Sunday, November 18, 2012

Can We Still Have Fair Reporting in an Age Without Twinkies?

To the dismay of snack-lovers and pre-diabetics everywhere, Hostess will be shutting its doors for good.  The maker of such treasured staples as the Twinkie and Snowball announced on Friday that it will close its 33 bakeries and 565 distribution centers, laying off over 18,000 employees in the process.  

The company has gone through rough patches in the past years, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy twice and shuffling through 7 different management teams over the past 10 years.  Despite these facts, the company has placed sole blame for the closings on a strike by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union.  Hostess CEO, Gregory Rayborn, released a statement declaring "We deeply regret the necessity of today's decision, but we do not have the financial resources to weather an extended nationwide strike."

Trumpeting the headline, “Hostess to close, lay off 18,500 after 'crippling' union fight,” Fox News has readily endorsed this version of events.  Throughout their article, which appeared on Friday soon after the announcement, Fox intentionally created a heavily one-sided narrative that pits the beloved, well-intentioned folks at Hostess at the mercy of cut-throat, greedy unions.  

If you don't believe this is a biased account of events, take a closer look:

Fox reveals in its opening sentence that "A small union's stubbornness in contract talks with Hostess is being blamed for the shutdown of one of America's snack food icons, the loss of 18,500 jobs just before the holiday season and much-needed tax revenue from hundreds of plants and shops across the country."  The content of this sentence is factually accurate, but rhetorically designed to be incendiary.  No other self-respecting news outlet would evoke the subjective idea of "stubbornness," or sensationalize job loss by connecting it with the holidays or tax revenue.  Fox goes on to report that the "union representing bakery workers refused to agree to concessions, prompting the mass layoffs and closing down of hundreds of plants, bakeries and delivery routes."  Again, the use of the word "concessions" is significant.  Rather than citing that both sides could not come to an agreement, the workers refusing to "concede" paints them as stubborn and unreasonable forces who are unwilling to compromise for the greater good of all.

Because this information is placed at the beginning of the piece, it automatically establishes the viewpoint of the story as that of Hostess, and, in doing so, inherently builds bias against the workers who were advocating for themselves.  This trajectory continues throughout the article.   A few paragraphs later we learn that "the national strike... that began last week decimated the 82-year-old company’s ability to produce and deliver products."  Yes, the strike decimated the company.  Another subtle, but skillful manipulation of word choice to evoke sympathy for the "82-year-old company."   Before the end, we hear once more that "the company sought concessions from employees, but instead got a costly strike that further crippled it."  Again, sympathy is established for Hostess.

Now, compare this to other media outlets, who have taken the more formulaic and objective route: laying out the problem (the company closing its doors) and then offering competing ideas as to its cause, giving equal weight to all viewpoints.

To be fair, this is by far not the most biased piece that has emerged from Fox News over the years.  And Fox does briefly offer the countervailing viewpoints for the story, citing the concerns of local BCTGM leaders over mis-management and loss of benefits.  However, the news organization leaves it at the level of hearsay; Nowhere does it research and present the facts themselves: steadily declining sales rates, multiple bankruptcy filings (in spite of massive influxes of credit from various hedge fund takeovers), substantial raises for top executives (including a 300% raise for the CEO) after the second bankruptcy filing--- despite over $100 million in cuts in labor costs and thousands of jobs lost--- and a lack of investment in marketing and innovation by the company.  Nowhere does it mention the many previous union concessions and resultant decline in employee benefits, pensions, and salaries (one worker saw his salary steadily decrease over the years from $48,000 to $34,000, which would have again been cut to $25,000 under the new contract).  And needless to say, in the Fox News report, union members are denied the generous rhetorical allowances bestowed upon the vintage company.

Personally, I don't know enough about Hostess’ business history to pick "sides" in this debate of worker vs. employer.  To me, it seems like a well-loved company has just struggled for years to keep up its sales in the face of changing product markets, shaky management and turnover, and the rise of the health food craze.  The signs of its insolvency have been there.  It's sad for the business, and sad for the employees, and sad for us chubby kids.  However, I do not think presenting this as a "the evil unions have taken away your treats" is fair reporting on the issue.

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