Democrats seeking the White House can usually count on cash donations from some of the same journalists who cover them—though the journalists themselves are not necessarily aware of this conflict of interest and their participation in it is rarely disclosed by their news organizations.
The donations occur through the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America—the umbrella union for guild journalists at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and other papers, as well as for many TV and communications workers. The CWA has been one of Bernie Sanders’ biggest contributors throughout his Washington career, records show. In December, following a vote by its members, the union endorsed the avowed socialist in his contest with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The dues the union collects from its members have bankrolled other Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, James Clyburn, Keith Ellison and Steny Hoyer in the House, and Elizabeth Warren as well as Sanders in the Senate. Since 2008, the union, which gives 97 percent of its money to Democrats, has contributed more than $8.7 million to federal candidates, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan aggregator of political spending. While the union has logged $13,500 in contributions to Sanders so far in the current campaign, it is hedging its bets, giving his primary opponent Clinton $15,000, a figure observers expect to increase if, as expected, she wins the Democratic nomination.
Clinton has garnered more union endorsements than Sanders, but the CWA, which claims “700,000 members in private and public sector employment,” is thus far the biggest union to throw its support behind the senator from Vermont. The CWA’s endorsement had been anticipated after the union’s president, Larry Cohen, left his post and joined the Sanders campaign as a top adviser last July, a move noted in some left-leaning outlets without mentioning the CWA tie to mainstream journalists.
Just how many print or television journalists voted to endorse Sanders (or any other candidate) is not clear because the CWA did not release the results of its electronic voting. (Journalists make up a minority of its membership, which includes workers ranging from telecom to law enforcement.) The union said its endorsement process included “hundreds of worksite meetings and an online vote by tens of thousands of CWA members.” Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild of America and a CWA board member as a sector vice president, said that, to his knowledge, none of those “worksite meetings” took place in a newsroom.
Nonetheless, as a result of that vote, “CWA members have made a clear choice and a bold stand in endorsing Bernie Sanders for president,” CWA president Chris Shelton announced.
Such practices are troubling to some media watchdogs and journalists. Unionized reporters and unionized non-management editors cover issues of enormous significance for labor, including free trade, health-insurance reform and campaign finance, which often involves unions’ use of member dues for political activities. While this coverage does not necessarily translate into bias, “it’s a real problem for those who cover politics,” said Fred Brown, a co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. Brown spent decades writing about politics for the Denver Post and said he was never comfortable with the idea of press union endorsements. He described himself as “incensed” when the union to which he belonged in 1972—which later merged with the Communications Workers of America—endorsed Democrat George McGovern for president.
“I felt it only confirmed the impression the public has about the media, that they were unbelievably liberal,” Brown said. “I’m pretty liberal myself, and I voted for McGovern, but I did not like the idea of a union that represented reporters saying we are endorsing a particular candidate. That just does not work for me with the idea of a reporter keeping a distance and at least trying to live up to the idea we should be impartial.”
Newspaper Guild president Lunzer said he sought to put some daylight between local newspaper guilds and the CWA’s Sanders endorsement. For example, he said, he deliberately avoided the CWA photo-op for Sanders when the union made its announcement. And, although the union’s news release said Sanders had the “unanimous” support of the board, Lunzer said he “publicly abstained on behalf of our members who would feel there was a conflict of interest.”
True, the news media comprise only a fraction of CWA’s overall membership, which includes workers in “telecommunications and information technology, the airline industry, education, health care and public service, law enforcement, manufacturing” and other fields, including the “news media, broadcast and cable television,” according to its own description. The various newspaper guilds represent about 34,000 workers, and not all of them are in newsrooms. The broadcasting arm of the union, NABET, claims to represent another 10,000 workers, a figure that includes writers but not on-air talent, according to the union.
Nevertheless, many of those who commonly critique the press and are vocal critics of so-called “dark money” in politics seemed blasé about the connection between American journalists and their active, overtly political union. Jim Warren, chief media writer at the Poynter Institute, has written about the big-money issue. When asked to comment about the possible conflicts between union membership and journalism, however, Warren demurred, emailing: “Just not sure what I would have to say. At this point, don’t have a factual basis upon which to articulate any opinion.”
Other critics, however—especially conservative ones—say reporters need to be more open about their union ties. “This is a longstanding problem and something of a scandal,” said Steve Allen, who edits Labor Watch for the Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank in Washington. “You often have various reporters who are members of various guilds and they would take a position and the readers are not informed of it. It’s a relationship that’s been going on for years, and no one has called them on it.”
The CWA makes no secret of its aggressive stances on major news issues of the day. The website of the CWA’s Washington headquarters features an “Act Now” section with a menu of familiar left-wing topics. The CWA backs a $15-an-hour minimum wage and is opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Barack Obama recently finished negotiating in California, just as it opposes most major trade deals. It favors imposing the so-called Wall Street speculation tax. The CWA abhors “Wall Street and big banks,” writing in fiery language: “We’re angry. Wall Street and the big banks are devouring this country’s wealth—feasting on our jobs, our benefits and our pensions.” The phrases included in CWA news releases and the like closely resemble the rhetoric of the Sanders campaign.
In 2013, the CWA boasted of the role it played in getting then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to trigger the “nuclear option,” thereby making it easier for Obama’s nominees for federal district and appeals courts to be confirmed.
The CWA was also a vociferous supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which drew widely sympathetic coverage in the press when it burst onto the downtown Manhattan scene in 2011. The national guild’s website and publication, which are more overtly political and liberal than those of local chapters, used columns from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and other pieces to bolster the Occupiers’ case.
The CWA’s financial influence is formidable by any standard, but not as well publicized as the contributions of other big players in the political money game. According to one widely accepted measure, the union’s spending surpasses that of Koch Industries, which is owned by the billionaire political financiers much reviled by the American left and often portrayed negatively in the media.
According to totals tallied by Open Secrets, since 1990 the CWA has spent a total of $44.2 million, of which $43.8 million went to Democrats or liberal causes such as opposition to the Trans-Pacific trade agreement and broader targets such as “Wall Street and the big banks.” That figure dwarfs the $29.5 million spent by Koch Industries on conservative and libertarian candidates and issues. The two rank 22nd and 49th, respectively, among top contributors in that period, although both the Kochs and unions have wider networks of spending and like-minded contributors.