An Apology for the Biggest Mistake of My Career as a Labor Reporter
by Mike Elk, 2013-02-11
Recently, there has been a resurgence in vinyl records among my generation because of what some say is their superior sound quality. With MP3s, there is so much depth of sound and information lost. Much like vinyl records, I have come to appreciate the value of old-school, straight reporting. As with MP3s, a lot has been lost with the emergence of the "commentator-journalist" format.
I find myself fantasizing every day about going to work in the kind of newsrooms most of my colleagues on the Left hate. I dream about going up to the news desk and talking with my editors over what would be the most fair and specific word choice we could use. Unfortunately, I don't think that will ever become real, because of a grave sin I committed against journalism integrity when I was 24, before I even had the experience to comprehend why what I was doing was wrong.
I never planned to become a reporter but accidentally found myself addicted to this chaotic and constantly confusing field. Somehow, upon graduating from college, after a brief summer internship at a union and a short stint on the Obama Campaign in 2008 as a field organizer, I got offered a job as a blogger at a D.C. union-funded think tank. Growing up the son of union organizer, I was drawn to labor reporting because I always found myself mystified by the lack of news on the subjects that I had grown up talking about around the dinner table.
Eventually, I left there to work as a real reporter, first as a freelancer for In These Times magazine, and then as a staff writer. Over time, under the wise guidance of former editor Jeremy Gantz, whom I affectionately refer to as "Mom," I learned the almost scientific beauty of straight reporting and transformed myself into a straight, straight reporter. I transformed the way I thought and wrote so much so that I didn't even vote for president in the last election and now rarely give my own opinions on Twitter.
The more I have worked as a reporter, the more I have come to understand how much I don't know. And the more I understand how much I don't know about what I am covering, the more I have understood the importance of using a format of straight reporting that automatically assumes there is no definitive truth--just different perspectives.
Ironically, I came to see that the left media does a much worse job covering labor than the mainstream corporate media. Many editors are choosing to invest in cheaper, easier-to-produce, and intellectually masturbatory polemics when it comes to labor than in serious, original investigative work.
Most reporters on the Left have no understanding of the complexities and logistics of how a business works or even a basic understanding of labor law. Often what this means is that left journalists take news events reported by other outlets to push home the Left's talking points or -- as they more frequently do--copy and paste from a union's press release. Rarely is there any actual legwork or talking to people to find out the complexities of the story or even present both sides stories.
The left media has tried to recreate the Fox News strategy of the Right: Pick a message to fit your viewpoint, get the frame right, and screw the details or complexities of a story if it doesn't fit into that message.
Case in point for me was the Left's coverage of the Hostess bankruptcy. The left media used opportunistic talking points on private equity, but largely obscured the complexities of why the company went bankrupt. A story by The Nation's John Nichols entitled "Vulture Capitalists Ate Your Twinkies", which went viral with 8,000 Facebook shares, epitomized this trend.
"When BCTGM workers struck Hostess, they did not do so casually. They were challenging Bain-style abuses by a private-equity group--Ripplewood Holdings--that had proven its incompetence and yet continued to demand more money from the workers," wrote Nichols. "On November 6, American voters rejected Mitt Romney and Bain Capitalism. But that didn't end the abusive business practices that made Romney rich. They're still wrecking American companies, like Hostess."
The story included no comment from the company or indication that Nichols even tried to talk to the company to present their side of the story. The fact of the matter is that Ripplewood Holding never even paid out big dividends to stockholders à la Bain Capital folklore. They didn't make any money on the deal, and in fact lost $130 million along the way because they failed to implement a plan they developed.
Nichols' piece fails to ask tough questions of the union, like one raised by progressive economist Eileen Applebaum, about why the union didn't insist on a seat on the board of directors to ensure the plan was implemented. His writing was symptomatic of nearly all the writing that was done on the subject on the Left--stick to the talking points, ignore the complexity.
Left writers also tend to view labor leaders as allies, instead of the people they are assigned to cover. I've met a number of reporters from left-leaning outlets who in private will voice criticism of union leaders, but dare not print these criticisms, fearing loss of access or being seen as "left anti-union," as a June Nation op-ed infamously labeled left reporters critical of union leaders. This mentality has lead many left publications to not cover widespread union corruption or the perspectives of rank-and-file union workers who consider union leaders unresponsive. (Fortunately, my former full-time employer, In These Times, has allowed me to write stories unwelcomed even by union donors, like this one or this one).
While my editors at In These Times have stayed true to being real reporters in our coverage of labor, it's like any other nonprofit--understaffed and in need of foundation money. Foundation money is fickle, as I learned the hard way, when the grant that funded my position as a staff writer was pulled the same week that The New York Times cited my investigative work in a front-page story on Romney and his business allies pressuring workers to support his candidacy.
I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to do reporting that was financially sustainable, while maintaining complete editorial integrity to cover issues of union corruption and incompetency, there was only one choice: the corporate media. (I know to some it sounds crazy calling the corporate media funding "stable," but it's more stable than grants than can be pulled based on the mercurial decision-making of one rich person).
I had always written like a straight reporter. The New York Times, The Washington Post, LA Times, Reuters and AP cite my work. So it seemed only natural that they might feel comfortable employing me should they feel comfortable enough to rely on my reporting as a source. I'd to love work in one of their newsrooms alongside reporters and editors with far more wisdom than me, who could teach me the ropes. Quite simply, nothing like that exists in left media. There is no newsroom, no time for much real reporting since we constantly need to produce clicks, and little to no mentoring of young reporters.
Recently, I had several discussion about coming to work as a labor reporter with a major mainstream organization. Eventually, I was told that while they were very impressed by the quality of my work, I was too big of a risk to employ because of a dumb mistake early in my career. It reopened an old wound about something that quite frankly I had been trying to forget.
Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking back on that moment. When I had barely more than a dozen freelance bylines of any original reporting for In These Times
, I lent my press credentials, obtained as a Huffington Post blogger, to a construction union leader. The construction union leader then broke into the mortgage bankers' conference. The credential was later found on one of the union construction leaders who had broken in to the conference, and Huffington Post dismissed me from blogging.
It was the mistake of a young reporter who hadn't fully evolved to separate the values of a reporter from the values of a kid who grew up in a union household. I was joking around with a union guy trying to loosen up so he would talk when he asked if he could use my credentials. I allowed him to do so after thinking no more than 5 seconds. Growing up the son of a union organizer in Pittsburgh, I had gotten excited -- since I was a little kid -- about going to rallies where union guys disrupted corporate events. I guess I didn't yet know how, as a reporter, to control that adrenaline rush that can come from solidarity.
I guess I told myself it was okay to hand over my credentials because I was going to be honest and report on the event accurately. After all, I had written many articles critical of construction unions in the past, including the ones participating in this conference rally. This was confusing territory for a young reporter to navigate in a world in which we are being increasingly told to participate in stories in order to liven them up to build up our brands.
When the Huffington Post called to ask me about the incident, a union guy offered to lie and claim he merely found the credentials on the floor. I could have easily allowed him to do so and potentially saved my journalistic reputation. But I got into this piece because I wanted to tell the truth, so I told the truth and maybe ruined long-term career opportunities. Embarrassed by my rash actions, I initially tried shifting the blame away from my poor decision to a larger problem of the inaction of the media on labor issues.
"Was helping union workers disrupt a conference of bankers an ethical thing for a journalist to do? This is a subject for debate," I wrote for PBS Media Shift at the time. "In my view, however, it's unethical for publications like the Huffington Post to not have a single full-time labor reporter, and for corporate media to routinely ignore workers' struggles. This reality forces freelance labor journalists like myself to pull stunts in order to hold corporations accountable and get workers' voices heard."
Three hundred bylines later, I look back on that incident and wonder who that insecure kid was who did that. Over time I realized it was wrong and told DC Bureau Chief Ryan Grim how I felt about it, but I never wrote anything publicly about my feelings of remorse. To be perfectly honest, I think the reason I never said anything about it more publicly is that I didn't want to damage my brand.
I am supposed to be a tough, working-class guy from Pittsburgh--a "shitkicker." Union guys who are my sources loved that story. Folks cite an example of a tough reporter. It grew my following and my brand. I got a lot of good scoops out of the fact that union guys knew about me as this "shitkicker."
In an era when reporters are increasingly freelancing and not tied for very long, if at all, to full time jobs, it's important to have a brand that's not dependent on the financial health of your employer. A brand means a ton of twitter followers, and publications want to hire people who have a ton of twitter followers.
Every young journalist wants to become a star like Ezra Klein, Dave Weigel or Chris Hayes. Those people have such big followings that they have jobs for life. Journalists who keep their heads down and only have a couple hundred followers have to worry about finding another job if they ever get laid off.
It's far easier for a young journalist to write an edgy polemic with a few "f- bombs" than to do serious investigative work. Make fun of someone you are covering? That's fine because you pick up twitter followers. Say something snarky on twitter that doesn't capture the full complexity of a situation? That's fine because its builds your character, which builds your brand.
The problem with these brands is that they build up people's egos. And once people get big egos, it's tough to admit they are wrong. They are so emotionally invested in their ideas and what they say that they could never admit that they are wrong out of fear of undermining their credibility. (Two colleagues who work in left media warned me against writing this piece because it would look bad and damage my credibility.)
I realized now that by helping the construction union break into the Mortgage Bankers Conference that I was making an emotional investment that would have made it tough for me to criticize the action. This was wrong, and I apologize to The Huffington Post and to all of my fellow labor reporters, many of whom already get crap for being sympathetic to workers, for how I may have hurt my journalistic integrity.
I grew up going to picket lines. And I was inspired to enter this profession because I wanted to be able to tell the stories of the folks I met there in a way that reporters who don't have that experience are unable to do. Since I moved to DC four years ago, I've kept a photo of my father at a union meeting to remind myself of why I became a labor reporter.
It would be impossible to erase the values that generations of my family have instilled in me, nor would I ever want to. If there was a strike at a media outlet where I worked, I would never ever cross the picket line and would disparage those who did, but if I was covering a story I would cross the picket line to get the company's sides of the story. I've realized that in order to do justice to the folks I grew up with it is important to divest my emotions from the almost scientific accurateness needed to present a story. Pontificating or getting too emotionally invested in my story doesn't help the folks I grew up with, it just gets twitter followers.
I remember how beautiful it was sitting on my front steps around 7 a.m. on a Saturday, reading my investigative work cited in a front page New York Times article. The front page of the New York Times: the greatest journalistic honor for any reporter. There was no snarky Twitter comments or ego or any "shitkicking" brand that got me that story. My story was there because of a year and half of staying with a narrative, continuing to dig when hitting a brick wall, staying with my sources, and finally understanding what I was seeing from hundreds of hours spent on the phone with labor lawyers and other sources.
It makes me sad that I may never get the opportunity to do that kind of reporting again because of a mistake I made before I could even fully comprehend what a mistake I had made. I get it now. Maybe I am just a hipster who's listened to too many vinyl records, but I think there is real beauty in the sound of straight reporting.
This piece first appeared in inthesetimes.com
Beyond Chron Editor's Note: Mike Elk is one of the nation's finest labor reporters. He has earned the right to a quality reporting job.