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The Times Strikes Out on the Actors' Labor Dispute

August 27, 2000|NARDA ZACCHINO | Times Associate Editor Narda Zacchino is the readers' representative

The Times' coverage of recent labor strikes has left many readers charging favoritism of one group of workers over another and feeling angry about why strike stories have received widely disparate treatment.

One action involved janitors in the Service Employees International Union, whose April strike resulted in 28 articles published in The Times in 25 consecutive days. Compare that to the 20 stories in the ongoing, 119-day strike by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and it's easy to see why many readers are furious with the newspaper's strike coverage.

Is their anger justified? Yes, considering where the stories have run, the impact of the strike on the local economy and the number of people affected.

Most articles on the janitors' strike, which ended April 24, ran in the front section and in Section B. Four of the stories were on Page 1, nine were on the Section B cover and one was on the Business cover--all prominent positions.

In contrast, all but seven articles on the actors' strike over pay for TV commercials ran inside Business, most as Company Town features. Two were on Page 1 of the first section, and two ran on the Business cover. Running these stories in the Business section raises a question: Should reporters who cover the advertising and entertainment industries from a business perspective also cover a strike by workers against those industries?

The strike by the 135,000 SAG and AFTRA members is much larger than that of the 8,500 SEIU janitors, and it affects thousands more, including agents, grips, electricians, caterers and lighting technicians. The local economic impact--estimated to be at least $1 million a day in lost revenue as commercial production flees to other locations--makes the strike a major local story.

Readers say they're "disappointed" and "outraged" by The Times' coverage, and more than 20--perhaps responding to a boycott call--have canceled their subscriptions. Several charged the newspaper isn't doing more for fear of offending its advertisers. Editors dismiss that contention as absurd, but letter writers are seeking an explanation for the lack of coverage. These comments from one letter-writing actor were typical:

"The coverage . . . has been pitiful and irresponsible. On a day when 2,000 people stopped traffic for two hours in Hollywood, The Times saw fit to publish one picture on the obituary page." The photo carried a one-line caption, and there was no story. That Aug. 7 march, the largest by the actors since the strike began, was carried by the Daily News in a 19-paragraph story, with a photo of actress Kathy Nolan and other strikers.

What makes one strike worth prominence in The Times' front sections and another strike a story confined to the Business pages--and mostly inside the section at that? Business editor Bill Sing said it's partly because "the Business section has Company Town and reporters who cover Hollywood," and a strike by actors falls on that beat.

The main reporter covering the actors' strike also is covering other companies and issues on his beat, which is entertainment. The janitors' strike was covered full time by Business reporter Nancy Cleeland, who covers immigrant labor. She recognized that strike as a key battleground in organized labor's focus on immigrant workers, and her stories ran primarily in Metro because the strike was causing disruption in the city.

Sing added that there would be more coverage of the actors' strike if there were more "news" happening. For example, if filming commercials were seriously curtailed, if the unions changed their strategy or if there were daily progress to report, as there was in the janitors' strike.

Sing said more stories are in the works. There certainly are other stories worth pursuing. Among them: How is the strike affecting commercial production for the upcoming Olympic games and NFL season? Is the SAG membership losing confidence in its new leadership as the strike drags on? Some producers are shooting commercials under the guise of making music videos, violating local permit ordinances--should a reporter investigate this illegal activity?

How are other workers, such as talent agents and technical crews, faring along with actors, who say that 77% of their ranks earn $7,500 or less annually from the profession? (That's less than many janitors earn, several said.) Let's glance at a year in the life of a typical commercial actor, pre-strike, to calculate network and cable-TV income based on residual payments versus flat fees, the issue in this strike. Why hasn't Mayor Richard Riordan, who openly supported the janitors, jumped into this fray, especially since it's costing the local economy millions in lost revenue?

The Times needs to cover this strike more aggressively. And the newspaper's editors should consider reestablishing the labor beat as a specialty on a par with other beats, such as education and science. The readers then might have less reason to find The Times' coverage inadequate.

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