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The Media's Liberal? 

(Pssst. Don't tell this to the union guys.)

"Whenever we get carted away in handcuffs .  .  . they - love to write about that," says Ken Ilg. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • "Whenever we get carted away in handcuffs . . . they love to write about that," says Ken Ilg.

It's not easy to rile a man who trades in the bare-knuckle arts of labor and politics. But ask John Ryan about the "liberal media," and his genial veneer begins to splinter. "I either laugh or cry every time I hear this stereotype," he says. "It's certainly not true in Cleveland."

Think of Ryan as the unofficial king of the city. The AFL-CIO's executive secretary oversees 150 unions, representing 150,000 workers. Their annual spending in Cuyahoga County alone tops $1 billion.

But Ryan's influence spills well beyond economics. If Sam Miller and Albert Ratner pay for the gas of Cleveland politics, Ryan owns the engine. Only he can muster the phone banks and foot soldiers -- sending out 500 volunteers at a time -- to maintain the county's one-party system. If you want to be someone in Democratic politics, you have to be with John Ryan.

So forgive him and other union leaders for feeling neglected. Their beef: Though labor remains the most powerful entity in Northeast Ohio -- bigger than the Cleveland Clinic, Forest City, or Ford -- you won't hear about it in the media.

There are obvious reasons for this. Radio long ago sliced its workforce and abandoned news. The DJ you're listening to now may well be broadcasting from San Antonio.

Yet unions can't even buy their way onto the air. When Akron Teamsters tried to run commercials protesting a Busch distributorship's move to Brecksville -- leaving Akron drivers out of work -- five stations refused to air them. WNCX's response was typical: The ads were "too controversial," Local 348 was told. This from a station that broadcasts Howard Stern, whose hairdo alone violates 31 international standards of decency.

Forget about local TV, which restricts its coverage to sex, car crashes, fires, and more sex. Unless it's a massage-parlor strike and the picketers are wearing G-strings, you won't see Tiffany and Scooter reporting live at 11.

Lou Maholic, organizing chief for the 27,000-workers-strong UFCW Local 880, once tried to place advertising on local TV. He was organizing Marc's, and his commercials featured grocery workers calmly discussing such uninflammatory matters as wages, benefits, and respect. Channel 3 said no. Channel 5 would only play ball if the union signed a release "that basically gave them our firstborn," says Maholic. "They were just cowardly about it. Here's an employer that uses media advertising extensively, and they want in on that gravy train."

Bingo! We have a winner! While activists left and right debate liberal bias, Maholic knows our true God is green. For the right amount, we'll be anything you want us to be.

This poses a small problem for newspapers. We've always considered ourselves the holy third of the media's unholy trinity. In fact, we get carpal tunnel from patting ourselves on the back so frequently. But talk to union guys, and they'll tell you we're the biggest lapdogs around.

The UFCW periodically places inserts in papers urging readers to shop unionized stores. "It's all very positive," says Maholic. "They pay great wages, blah, blah, blah." But one Mahoning Valley paper refused to run even these.

The biggest beefs, however, are saved for The Plain Dealer. Every labor leader seems to have a tale about the paper killing union stories. "Writers privately have indicated to me that the real problem at the paper is the editors themselves," says Ken Ilg, head of the hotel-and-restaurant-workers union.

The PD also refuses to cover rallies, "labor's traditional way of expressing itself," says Ryan. "That's like not covering ballgames if you're a sports reporter."

Ilg tells of a demonstration at Case Western Reserve in which 1,000 people protested the treatment of cafeteria workers, who are paid less than part-time student-employees. "Here are people literally struggling for their livelihoods," he says. "The next day they had a story that said a union leader was arrested in a protest. Whenever we get carted away in handcuffs, or one guy gets caught dipping his hand in the till, they love to write about that."

By comparison, he points to another "rally for dog lovers or something, and they had 30 people, and they got a picture in the Metro section."

All of which makes it easy for union people to connect the dots. The Plain Dealer is a mammoth company. Large corporations are naturally pro-business. And business is inherently anti-union. "I see many examples where I have a press release from a corporation or business interest," says Ryan, "and you see almost the same thing printed in the paper."

Yet his example may speak more to ineptitude than bias. Business editor Debbie Van Tassel oversees most labor coverage in The PD. She may have the toughest job in town. Her charge is to capture the hard-core business reader while still hooking the guy with the 401(k) and only casual interest, all while writing for the requisite sixth-grade reading level. It's a predicament bound to please no one.

Moreover, business sections tend to be journalism's ghetto. Few reporters grow up dreaming of glamorous stories like "Gebauer to dedicate new HQ in Cleveland." And interviewing executives for a living is only slightly preferable to shooting yourself in the face with a nail gun. Hence, it's a craft largely composed of people with nowhere else to go.

Van Tassel won't discuss the complaints. "I don't really care what they say about us," she says. "I don't want to participate."

Yet reporters elsewhere at The PD will talk, and they describe the business section as an embarrassment, understaffed and unambitious. The truth is that it may not be capable of covering something as sprawling and nuanced as labor's role in Cleveland. Far easier to reprint press releases, take your cues from PR flacks, and lick your wounds.

Which is not to say that the media isn't bought and sold. It's likely that the song you're listening to on the radio had its airplay purchased by a record company. The "exclusives" you see on tonight's news will never involve major advertisers.

But sometimes the truth is much less sinister. Sometimes we just suck. And sucking, being an equal-opportunity employer, knows no bias.

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