This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org
This article is from the July/August 2011 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.
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What Doesn’t Kill You...
A Guide to Surviving Right-Wing Media Assaults
On April 25th, media thugs Andrew Breitbart and Dana Loesch of BigGovernment.com assaulted two labor educators and their students in Missouri. The weapon: doctored videos purporting to show them teaching violence, sabotage, and communism. The objective: to force a quick resignation of the educators and the elimination of labor education programs. The Tea Party immediately called for demonstrations, and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder appeared on two talk shows betraying a broader objective: to goad moderate Republicans in the Missouri state legislature into supporting the extremists’ crusade to pass anti-union legislation.
They failed. No one was fired; no one resigned. Labor education programs continue (and will benefit from all the publicity), and the anti-union legislation (“right-to-work” and “paycheck-protection” bills) failed.
I am one of those labor educators. I direct the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). The other educator, Don Giljum, is an adjunct instructor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). We team-teach the class, Labor, Politics & Society, by video conference. Labor educators commonly have extensive union experience. Giljum brought decades of it into the classroom as business manager of a local union in St. Louis. I am a long-time union and community activist. Perhaps Breitbart didn’t realize he was attacking trained activists who not only teach the importance of organizing and solidarity but also practice what they teach.
So how did we stop Breitbart & Company and what did we learn?
Be proactive, not reactive. Breitbart’s attacks depend on institutions reacting fearfully and doing the wrong thing, as when Congress cut ACORN’s funding, when the Department of Agriculture fired Shirley Sherrod, and when NPR accepted the “resignation” of CEO Vivian Schiller.
To counter this you have to be proactive. I immediately informed UMKC administrators of the attack, urging them to review the original tapes, 30 hours of which had been copied by a student from recordings posted exclusively for our students’ use on a password-protected website. I reviewed the originals and told UMKC where to look to see how our words had been twisted. I fended off a barrage of media inquiries by promising a statement as soon as possible while I sought advice from a lawyer, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and a very savvy media consultant. Fortunately, our fair-minded provost, Gail Hackett, insisted the university investigate rather than just fire me. Three days after the initial Breitbart posting (by then it was a series), I issued a statement, followed a few hours later by Hackett’s press release vindicating me and supporting labor education.
Don was not so lucky. He was hit by a double blow: his international union demanded his immediate resignation a week short of his planned retirement on May 1, and UMSL, without investigating, accepted his very conditional offer to resign.
Know the media. Breitbart uses Insurgent Visuals, an editing chop shop (associated with James O’Keefe, who played the phony pimp in the doctored videos that brought down ACORN), to cut up and reassemble video to fit their agenda. They post the product first on one of their “Big” websites and then use Fox.net to push it into more legitimate media outlets. This time the media remembered Breitbart’s previous attacks and waited. When our response came, we got the headlines, not Breitbart.
Select carefully which media outlets you talk to. I didn’t talk to Fox; I did talk to Democracy Now!. If you don’t know a reporter or outlet, investigate. Find out the reporter’s approach to the story and cultivate relationships. It really helped that I knew reporters at the Kansas City Star. In complicated cases, use print media over electronic to drive the story. Talk to specialized media that understand your issues. Good early stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed were used as background by other journalists. If media outlets put out distortions, talk back or ask allies to talk back for you.
Find allies who can effectively pressure your targets and coordinate with them. Universities respond to pressure from faculty, students, community, and politicians. We organized these constituencies locally, statewide, and nationally. My campus chapter of the AAUP alerted their national office, which within hours issued a strong statement framing the issue as one of academic freedom. I am a member of the United Association for Labor Education, which swiftly sent letters to the chancellors of UMKC and UMSL, generated dozens of additional letters from member programs and individuals, and posted an on-line petition that garnered over 800 signatures in four days. The New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for adjunct faculty, and the American Federation of Teachers, among others, sent letters.
Student support was strong from the start and was galvanized after a Tea Party blogger invaded the St. Louis classroom, camera in hand. They blasted the university with calls and emails over its failure to provide security. Some became media activists. Almost all sent us emails countering Breitbart’s lies and expressing outrage that their freedom to explore ideas in the sanctuary of the classroom had been violated when Breitbart put their faces and comments on the web.
After Don was terminated, UMSL faculty members circulated a letter to the chancellor. Two state representatives called the chancellor, and union members, labor leaders, and activists mobilized for his reinstatement. All this countered the dozens of angry Tea Party-generated phone calls to the university. Media activists provided up-to-date information and research on Breitbart and Tea Party activities. On May 9th UMSL reversed its position and announced Don could return to teaching.
The level of support generated in a few days was awe-inspiring. It happened because we had so many organizational ties before we started, because we communicated among allies, because people understood the threat Breitbart poses to public higher education and to organized labor, and because union allies understood that an attack on labor education undermines the labor movement. We didn’t crawl in a hole and die; we fought back, and people responded. They “had our backs.”
Still, this experience reveals our vulnerability. Institutions, be they universities, unions, or non-profits, are all subject to right-wing attacks and should develop plans to respond. The typical response is to hand the problem over to the lawyers. They have their role, but they are too slow and cautious to be the first responders. These attacks are political, not legal. Those best equipped to respond are organizers and media specialists.
I continue to be haunted by the “what-ifs.” What if we hadn’t had back-up tapes? What if one of the death threats we got had been carried out? What if the calls for our ouster had spread beyond the Tea Party? And in the end, there will be other attacks, most likely with new tactics. The student who sent the tapes to Breitbart and Loesch told Don that there’s no ethics in politics; if you have to assassinate people’s character, so be it. It’s survival of the fittest.
In the long run, ideas like this student’sóand tactics like Breitbart’sówill be repudiated, but in the short run, we must be prepared.