Sunday, May 1, 2022

Twitter Chatter: History of Labor Conflict Reporting

Today is May 1st, known to many as International Worker's Day. As such, social media has been awash with notes about labor movements. Want to discuss and analyze the tweet below, why it means well but was phrased poorly, and explore some other odds and ends along the way.

Spoiler alert: We're taking a rabbit hole dive into 1880's journalism!

Reading that tweet as currently phrased, my semantic alarm bells immediately went off. Something didn't feel right. Maybe to you as well? Here's what I was especially hung up on:

"The New York Times called the eight-hour workday movement 'un-American.'"

How we phrase and word things matters. I would argue that, as written, this sentence implies that the New York Times itself held this view of the labor movement. That this was an official position of the paper. It reads that way to me, and I was at least somewhat skeptical on that claim and went to investigate.

Looking at the full issue of the Times from April 25, 1886, I found a half-dozen articles covering labor dispute topics. Here's a partial list of headlines...

Connecticut Labor Troubles

The Struggles of Labor

Our Un-American Citizens

Labor and Capital

Strikers Hard at Work

The third article listed is the one being referenced in Mike Dunn's tweet. It is also very clearly and obviously an editorial from an unnamed source. Before 1900, newspapers did not often distinguish between editorial and news stories, and separate editorial pages were rare.

Looking at the other articles, several of them seem fair and neutral in tone, and are inclusive of pro-labor stances and views. It's fairly clear which are meant to be proper news stories.

Near as I can tell, the Times itself was not (at least not in this issue) taking a loud and vocal stance, as an institution, against the eight-hour work week. What Dunn is in fact referencing is an unnamed editorial article.

I'm not writing this to "call out" Dunn. We all make mistakes. For me, the lesson here is yet another reminder that phrasing can lead to unintended misinterpretation. It's how misinformation and misunderstanding spreads. Especially in an era where a tweet like this is making the rounds and being viewed by thousands across various social media platforms. 

I also want to support the underlying efforts of Dunn here. I am a huge fan of any work that analyzes how narratives are framed and constructed. The editorial he's referencing is a fantastic example of rhetoric. Specifically, it could be filed under "myth of the American Dream", and there's so much to write about that. Suffice to say for now, if being American means not speaking out against oppressive working conditions, I don't want to live in that version of America. 

Before we end, have a few other notes and tidbits from my journey today reading through this issue of the Times from 1886.

At item to mention is that this post is not meant to be a blind defense of newspapers. Not newspapers from that era and not even newspapers from modern times. The articles we've been looking at today fall squarely within the era of yellow journalism. Due to market competition forces, papers resorted to using all manner of questionable tactics including jingoism, sensationalism, and self-promotion. In that climate, can see where an intensely inflammatory "hot take" article calling strikes and unions un-American might fit right in.

We also see some rather strong language being pointed the other way as well. Below is a neat snippet from that same issue making a case much more in line with modern social justice values - attacking the role of special interest lobbying in Congress.

To bring our exploration of newspaper practice to a close today, I see some parallels in questions we can ask of both historical and modern news reporting...

Who do we trust to deliver "facts"?

Who's opinions are being elevated?

What power dynamics are influencing answers to those two prior questions?

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