sometimes proved a liability. DeSmet described one scab reporter assigned to cover the trial of Michigan doctor Jack Kevorkian. When Kevorkian's lawyer told the press he planned to use "hand puppets" in court the next day, everyone but the replacement reporter knew he was kidding; the News ran the "story" on page one, to management's chagrin.

Other News
Striking reporters, photographers and editors haven't stopped working. Their weekly Detroit Sunday Journal, begun in November with contributions from international unions, has been very wellreceived; and it doesn't just cover the strike. "We're breaking stories too," DeSmet reveals, partly because "there are a lot of people who won't talk to [scab reporters] but they will talk to us." One Journal cover story, exposing breakdowns in the city's emergency medical services, was based on tips from union health care workers.

Meanwhile, the unions claim, paid subscriptions to the News and Free Press are down 61 percent (Wall Street Journal 5/2/96), and several major advertisers have pulled out. Signs ['No News or Free Press wanted here'] sprouted up on lawns all around Detroit, even though management has declared a $30 "bounty" on them. And national boycotts of Gannett papers like USA Today and Knight-Ridder's Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald are underway.

While DeSmet and her coworkers are heartened by such signs of community support, they would prefer to be back at their old jobs. "We have to win this strike," she said, "and we will."

A win in Detroit would be an important victory for the labor movement, a visible rejection of the leanandmean corporate philosophy now in vogue. But then, if owners respond as threatened, by shutting down one of the dailies, Detroit readers face the depressing prospect of one less journalistic voice in the community.

Whatever the outcome, the Detroit newspaper strike has been a loss for mainstream media, who passed on the chance not just to defend their colleagues' fundamental right to strike, but also to argue for newspapers as something more than profit-driven cash cows for megacorporations.

If journalists don't make that argument, who will?

Reprinted from Extra! publication of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, July/August 1996. Subscriptions to Extra! are $19 a year (six issues) from P.O. Box 170, Congers, NY 109209930.

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