Strike Coverage p. 15

By: MARK FITZGERALD IT'S NOT SURPRISING that Detroit's newspaper strikers would accuse the papers of unbalanced coverage.
"I don't think there's a dime's worth of difference between them," said Roger Kerson, a publicist for the unions. "They've turned their papers into house organs for management . . . . They've abandoned any pretense of balanced reporting."
What may be surprising, though, is that one of the papers, the Detroit News, sort of pleads guilty to that ? with an explanation.
Even more than the reporting of the rival Detroit Free Press, it is the News' coverage that infuriates strikers and their supporters, who accuse the paper of overemphasizing the labor dispute's sporadic violence and distorting the unions' role in it.
But News editor and publisher Robert H. Giles says the paper is only trying to balance the too-sympathetic coverage the strikers get from local broadcasters.
"We have covered the strike very aggressively and one of the things we have focused on is the violence," Giles said in a recent interview that was occasionally punctuated by the chants of strikers holding a rally below his office window.
"The unions, in our judgment, really have had a sort of platform to present their positions without any meaningful challenge . . . . To some extent, we feel the newspaper has to balance the story," Giles said.
For instance, Giles complained that the local National Public Radio outlet, WDET-FM, had until recently given
a "very, very sympathetic
treatment of violence that resulted from [strikers'] illegal actions."
"Early on in the strike, they took a very sympathetic position about the violence . . . . For a long time, they refused to suggest that by blocking the trucks trying to come in and out of Sterling Heights [production plant] or distribution centers, [strikers] were violating state law," Giles said.
"Oh, that's just bullshit, and you can quote me on that," said WDET-FM's news director, Roger Adams. "We've been round and round and round, me and Bob. We have included in every story the fact that by standing in front of gates, the strikers are violating state laws of egress and ingress into a business.
"We have never condoned violence and we point out that, yes, the strikers are violating laws . . . but then when 11 huge semis come barreling out of [newspaper plant] gates at 30 miles per hour with picketers two feet away ? yes, we'll say that is reckless and dangerous," referring to an incident this summer.
Union members, recalling the incident, cite what they say was reckless disregard for the safety of pickets blocking the gate, while management accounts emphasize the strikers' attempts to smash windows of the trucks as the convoy made its way out of the plant.
Adams said that the station's strike coverage has been balanced. "If you took all of our coverage in the aggregate, it's going to, in the final analysis, come out pretty close to [a] 50/50" mix of stories sympathetic to labor or management.
Giles argues local TV news has also taken a pro-union stance. Typically, he says, their reports concentrate on unchallenged comments from union officials or pickets. Frequently, no newspaper official is contacted for comment, he added.
"A lot just goes out live. There is no editing, no news judgment," Giles said. One TV reporter, he said, referred on-air to replacement workers as "scabs."
"About 30% of the people who work in this building are replacement workers," Giles said. "Yet they show film of anybody coming out and refer to them as 'replacement workers.' "
Union spokesman Kerson says he sees no pro-labor bias in Detroit broadcast news: "Nobody gives us a free ride. There is a strong presumption that when the company says something, it's true. And there is an equally strong presumption that when the unions say something ? you'd better check it out."
But if Giles is upset at other news organizations, union members ? and some local media critics ? say the News has done a terrible job of covering the strike.
"How do I think the News is covering the strike? Like the Voelkischer Beobachter covered Hermann Goering," Jack Lessenberry, a one-time News columnist, said, referring to official Nazi Party newspaper coverage during World War II.
"It's just the most blatant, awful, one-sided coverage of the strike," said Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit and writes a media column for the alternative paper Metro Times. "The other paper hasn't covered itself in glory, either . . . . They both have not made any pretense of covering [the strike] with any fairness or balance."
Jonathan Friendly, the former New York Times media writer who heads the graduate journalism program at the University of Michigan, offers a less-harsh assessment, although he said, "There were times when [the News] went over the line, when the [News] was looking for more negatives [about strikers] than a balanced account would offer.
"As far as any long-range view, however, I don't think that it makes much difference," Friendly said of the coverage.
"I think there has been a tendency to discount some of the news coverage because a lot of it felt overblown. I think readers take that into account and do some sorting out. I don't think it's the end of . . . fair journalism as we know it," he added.
WDET-FM news director Adams said he concluded this summer ? after witnessing the disputed incident with the tractor-trailers and reading the next day's account in the News ? that the News coverage is simply "partisan."
"I said, OK, what's going at the Detroit News is the same thing that is going at the Detroit Sunday Journal [strike paper] ? it's partisan coverage. It's management point of view at the News and union point of view at the Detroit Sunday Journal."
Complicating the issue of who is fair or not, however, is the fact that in this emotional strike, many of the players simply will not talk to each other.
Without exception, the unions refuse to talk to reporters from the News and Free Press.
And it's not just union officials who maintain this news blackout: Rank-and-file members manning picket lines or leafleting advertisers repeatedly demanded identification from an E&P reporter before agreeing to be interviewed. "Sometimes you can't tell who is a scab," one picketer explained.
"We certainly have been covering [the strike] at a disadvantage because union leaders or members refuse to talk to us," News editor and publisher Giles said. "Frequently, we ask [the Associated Press] to go cover a meeting or a rally for us."
Even that, however, ends up irking union leaders, who complain the newspapers will include quotes from them without indicating they talked to AP, not the struck newspapers.
"We are not, quite properly, going to talk to . . . scabs who are taking jobs from union members ? in some cases, scabs who are doing the very job a reporter had," union spokesman Kerson said.
"They say never get into a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel," Kerson added. "Well, we're in a fight with two of them."


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