I support the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents workers at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. I hope, after reading this, you will join me in asking two of the region’s greatest philanthropists, Gerry Lenfest and David Haas, who are on the newspapers’ board, to tell the management team to settle with the Guild and ensure that the Philadelphia region has a vibrant, independent news organization to help support our democracy.
As has been noted by others, it is almost impossible to conceive of a vibrant democracy without the press.
We rely upon the reporters to give us the facts on government, business, the arts and civic life in an objective manner; we rely upon the editorial writers to offer well-reasoned facts on issues that affect all of us. News media serve as a check on political power and corporate wealth. They allow readers to understand issues in local communities, in the nation, and around the world. They make sure that voters can make informed decisions based on what candidates are saying on critical issues. Newspapers striving for objectivity cannot be replaced by partisan news sources that only affirm the ideology of one sector of society.
The conditions the managers of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com are attempting to impose upon the reporters are the very issues that strike to the heart of that independence and goal of objectivity: job security through seniority protection and health care.
Job security is essential
Unless you think about the issue of seniority, it may be hard to understand why it is so important in the news media and in other fields. The recent decision of the editor of the Inquirer to overrule his own editorial board’s endorsement in the Democratic mayoral primary may make it easier to understand.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Inquirer editorial board knew that the owner of the paper was supporting one candidate. After all it was a public record that he had made large contributions to the candidate’s past campaigns. Without seniority rights, would the editorial board have felt comfortable endorsing a different candidate? How likely would it be for a reporter with no job security to file a story showing malfeasance or illegality on behalf of an owners’ friend or business partner? Without the job protection that seniority brings, there is no check on the power of the owner to slant the news. Realistically, without that protection, how likely is it for a reporter with a family to support and a mortgage to pay to write an objective article?
Of course seniority is not a panacea, nor does it stop the owners and managers of the newspapers from releasing incompetent reporters. And to paraphrase Winston Churchill, seniority is the worst system to protect the independence and objectivity of workers, except for all of the others.
Bias might appeal to desperate reporters
The second issue the Guild is fighting over is affordable health care. While I don’t know what reporters make, nor what they pay for health care, I want reporters to be well paid with adequate health care resources so I don’t have to wonder if a reporter is writing favorably about someone or something with the hope of getting a job.
Many people complain about the governmental revolving door, where someone in government regulates a business and, after leaving government, gets a job in that industry. And rightfully so. It has the appearance of impropriety and makes one wonder about the former governmental worker’s judgment.
The same is true for reporters. An article saying a business is doing well and its prospects look good means one thing if the reporter is a professional, paid well enough to stay a reporter. It means something else if the reporter can’t live on what he is being paid and is looking to become “a spokesperson” for the business he is reporting on.
That is why I am urging you to put aside your anger at a reporter or an editorial, to look at the bigger picture. Would democracy be better off with independent, professional reporters attempting to be objective — or with reporters who have no job protection and are not paid well enough to stay in the news industry?
I think the answer is obvious.
Lance Haver is the director of civic engagement for Philadelphia City Council. He was formerly the city’s director of consumer affairs. Haver works to increase public participation in Council’s deliberative process and works with civic and advocacy groups to better engage with lawmakers Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., in ways that impact Philadelphians.