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What Does it Mean to be 'Pro-Labor?'

by Mark T. Harris Thursday, Jul. 14, 2005 at 2:41 AM
TheEditorPage@aol.com

Do you want evidence of how ad-driven media works to silence labor? Read this follow-up to "'Alternative' Media Quietly Sells Out to Whole Foods Market" [ZNet, April 28, 2005]. Mark T. Harris answers Dragonfly Media's denial that it gave Whole Foods Market free advertising for a year in its Chicago publication, Conscious Choice, following the grocer's complaint about a UFCW ad that ran under the magazine's old management. Dragonfly says neither would it promise Whole Foods no more union ads. But when union activists attempted to purchase new ad space last December, Dragonfly said no.

"News is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity." --Bill Moyers

If you type in the phrase "the lost integrity of ad-driven media" on Google, the first reference that comes up is to The New Standard, a new, nonprofit progressive news service based in New York. I wrote one of their news stories for May 19, on the United Airlines pension debacle.

It's an apt phrase to describe my recent article, "'Alternative' Media Quietly Sells Out to Whole Foods Market," about Whole Foods Market and its behind-the-scenes efforts in 2003 to quash pro-union advertising in magazines in which it also advertises. The article described how Whole Foods sought to bully Chicago's Conscious Choice magazine, a then recently acquired Dragonfly Media publication, into promising not to run pro-union ads targeting the chain's shoppers and employees. What prompted the pressure tactics by Whole Foods was a single pro-union ad that had appeared in Conscious Choice's May 2003 issue sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). According to a source within Dragonfly Media at the time, Whole Foods was reportedly later given a year's worth of free quarter-page advertising as a result of their complaints. The article also reported that Dragonfly had turned down a request last fall by supporters of the pro-union Whole Workers Unite web site to purchase a second ad for an update on workplace justice at Whole Foods.

As expected, Dragonfly Media denies the union issue was basis for any free advertising arrangement with the grocery chain. Ron Williams, Dragonfly's president, posted a response to my article on May 10, on a web blog run by David Grenier. It reads:

"Should employees of Whole Foods unionize? Great question. We're interested, and we may cover this issue in a story. We've also decided not to allow our magazines, Conscious Choice in this instance, to be a place where Whole Foods, opposing the union, or the union, can place ads presenting one-sided positions against the other.

Not taking ads from either side of this issue costs Dragonfly money, since advertising is how we cover our costs, as our magazines are free to our readers. It's true that we originally ran a UFCW ad, but when we saw how the dispute was about to spiral, we decided that our readers would prefer Conscious Choice to be a place for journalism, where our writers and editors research the range of positions and attempt to cut through the polarization.

We hope you will agree with us that this decision will make Conscious Choice and its sister publications in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, more valuable sources for information.

Basic fairness, never mind basic professional journalistic standards, requires any writer to do two things: 1) check their facts and 2) interview directly those he is reporting on. Mark T. Harris did neither. The result is a story riddled with errors that mischaracterizes the actions and intent of people he has never spoken to.

For the record: Conscious Choice Publisher Ross Thompson met with Whole Foods in June 2002 and agreed to run ads in exchange for premium distribution placement in their Chicago area stores, which is a practice we employ with large distributors at all Dragonfly magazines. That meeting occurred almost a full year before the ad by the UFCW ran in May of 2003."

What is Spin? What is News?

Williams asserts that I violated "professional journalistic standards" by not "checking facts" or "interviewing directly those he is reporting on." Actually, I reported the facts as given to me by a source within the company at the time. As Bill Moyers remarked at the recent Media Reform Conference in St. Louis, the conventional rules of journalism allow reporters "to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news." I reported and interpreted the meaning of news that neither Dragonfly Media nor Whole Foods wanted made public. I stand by what I wrote.

Notably, Ron Williams also confirms some of what I first reported, acknowledging that he won't sell advertising to the folks advocating unionizing Whole Foods. He says neither will he sell anti-union advertising to Whole Foods. Of course, Whole Foods does not purchase anti-union advertising per se. But they do spend many thousands of dollars to advertise their stores in Dragonfly publications. Considering the limited financial resources of union organizers versus the financial resources of Whole Foods, this kind of equanimity reminds me of the remark that democracy in America means the equal right of both the rich and the poor to sleep under the bridge. Actually, considering the obstacles faced by union organizers in today's pro-business political climate, you might think some advertising affirmative action for the union cause would even be in order, at least from those publishers who describe themselves as "socially responsible."

But let's stick not with what Dragonfly Media could do, but what in fact they have done. Dragonfly's president claims the free advertising arrangement with Whole Foods was made in June 2002 and had nothing to do with the union issue. In an email to me, Ross Thompson, Conscious Choice's original publisher, adds that the free ads were to promote the grocer's support for various community causes. In fact, two ads of this description do appear in August and September 2002, advertising Whole Foods support for a Lake Michigan coastal clean-up campaign.

And then? Over the next nine months, not a single quarter-page ad for Whole Foods appears in Conscious Choice (a monthly) that fits the description of this free advertising arrangement. But after the UFCW ad is published in May 2003, a new series of quarter-page ads for Whole Foods begins in July and continues in every single issue of Conscious Choice for the next year. This is significant only because it corroborates what my Dragonfly source stated as reported in my original story. I would suggest now that readers judge for themselves the veracity of the original report.

For the record, Thompson, Conscious Choice's original publisher, acknowledged in his email that Whole Foods did attempt to coerce the magazine into promising no more union ads. He also says in his meeting with Whole Foods management he would not make such a promise. Knowing Ross Thompson, I don't doubt that's true. In fact, when as a regular freelance contributor to Conscious Choice at the time, I caught wind of the office hearsay about Whole Foods behind-the-scenes pressure tactics, I thought the story was all about the grocer's unseemly conduct. Later, I learned about the free advertising arrangement resulting from the complaint of Conscious Choice's largest advertiser.

Interestingly, Thompson says Williams also later discussed with Whole Foods regional management their request that the publisher not run more pro-union ads. What this suggests was that the issue was no small matter to Whole Foods. And consequently probably not to the magazine's new owners, too. Thompson says Williams reiterated his position that they could not promise no more union ads. Maybe. But does it matter more what was said or what was done? In his email, Thompson says he "strongly doubts" that Dragonfly would refuse to sell union advertising. Why? Because Ron Williams is "pro-labor." But in fact this is exactly what Dragonfly has refused to do, as Williams now acknowledges. Yet Whole Foods pro-union activists can't even pay to place an ad. Is this how "socially responsible" media companies now define what it means to be "pro-labor?"

Williams explains that Dragonfly decided to adopt the no pro-union, no anti-union ad policy only after they saw how "the issue was about to spiral." I have to ask: What spiral? Whole Foods union supporters placed one ad in May 2003, sponsored by the UFCW. A year and a half later, supporters of the Whole Workers Unite web site sought to purchase a second ad for an update on workplace justice at the grocery chain. In the meantime, the Madison union had been decertified, following a year of stalling and subterfuge by Whole Foods management, which had somehow managed during that entire year to avoid even negotiating with the UFCW.

Clearly, such ostensible concern now for an even-handed ad policy is spin, to explain away the cold shoulder pro-union activists were given by Conscious Choice's publisher. The Whole Workers Unite folks report that when they tried to buy ad space, what they got from Conscious Choice was not an explanation of the new advertising policy, but weeks of run-around and unanswered queries.

Understandably, Whole Foods advertising dollars matter to Dragonfly Media. But it's a business relationship laden with contradictions for any "socially responsible" publisher. Whole Foods nurtures a public image as a kind of enlightened corporate steward of sustainability and environmentalism. In reality, the company has a track record for extremist opposition to unions that rivals Wal-Mart. They are also an aspiring Fortune 500 corporation that has seized a major share of the natural foods market, putting many local retailers out of business. Indeed, the company's rise to prominence represents the retail component of a larger economic trend, the takeover of the natural foods business by multinational corporations. It's a business system that increasingly favors large-scale everything, and is slowly squeezing out small farms as suppliers.

In fact, Whole Foods rise to the cusp of the Fortune 500 is a product not only of business savvy, available capital, and a growing market for organic and natural foods. Their success also trades on a long deteriorating economic environment for those on the hourly end of the pay scale. According to Business Week, a quarter of the workforce today earns only per hour or less. Union membership has also fallen to less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce (two not disconnected statistics). Twenty-five years ago United Airlines employees went on strike over a paid lunch. Now, they're fighting to keep their pension plans from destruction. Now, the exploitative Wal-Mart "big box" model with its low wages drives the future of the retail economy.

Dragonfly's president says they're now looking into doing a story on whether Whole Foods should unionize. Great. But at the risk of appearing persnickety, I would like to know why is it that when the company is Whole Foods, the job of journalists becomes one of "attempt[ing] to cut through the polarization?" Was that the goal when Conscious Choice ran the cover story, "Wal-Mart Ate My Neighborhood" (July 2004), by Kari Lydersen, which ended with a labor organizer's statement condemning Wal-Mart as an irresponsible company? (Note: Wal-Mart does not advertise in Dragonfly publications.) Why is it that we don't see an equivalent expose, "Whole Foods Ate My Bread & Circus, Fresh Fields, Bread of Life, Merchant of Vino, Nature's Heartland, Food for Thought, Harry's Farmers Market, Mrs. Gooch's Natural Foods Markets, Oak Street Market, Fresh & Wild, and Other Local Natural Foods Stores?" Just why is the liberal press so willing to give the nation's second largest non-union grocery chain a free pass?

Media Consolidation Works to Silence Labor's Voice

Why is any of this important now? I decided to report the story of Dragonfly's giving in to Whole Foods anti-unionism first because of what it reveals about the flawed politics of the "socially responsible" business community, such as it is. Among progressive investment firms, active corporate hostility to the right to collective bargaining is usually not considered reason enough to dump the stock. Similarly, Dragonfly publications run obsequious "news briefs" about Whole Foods store openings that read more like free marketing than legitimate news, while the grocer's history of union conflicts (including with the United Farm Workers) is ignored. I ask: Do their business practices even matter, just as long as they sell organic foods? Or, for that matter, continue to buy large amounts of advertising space? But because I bring these issues up, I'm writing a "hatchet piece" or suffering from a "negative attitude," as a couple emails sent my way in response to my earlier article suggested.

Last fall, writer Paul Hawken did a great service by taking the "socially responsible" investment community to task for porous standards and lack of accountability. That's a polite way of saying people are buying "socially responsible" mutual funds that include McDonald's, Microsoft, and other dubious representatives of progressive business. That's a problem. Likewise, the silence Whole Foods advertising buys at a publisher like Dragonfly, not only on the editorial page but even in the advertising it sells, is also a problem. But in truth it's a systemic problem with business, and hardly unique to Dragonfly. Advertising doesn't necessarily corrupt editorial integrity. But it often does, especially as media consolidates and falls under the sway of ever larger corporate operations.

Interestingly, when I spoke to Hawken about Whole Foods, he described the natural foods business today as dominated by a "scale-up-and-sell-out" crowd of entrepreneurs. But we see the same trend now in newspaper and magazine publishing. Since 1975, two-thirds of independent newspaper owners in the United States have vanished, fallen to the unrelenting march of media consolidation. It's a trend the "alternative" media are also not immune from. Case in point: According to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Dragonfly's owner sold his previous company, Alternative Media Inc., which included the Detroit Metro and a couple other newsweeklies, for million in 1999 to the Times Shamrock Group, owner of a group of daily newspapers and television stations in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.

Dragonfly Media describes itself as "the next generation of the alternative press." But what does this really mean? The company, which was formed in 2001, reportedly plans to buy out 12 "green" oriented magazines in city markets in the next few years (currently they have five). Admittedly, this hardly makes Dragonfly the next Viacom. Yet this is basically the same business model at work as the consolidating mainstream corporate media, if only on a smaller scale. It's also the same business model as retail-store devourer Whole Foods.

Prediction: The "next generation of the alternative press" will in a decade or so very likely become the next acquisition of some larger mainstream media conglomerate. This might be great for shareholders, but what does it have to do with making the media more independent, more democratic? What does it have to do with giving the cause of labor the partisan voice it so sorely lacks in today's corporate media?

As we can see from the anti-labor turn in advertising policy that followed Conscious Choice's sale to Dragonfly Media, the answer is not much.

***

Mark T. Harris is a member of the National Writers Union. You can write to him at TheEditorPage@aol.com. The author thanks Daniel Tracy and Jim Beaupre for their research assistance.

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