The continuous struggle of ordinary working people to stand on an equal footing with their employers has rarely been given a thorough and unbiased accounting in the nation’s daily newspapers. But there have been some notable exceptions, none more notable than the reporting of Harry Bernstein in the Los Angeles Times.
Harry, who died in May at age 83, was a good friend, colleague and sometimes rival. So, yes, I’m biased, but there are many others who will also tell you that Harry was perhaps the best and most influential labor reporter ever. I know that in my half-century of covering labor, I’ve never encountered a better reporter of any kind.
Harry had all the tools: intense curiosity, great intelligence and expertise, a highly developed sense of humor, healthy skepticism and an independent mind. He had a genuine concern for others and their wishes and opinions. Although rarely fooled by devious news sources, he seemed to be forever re-evaluating his own views.
Harry had a passion for social justice that compelled him to bring broad public attention to the activities of the labor movement. He did so, not as a partisan, but as a reporter who worked very hard to uncover as many pertinent facts as possible and to fully and fairly present the often conflicting and often controversial positions of labor’s management adversaries as well as those of labor.
All that plus gracious southern-accented charm, stemming from Harry’s upbringing in the Carolinas. Many on both sides of the labor-management divide considered him a friend, as well they should have. They may not have liked Harry giving their opponents’ case a full airing in print, but they usually could be certain that their side would get equal treatment.
Harry’s well-earned reputation for fairness and his standing as a leading authority on labor relations were of immense help. That gave him clear access to the many union leaders and others who hesitated to provide reporters the information they needed, for fear it would not be treated fairly or knowledgeably.
Sometimes, Harry’s reporting and analysis of the differences that separated labor and management actually helped them reach compromises that settled their disputes.
For a journalist to earn the trust of two warring parties certainly is exceptional, but it is — or should be — the goal of any labor reporter.
Harry, older than I, was a role model, actually an unacknowledged mentor, as he was to others. We sometimes argued heatedly, but he was a great help to me, even though as the San Francisco Chronicle’s labor reporter at the time, I was a competitor.
Lacking Harry’s warm gregariousness, I had a hard time approaching some national news sources who I didn’t know and who didn’t know or trust me.
Harry graciously smoothed the way, careful not to upset my professional need to act independently. He sometimes even invited me to sit in on his interviews with key sources. We often shared information, although usually Harry did most of the sharing. And though he regularly offered advice as well, I too often ignored it.
Harry’s work for the Times, beginning in 1962, transformed that widely influential and once notoriously anti-labor paper into an important and highly respected source of information on labor and model of how it should be covered.
As former Times’ city editor Bill Boyarsky noted, “He brought straightforward, honest labor reporting to the paper. For the first time, labor’s point of view was consistently reflected in news stories.”
Although the Times’ labor coverage, like that of virtually all other daily papers, has been cut back severely in recent years, it may yet be revived.
God knows it should be. Labor has become a subject no less complex than politics, education or any other subject that gets specialized newspaper treatment — including labor’s opposite, business.
It should be more than enough, in any case, that most people work for a living, and in fact define themselves by their jobs. They obviously would be interested in — and obviously need — expert information on a regular basis about that most important aspect of their lives.
It’s workers, furthermore, who make our society go — the people who do the actual work of society rather than those who finance and direct it. What the workers do, and under what conditions they do it, should be a primary focus of news coverage.
Those who may seek to revive daily labor coverage will have no need to debate how it should be done. The standard was established long ago by Harry Bernstein.
Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.