Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(5) (1995) 123-126
Media content is believed to have a significant influence on public opinion, policy making, and criminal justice processes. For example, media images of crime, because of the public's limited exposure and salience of the topic, are assumed to affect opinions and the policy responses implemented. Because of these assumed effects, scholars have argued that it is important to analyze the content of media messages. These images are then compared to another approximation of reality, with crime it is usually official statistics, to decide whether the media are biased in their coverage. William Puette's examination of the media's portrayal of organized labor is consistent with this protocol.
Puette discusses how "organized labor is a remote experience to the vast majority of Americans," and understanding the media's portrayal of the topic is important. His stated purpose is "to analyze and understand the nature of the media portrayal of organized labor," "proferr[ing] a framework for understanding and interpreting typical media treatment of organized labor" (p. 8). Puette uses Robert Cirino's "catalogue of hidden bias" and Michael Parenti's seven basic "generalizations" to examine, understand, and interpret media coverage.
Most media research examines the images portrayed about a topic in one or two sources. Puette distinguishes his work by examining the presentation of labor in movies, television news, television dramas, newspapers, political cartoons, and comic strips. Each media is discussed as a chapter with Puette highlighting how labor is portrayed and whether the message is distorted. He concludes that each medium is anti-labor, suggesting an "institutional bias" (6). He bolsters this conclusion with two detailed case studies.
Puette's provides a historical chronology of entertainment films in Chapter 1, discussing movies that deal with labor issues both directly and subvertly. After examining films such as Black Fury (1935), Racket Busters (1938), On the Waterfront (1954), F.I.S.T. (1978), and Norma Rae (1979), Puette concludes that Hollywood's portrayal of unions in the media "has been both unrepresentative and virulently [End page 123] negative" (31). Hollywood has recycled three dominant themes in movies about labor: the linkages between unions and organized crime, the prevalence of corruption and violence, and the exploitation of workers to benefit union representatives.
Chapter 2 examines how labor is presented in television news programs. Puette cites excerpts from specific news programs, documentaries, and other research to prove his claim that television news focuses on strike coverage and violence, excluding stories on successful negotiations and community outreach programs. For example, he discusses a story aired on 60 Minutes, reported by Mike Wallace, examining the union boycott of Coors beer. Wallace, Puette argues, presents a pro-corporation story by omitting important pro-union segments.
In Chapter 3, Puette surveys sixty-two televised dramas portraying labor unions and labor management between 1974 and 1989. The episodes considered were shown on major networks during prime-time hours, and CBS accounted for half the episodes aired (47). Prime-time coverage of labor relations began in 1974, according to Puette, when Archie Bunker's union went on strike. The vast majority of the episodes surveyed provided negative depictions, including similar themes, such as being corrupt, violent, strike-oriented, and not necessary, as found in television news and films.
Puette examines newspaper coverage of labor in Chapter 4, considering historical issues, personnel that work the labor beat, the placement and headlines of labor stories, and strike coverage. He finds newspaper coverage of labor emphasizes greed, corruption, union self-interest, bad news, violence, and links to organized crime. Puette finds, for example, that often labor stories are presented alongside crime stories, and this placement is "bound to have an effect on readers" (65).
In Chapter 5, Puette concludes his general coverage of various media with a discussion of political cartoons and comic strips. He critiques the political cartoons of Thomas Nast, Joseph Keppler, and others who satirized labor in the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, Puette examined twenty-nine labor cartoons presented in the Honolulu press and concluded this chapter with a discussion of the portrayal of labor in various comic strips, including Bloom County, Doonesbury, and the Wizard of Id. His conclusions [End page 124] about the presentation of labor in newspapers are consistent with findings presented throughout the book: unions are portrayed negatively; unions are corrupt; unions are strike-prone; unions are foolish organizations; and union workers are unskilled and lazy.
His accusations of general media bias are also supported by examining media coverage of two specific cases. First, in Chapter 6, Puette examines how news media covered the arrest and conviction of a prominent Hawaiian labor figure. Second, in Chapter 7, he discusses national media attention to the United Mine Workers strike of 1989-90. He concludes that both cases reveal selectivity in coverage, disproportionate access of sources to media, and exclusion of events supportive of pro-union positions.
Although the examination of various media sources is an important aspect of Puette's research, it presents some problems never adequately addressed in his conclusion. Early in the book Puette states: "The negative portrayal appears to be representative of an institutional bias built into the various media's systems and structures for gathering, producing, and disseminating news or entertainment" (6). This conclusion needs further elaboration, explanation, and documentation. The organizational processes used to generate the messages rendered, the underlying forces behind their product, the sources used for selection and production leads, and the audience these media attempt to attract are very different. Moreover, there are important links across media that might have contributed to the consistently negative images found. I would have liked to see Puette struggle with some of these issues and document the social processes he suspects to have been contributing to the images presented.
In general, Puette needed to provide additional details about his research methodology. The data collected for some chapters appears to have been more rigorously generated than others, and he does not provide an explanation for the messages he did and did not consider. For example, a large portion of the cartoon and newspaper results were based on media in Hawaii. Since many readers would not have an understanding of the unique aspects of labor relations and reporting in Hawaii, if there are any, it is difficult to agree with his conclusion that the study is representative (9). [End page 125]
In sum, however, I think Puette's critique of the media's presentation of organized labor is a solid contribution to the literature and recommend his book. Others agree: It won the 1993 Lowell Mellett Award for Outstanding Media Criticism. I hope that other media researchers are as comprehensive in their coverage of media messages.
Parenti, Michael. 1986. Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media. New York: St. Martin's Press. [End page 126]