Publication Date

January 22, 2015


Labor, Social

This guest post on labor history, journalism, and historians was authored by ; it is one of a series of posts on subjects discussed at the 2015 AHA annual meeting. is a U.S. historian specializing in political economy, class, and urban life. He teaches at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and is the author of Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920 (Harvard Univ. Press, 2014).

In the final months of 2014, the New York Times Company conducted a series of buyouts and layoffs in its newsroom, reducing its New York editorial and reporting staff by over 100 people. Among those who took the buyout offer was Steven Greenhouse, the Times’s labor reporter for more than two decades. At the January 2 AHA annual meeting panel “Labor and the Workplace in New York City,” organized by the National History CenterTimes columnist, historian, and Greenhouse’s former colleague, Rachel Swarns, noted that his departure leaves mainstream national newspapers with only one full-time “labor beat” reporter. Given such long shadows over the labor beat at newspapers (and, one might add, over the labor history subfield in university history departments) it was appropriate that we conducted our conversation—on how historians and journalists approach labor, workplace issues, and inequality in New York—in a hotel basement.

All was not dark, however. Swarns pointed out that excellent reporting on issues relevant to labor and the workplace still appears in national newspapers, noting the Times’s andWashington Post’s recent coverage of various campaigns to raise the minimum wage. Several people during the discussion period also noted newsmagazines’ and online publications’ renewed investment in probing working-class issues, citing Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, Seth Freed Wessler at Colorlines and, Josh Eidelson at Bloomberg BusinessWeek, andperhaps most notably Sarah Stillman’s shocking New Yorker articles about the Pentagon’s overseas contract labor, civil forfeiture, and inmate-funded incarceration. Swarns underscored that the moment is ripe for high-profile publications to pay more devoted attention to work and workers, with stagnant wages, stubborn unemployment, and the continuing erosion of the middle-income bracket stimulating unprecedented activism from low-wage workers in the fast food and retail industries.

For those journalists such as herself who still focus primarily on labor and the workplace, Swarns suggested, the usual challenges of getting it right on tight deadlines now combine with the knowledge that the rarity of such coverage makes it all the more important. She stressed the value, in this context, of conveying human portraits of work and workers in contemporary American life. As her fellow panelists noted, she did just that—to powerful effect—in both her column on the death of Maria Fernandes and her history of Michelle Obama’s ancestry in her 2012 book, American Tapestry.

Daniel Walkowitz, professor of social and cultural analysis and history at NYU., echoed Swarns’s lament about dwindling media attention to work and workers, but he emphasized that in building coverage of such issues around individual cases, reporters sometimes open themselves to skepticism from readers who view such stories merely as anecdotes. He acknowledged the advantage historians usually enjoy in the amount of time they can devote to seeking out multiple perspectives and a variety of evidentiary forms, working as they do without comparable deadline pressure. Drawing on his experience as a senior historian who fields media requests for comment on a weekly basis, Walkowitz advised historians and reporters to form collaborative relationships that might imbue coverage with the contextualization that journalists usually desire, but which they may not have time, space, or resources to secure on their own. He also warned that historians should engage the media “with fear and trembling,” lest they see advocacy journalists cut and twist their attempts to provide deep context in order to suit a pre-existing position.

The lively discussion with the panel’s audience centered on how to balance rules of evidence with narrative strategies, the challenge of whether and how to adjust coverage for one’s audience, and the importance of reckoning with how our own assumptions can unduly influence our analysis. In my initial remarks, I shared a story from my 2014 book, Progressive Inequality, about a late 19th-century muckraker named Edward Marshall, whose assumptions and investigative practices undid his efforts to help Lower East Side tenement residents. As secretary of New York’s 1894 Tenement House Committee, Marshall thought that his reporting on squalor in the tenements would improve life there for workers, but his obsession with getting it right on the data through relentless investigation—not to mention his classism and racism—led him to conduct his inquiry in ways that primarily antagonized tenement residents instead. I suggested that historians and journalists should learn from Marshall, directing the critical focus on “getting it right” not only at our sources or practices, but also at ourselves.

In a fitting conclusion, the panel’s chair, Eric Arnesen (professor of history at George Washington University), wondered if historians are really any better than their journalist colleagues at sublimating their assumptions and “getting it right,” even with their advantage of additional research and writing time. The consensus seemed to be: probably not, but it can’t hurt for all of us, historians and journalists alike, to keep trying our best.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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