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March 30, 2007

Perspectives, agendas and borders

Shortly after our article on the NAFTA Mexican trucking program ran, I received a stern warning from the communications team at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. I was informed by their media coordinator during a phone call that the article had basically foreclosed any possibilities of future interviews with the Teamsters. He told me that the phone call was to give us advanced notice of an official response to our story, and in the meantime, we were encouraged to reconsider the headline – the main part of the story to which they objected.

They were very concerned, they said, that the word " ‘Racism’ " in the title of the article unfairly implied that the opposition to the trucking program was, well, racist. This despite our tactful flanking of the term in quotation marks, and the fact that it was drawn from a quoted source in the body of our story.

It wasn’t that we were unaware it could be viewed as a risky headline. But at TNS, we pride ourselves on being provocative when we have the appropriate backing from research and reporting. And the idea of retracting a headline based on no editorial or ethical reason, other than the offense taken by a source, would be irresponsible to ourselves and our readers.

But aside from that, what I found most interesting about this hullabaloo was the Teamsters fixation on the allegations of racism – which come in the article through the critique of labor historian and former dissident Teamster Dan La Botz. The Teamsters spokesperson told me their distress centered primarily on the "perception" that the union’s arguments were influenced by racial bias rather than concern for safety. He also said, as the Teamsters have done throughout this campaign, that the union views the Mexican workers as victims of exploitation, thereby couching the argument for exclusion in a context of sympathy.

Yet neither the phone call from the Teamsters nor James P. Hoffa’s letter to us has broached some of the more-nuanced charges raised by critics of the mainstream opposition to the Mexican trucking program. What about the idea that US organized labor could do more to form grassroots, independent alliances with Mexican workers to prevent protectionism from overshadowing international solidarity? Or that the US government should do more to help bring countries into compliance with safety and labor standards when trade is contingent upon it? Even at their most defensive, the Teamsters remain squarely within the bounds of their longstanding rhetoric on "unsafe Mexican trucks."

And putting aside the controversies surrounding "free trade," wouldn’t the auto-safety community support journalism that broadens the debate beyond the selected Mexican carriers in this program (no doubt intended to promote the NAFTA provision) to the broader issue of all trucks in the United States? Isn’t this particularly relevant as NAFTA ushers in a more integrated highway system throughout the continent? Surely the safety records of the US trucking fleet, which still dominates the country’s roads, would also be a concern for any organization worried about driver safety?

In the end, we touched on all these questions in the article – even if we admittedly couldn’t cover all bases in this complex mix of political issues. And we did so by talking to people who have not testified before Senate subcommittees, or put out press releases, or sent their own "investigative reporters" to stoke public scrutiny of foreign workers. To the best of our ability, we sought out sources for their perspectives, not their agendas. And we hope that’s the reason our readership continues to seek us out as well, whatever challenges we incite along the way.

Comments...

Eric Patton:

Unions don't give a shit about workers. If you pissed off some suits at the Teamsters, that means you did something right.

JoeLicentia:

Eric,

Not all unions are like that. The IWW, for example.

Eric Patton:

It's been, what, 80 years since the Wobblies had any relevance whatsoever?

JoeLicentia:

The Wobblies have relevance to Starbucks Workers.

Eric Patton:

If they can organize Starbucks workers, more power to them. But for god's sake, just don't join the AFL-CIO or CTW.

TeamsterPower: An Open Letter to The New Standard

Cross posted on DailyKos and MyDD

This is an open letter to Michelle Chen and the Editorial Staff of The New Standard:

Dear Michelle and Staff,

I have to say that I like what you stand for. I too have often written about the profit-blinders worn by corporate media and longed for a worker-centered voice.

Your masthead states:

TNS strives for accountability and fairness, and to uphold rigorous rules for sourcing, transparency and ethics. With an organizational structure based on equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management, The NewStandard serves grassroots social change with uncompromised journalism and the application of democratic principles at all levels of its operation.

Fine words.

It's unfortunate that you do not live up to them.

The headline 'Racism' Seen in Liberals' Opposition to Mexican Truckers does take a bold and definitive stand, one surely backed by rigorous reporting and bullet-proof sourcing, right?

Sorry, only more disappointment. Nowhere in your story are charges of racism brought by any source. The closest you come is a quote from a dissident former Teamster who says:

"Workers have a right to protect their jobs, wages, benefits and conditions from employers and governments who would try to undermine them," said Dan La Botz, a labor historian and former Teamster who has researched Mexican labor movements. "But, at the same time," he continued, "protectionism can easily slip into national chauvinism and racism."

Yes, and predetermined conclusions could mean that the reporter and her editors were looking for racism. Trying to fuel racial tension by waving red herrings regularly wafted by corporate America, well one could call you a 'racist' as well.

You see, as a former journalist I know that every reporter comes to a story with a preconception (that preconception could come from an editor, or a tip from a source that may have political axes to grind). A good journalist would look beyond those preconceptions and write the story based on facts supported by multiple sources and thorough research.

In your blog you write about the Teamsters' objection to your reporting and your headline:

"...We were encouraged to reconsider the headline – the main part of the story to which they objected.

They were very concerned, they said, that the word " 'Racism' " in the title of the article unfairly implied that the opposition to the trucking program was, well, racist. This despite our tactful flanking of the term in quotation marks, and the fact that it was drawn from a quoted source in the body of our story.

It wasn't that we were unaware it could be viewed as a risky headline. But at TNS, we pride ourselves on being provocative when we have the appropriate backing from research and reporting. And the idea of retracting a headline based on no editorial or ethical reason, other than the offense taken by a source, would be irresponsible to ourselves and our readers.

But aside from that, what I found most interesting about this hullabaloo was the Teamsters fixation on the allegations of racism – which come in the article through the critique of labor historian and former dissident Teamster Dan La Botz.

A good journalist supports allegations, she does not tactfully flank them in quotation marks. I called you a "racist" too, does that make it "okay?"

Not only does the quote not allege racism – but rather protectionism – your sensational headline is supported by a single source, with ties to a group that is the sworn political enemy of Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. If you had done any research on Mr. La Botz at all, you surely would have run across some of his "objective" pieces such as this excerpt from a 1998 article:

Today in the Teamsters the stakes in the struggle between an Old Guard led by Jimmy Hoffa and a reform movement headed by Tom Leedham and backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) seem pretty clear. The union will either go forward with the reformers to democratize and build rank-and-file power to take on management, or it will go backward with the Old Guard and return to domination by conservative union officials, and indirectly by employers, the Republican Party, and perhaps even by the Mafia.

Mr. Hoffa went on to handily win that election and last fall was re-elected to a third term in a rank and file election by a 2-1 majority. Mr. La Botz clearly is not objective and maintains a decidedly minority viewpoint.

So Collective, do you think Michelle and her editors researched this issue enough or "strived" for fairness?

She bases her claims of racism on unchecked government statistics -- and we all know how historically honest and responsible the Bush administration has been of late.

Public Citizen revealed that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's safety Compliance Reviews of Mexico-domiciled trucks coming across the southern border, plunged from 268 in 2003 to 236 in 2004, and down to only 106 in 2005. Michelle failed to be report this.

Likewise, in a follow-up letter to The New Standard, our press secretary reveals:

There was one significant detail concerning the statistics Michelle cites that [Legislative affairs director] Fred McLuckie did, in fact, make her aware of during the interview. (I only bring this up now because I wasn't able to confirm with Fred until yesterday). The DHS representative testified in front of the House committee that there were an estimated 40,000 violations within the commercial zone in Texas that were never reported. According to his testimony, the inspectors just decided to stop submitting the violations. How dependable can those statistics be? There are giant, gaping holes in this system and that is the problem - not racial bias. I would suggest TNS take a closer look at those issues. You say you didn't find any data to support the safety claims and that the story was originally supposed to be about those concerns. So answer this question - How did you go from a story on safety claims to a one that questions whether there is a racial bias? Never once did she ask any questions of our representatives about this issue.

So Collective, I ask again, did Michelle strive for accountability and fairness, and uphold your rigorous rules for sourcing, transparency and ethics?

I hope not. I hope this is not the level you hold your standard to. Otherwise, one must challenge your very integrity as a news gathering body.

AVH:

As I was trying to find my bearings on the exchanges over this story, reading the TNS Collective's response to James Hoffa's letter (along with the rather disturbing report Hoffa cites) pretty much cleared it up for me.

Keep up the good work, TNS!

Mike Milan: TNS is anti-labor? I don't think so!

TeamsterPower's critique of this article is ridiculous. The notion that the NS set out to smear the Teamsters or promote racial discord or whatever is just ludicrous. Have you ever read anything else on this site? Look at their labor news archive. There's more than 300 stories on there, and they ALWAYS side with labor. If anything, this article just proves it the NS hasn't been biasing its stories on the side of labor all these years at the expense of the truth! Labor folks should be eating this shit up!

The same is true for public safety concerns. They are a watchdog news organization. That's what their readers expect. They're not going to say Mexican trucks are safe. They're just saying the facts show that trucks are generally unsafe, no matter the origin, and maybe the Teamsters should start paying more attention to that. Why can't you see that?

They said they set out thinking there research would back up the teamsters' stance. But it just didn't! Why on earth would they go out of their way to slander labor after all they've done in support of workers rights? In this case, if anything, they're still siding with labor--just not the Teamsters. And I guess that pisses the Teamsters right off. Eric Patton is right--side with the workers, but be VERY skeptical of their so called represenatives.

Randy: reply to TeamsterPower

Boo hoo! The New Standard didn't lie to support my favorite group. They actually did journalism instead. That must mean they're no good.

Why don't the teamsters stop attacking a pro-labor news site and start organizing Mexican truckers? If they're so worried about those truckers, and theyre really not racist, do something about it other than trying to protect their own interests! Or maybe that would cut into Hoffa's next pay raise or campain chest?

Brian Dominick: debate continues...

The exchange continues here...


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.