Locked Out of the News

Okay, it’s not the NBA or something important. But as the ABC strike heads into its second month, Chatterbox is puzzled by the dearth of press coverage. Here are 2,400 cameramen, technicians, researchers, and other behind-the-scenes folk at the Disney network locked in a lengthy labor dispute, and there has not been a single major article on the lockout anywhere. In fact, beyond occasional news update stories in the New York Times and the New York tabloids, it’s hard to find any external notice that there are picket lines outside ABC News. Small wonder that the union, NABET, frustrated by the news blackout, resorted to a three-quarter page ad in Monday’s Times to brag about the Democratic politicians (Al Gore, Gray Davis, Ted Kennedy, etc.) who have refused to grant interviews to ABC.

Chatterbox is not claiming that the ABC strike resembles an old Clifford Odets script. NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians–if you’re baffled by the acronym) has been operating without a contract since early 1997. On the Monday before the election, the union staged a self-destructive one-day work stoppage to protest Disney’s managed-care health coverage. (Why not rail against the tides or the changing of the seasons?) Disney responded by locking out the union, claiming they could not cover breaking news if they were subject to impromptu walkouts. (NABET’s real target was not ABC’s who-cares pre-election coverage, but Monday Night Football .) The last hope for a quick resolution vanished in mid-November when the NLRB ruled against the union, saying that the ABC lockout was legal.

For those looking for broader significance, the ABC strike can be viewed as a major signpost on network news’ road to oblivion. Disney deity Michael Eisner, who is presumed to have ordered the lockout, has been loudly telling insiders that he paid too much for ABC and that he just discovered that (stop the presses!) TV news is not a branded product. Yes, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer are established “brands” (the business buzzword of the moment), but not the evening news or other non-celebrity journalism. So get out the long knives, since ABC is fast retreating from the news business. For example, several veteran correspondents in New York and Washington have been quietly told that their contracts will not be renewed. (Already, CNN is looking like the ABC alumni network.) And, the word is out on the street that CBS and NBC, reflecting broadcast cost-cutting solidarity, will not be hiring striking ABC techies.

Living in New York, Chatterbox keeps hearing delicious tidbits about post-strike life at ABC. Midway through the taping of a major interview for 20/20, the inexperienced field cameraman turned to the correspondent and ruefully confessed, “I’m sorry, I haven’t been taping for the last 20 minutes.” Other ABC reporters have been going out of their way to set records for expenses on shoots, so that ABC won’t be able to claim dramatic savings because of the strike. About the only downside for network executives was the sad-eyed realization that most ABC publicists are covered by NABET. In the world of branded products, the locked-out publicists are deemed indispensable, while Disney believes that virtually anyone can push around a camera.

You would think that anecdotes like these might pop up in, say, the Times, TheNew Yorker, Newsweek, or Fortune. But it hasn’t happened, and Chatterbox has been trying to figure out why. A few theories:

1) Labor stories are deemed boring, even when they involve the Disney network.
2) It’s the little people, like lowly desk assistants, who are locked out.
3) So many big-think pieces have been written predicting the demise of TV news that there’s no point in actually covering the death rattle.
4) Broadcast news is already dead, so no one notices the strike.
5) The ABC story is so obvious that everyone assumes that somebody else is about to do the major feature.

All this leaves one question: Who will be running the cameras when Barbara Walters sits down with Madcap Monica? Chatterbox hears that Linda Tripp is available.

Walter Shapiro