Killing News in Motor City(prolonged Newspaper Strike in Detroit, Michigan Involving a Joint-Operating Agreement between the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News)

Article excerpt

From the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s freelance political commercials to the romance of Union Summer, organized labor seems to have achieved a visibility unthinkable only a few years ago. If the passing attention of the media is any evidence, labor is most certainly back, breaking into the "what's hot" columns of the nation's Zeitgeist monitors and eliciting statements of hallucinatory fear from Bob Dole. But this doesn't mean that the labor struggles of recent years have even begun to receive the journalistic consideration they deserve. Labor may be picturesque; labor may be authentic; labor may even be "hip," as a recent Newsweek story put it; but the details of its protracted recent wars and its bitter defeats are things that most editors evidently feel we have no interest in reading about. This is true even when the labor story in question addresses most urgently the economic, cultural and political issues of the era.

In Detroit, more than 2,000 union employees of the city's newspapers, The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, have been on strike since July 1995. Owned by Gannett and KnightRidder respectively--the country's two largest newspaper chains--the News and Free Press gave up decades of fierce competition in 1989 to become contented partners in a joint-operating agreement (J.O.A.), a sort of federally licensed monopoly that allowed them to unite their publishing operations while remaining nominally distinct. The strike has thus become a cultural conflict as well as an economic one, pitting labor's vision of a just society against the all-devouring ambitions of the new information conglomerates, who dominate the journalistic life of Detroit as thoroughly as Disney, Time Warner and Murdoch would like to dominate the cultural life of the nation. There can be little doubt of the struggle's significance--back in August A.F.L.-C.I.O president John Sweeney declared that it was "the most important strike we have in our country today"-- but mainstream coverage of the Detroit newspaper strike, when it occurs at all. betrays a Gingrichian smugness about the direction of history that would put the most doctrinaire Hegelians to shame.

This is the age of the entrepreneur, the mono-story goes, a time in which business is replacing civil society, an era of ever accelerating change, of virtual offices, of Total Quality Management and Continuous Process Improvement; amid this whirlwind of consumer and corporate excellence, unions are an almost unthinkable throwback. For labor unions, a product of the thirties, to presume to interrupt that holiest of nineties transactions--the flow of information from content provider to content consumer--is an act so profoundly out of sync with the movement of history as to constitute a serious cultural crime.

This is why the Detroit events are routinely described with phrases like "unions and their struggle to adjust to a new world" and "tactics and attitudes from thirty years ago"; this is why, of the many violent and picturesque events that have occurred since the strike began, the only one that interested national TV news was the bizarre airlift of September 9, 1995. When angry strikers surrounded the newspapers' suburban printing plant, management got its papers out by helicopter. The tableau fit the master narrative of the information age almost perfectly: angry pickets with cardboard signs, standing around fire-barrels and being bested handily by technology. The troublesome fact that only a tiny part of the papers' pre-strike print run was salvaged in this way had to be omitted, of course; so did the unruly facts that strikers have been run over by company trucks and gassed by suburban police forces to whom the company has donated great sums; that one particularly nasty truck-torching, filmed and broadcast by the newspapers as evidence of violent union tendencies, is now believed by local law-enforcement authorities to have probably been perpetrated by company guards themselves. …