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Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

February 17th, 2012 12:49 PM

What Politico’s ‘Wisconsin 1848’ Union Screw-Up Reveals

Crossposted from the In These Times Working blog

The scene of the journalistic mishap, in Masterlock's Milwaukee plant.  

Yesterday was a red letter day for labor journalism, as Politico inadvertently revealed a fundamental truth in one of the most embarrassing screw-ups in recent news. Covering President Obama’s visit to a unionized Masterlock plant in Milwaukee, Politico's Donovan Slack reported:

WH flies labor flag in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE — It's very clear what side President Obama is on here in Wisconsin.

Behind the stage where he will speak today are two flags: an American one, as usual, and right alongside it — and [sic] a flag for the local union, Wisconsin 1848.

The problem was, there is no union called “Wisconsin." However, the state of Wisconsin was founded in 1848 and Wisconites proudly represent this fact on the state flag, which the reporter bizarrely mistook for a union flag of “Wisconsin Local 1848.”

This is not a minor detail, especially given that Slack goes on to interpret the flag as demonstrating the president's support for embattled Wisconsin unions, some of whom have seen their collective bargaining rights gutted during the last year. The president didn't speak out in support of their struggle last year while thousands of people occupied the Wisconsin state capitol.

As I wrote recently, Obama barely mentioned unions in his State of the Union address despite the unprecedented attacks on workers’ rights in 2011 (and 2012). If Obama had showed his support for unions by flying a union flag at equal level to the American flag at an official White House event in a key state like Wisconsin, it would have been a big deal.

But why didn't the reporter talk to some of the workers and confirm that they were indeed members of "Wisconsin Local 1848"? I have been to a lot of union events at factories and union halls and it’s never hard to get workers to tell you what unions they are members of. I don’t know what Slack was thinking when she wrote the story, since she did not respond to my request for comment.

But she's not to blame: Journalism is in a real budget crutch and many publications cannot afford translators so that inside-the-beltway reporters can understand the languages of everyday workers.

All jokes aside, though, there is a fundamental problem Politico's screw-up exposes: workers not being quoted in stories pertaining to issues that affect them. As a Pew Study recently showed, union members were only quoted in 2 percent of all stories about economic matters in 2009.  Furthermore, as I highlighted in the piece “Wonk Bloggers and the Vanishing Voices of Workers,” a new generation of bloggers commenting on  important subjects of the day aren’t really required to quote people much. 

Had Slack talked to a few union workers, or maybe even one of their bosses, she could have gotten her story straight. But it wasn't the first time the mainstream media got a crucial story about the Wisconsin labor struggle wrong.

In his new book The Uprising, John Nichols writes about how The New York Times got a key story wrong in the earlier stages of the battle. In a front-page story, a Time reporter interviewed “a Wisconsin man” who claimed to be “a union guy” who was in favor of Scott Walkers’ bill stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights. Later in a phone call with a man pretending to be David Koch, Gov. Scott Walker cited this article as example that workers supported what Walker was doing with Wisconsin public employees despite the largest protests outside of his office.

However, a few days later, the Times issued a correction, saying “While the man, Rich Hahn described himself as “union guy” to a reporter, he now says that he has worked at unionized factories, but was not a member of the union himself.” 

Nichols writes, “The reason that the New York Times enabled Walker is the same reason that so many media outlets get so many stories about the organized and unorganized struggles of working Americans wrong. They haven’t bothered to cover low-income and working-class Americans seriously for years, choosing instead to tailor their reporting to attract the elite upper-income readers and viewers who advertisers want to reach.”

But yesterday, after the Politico story was published, a number of prominent media outlets like the Huffington Post and Gawker mocked the news outlet. Embarrassed by the article and the fact that teditors apparently approved it, Politico erased it from the website (it was cached by Google). 

Perhaps we are in the new era in which unions have achieved a new recognition and journalists come under heavier criticism for printing false or misleading statement about labor struggles. In a way, Slack's mistake underscores the newly important role unions play in our national discourse, after the highly visible protest in Madison last year and in the Occupy era.

“The most vital was the one that people on both sides of this struggle least expected: after years of efforts by unions to rebrand and reposition themselves as “partners” and “constructive collaborators” with employers, the great mass of Americans still recognized that the most important role of the labor movement is as a countervailing force not just in the workplace, but in politics. This was the crucial message, the crucial realization of Wisconsin,” Nichols writes in The Uprising.

Wisconsin has changed the way we talk about unions in this country. Perhaps Slack saw the Wisconsin flag, proudly flown by many Wisconsinites while protesting Gov. Walker, and instinctually equated the word with "labor" and "union."

In some ways, everyone who cares about the labor movement is now a member of Wisconsin Local 1848.

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