Media Follies

By Michael I. Niman
Blue Dog Press, 3-22-01


We’ll call ‘em “Free Agents”


            This week’s Orwellian English award goes to The Buffalo News for their headline characterization of part time workers as “free agents.”  Currently, according to The News, a quarter of the US workforce is underemployed in “part time” positions, usually working without benefits or job security.  Compounding the problem is the fact that many of these “part time” workers actually work full time, only without the benefits, job security or union representation accorded full time employees.

            The piece in The News cites a vice president of Kelly Services, the nation’s largest “temporary” employment placement agency, touting the benefits of “free agency.”  According to the VP, who is the only person cited in the article, “Free agents are searching for more job satisfaction with fewer restrictions than conventional employment.”  Part time and temporary jobs, however, are hardly more satisfying – they’re just lower paying than similar full time jobs.  The unfortunate reality is that many entry-level jobs today have been stripped of their benefits; hence younger workers often lack job security and health care.  According to the VP, “The trend to become a free agent is especially true among those under 30 years old.  They are the group most interested in free agency and account for this potential strong growth of temporary and contract workers of the future” [italics mine].  

            A good journalist would juxtapose this cheery outlook against the reality of statistics about the growing percentage of working Americans who lack health insurance or union representation.  The voice of a labor representative, or anyone other than the Kelly VP, would have been nice as well.  This piece has the stench of a corporate PR release, cut and pasted directly into The News as an “article,” sans by-line.  This is not journalism by any stretch.

Of course The News might have a soft spot for “free agency.”  They currently have a “hiring freeze” for full time writers, and rely heavily on part time freelance writers and cheap wire service articles, not to mention the “independent contractors” who deliver papers out of the back of their cars. 


“Shades of Anachronisms”


            Channel 7’s Keith Radford began his report about a labor rights demonstration at Harvard University with the tired old cliché, “Shades of the 60s.”  So lets get a couple of things straight.  First off, 60s nostalgia is an 80s phenomenon.  It’s old and worn-out.  The Harvard University students were demonstrating for a “living wage” for Harvard employees.  The living wage movement is a 90s phenomenon, not a 60s phenomenon, born in ’92.  And finally, if it’s student activism that Radford thinks is a throwback to the 60s, he couldn’t be more wrong.  Studies show that a larger percentage of American college and university students participated in a demonstration in the year 2000, than in any previous year.  Most of these demonstrations, like the one Radford was reporting on, were focusing on sweatshop and labor issues.   In the 1960s construction workers battled students.  Today labor is united with students.

            Buffalo TV news crews are going to have a chance to show their work off to the nation when they cover the “A22” protests here next month (see  The “Pro-Democracy” movement, which encompasses labor, student and environmental activists, is clearly a 21st century phenomenon.  I sincerely hope the reports coming out of Buffalo don’t begin with, “It was shades of the 60s at the Peace Bridge today…”  Protest is a living vibrant news story.  Don’t linguistically anachronize it.




            I spoke with folks at Channel 2 news who called in response to my report two weeks ago, assuring me that it was not their intention to purposefully use an image of a Black schoolchild to graphically illustrate “bad schools.”  They were genuinely upset.  Whether intentional or not, however, such images are devastating.  We can recognize overt racism.  It’s the subtle stuff that sinks in and poisons us.  I trust that the editors at Channel 2 did not intentionally create this imagery and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt as well and say it was probably not a subconscious expression either, but an unfortunate coincidence.  But the image, none-the-less, was there.  And the damage is done.


            This week Channel 2 presented a report showing that, despite an influx of African Americans shopping, working and living in Buffalo’s suburbs, most suburban police forces still have no Black police officers.   Timely reporting such as this that raises issues and makes people think is a welcome alternative to the fluff that usually dominates TV news programs.  Hopefully we’ll see more serious reporting like this not only on Channel 2, but throughout the Buffalo area media.  It could be a winning formula.


            Now if only Channel 2 could get rid of those shameless USA Today promos that seem to pop up like clockwork and undermine the professionalism that their anchors are striving for (Channel 2 is owned by Gannett, USA Today’s parent corporation).