Mugger: Which Side Are You On?

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One might think that The New York Times, as the country’s most influential liberal newspaper, would be covering the ongoing Broadway stagehands strike in an aggressive manner, directing its large battalion of metro and business reporters to give equal time to the Local One union members and their grievances, as well as the economic impact on the city. After all, The Times is ostensibly a pro-union corporation which has devoted thousands of column inches to the “inequality gap” that currently exists in the United States, and hardly a month goes by without op-ed columnist Paul Krugman telling his readers that we’re currently living in a “gilded age” that recalls the long-ago robber baron era.

Yet judging by the paper’s plethora of Broadway-related articles last week, not all labor strikes are equal in importance, or rather, not all union members are deserving of having their side of the impasse told in the pages of The Times. As an economic conservative, I’m playing devil’s advocate here: Labor unions, in my opinion, have long strayed from the original purpose of eradicating gross exploitation on the part of management and now provide a sinecure for workers who are often incompetent and block the way for those who are more deserving of a job based on merit. The National Education Association is just the most obvious example.

That disclaimer aside, it’s curious to me how The Times, which considers itself as a champion for “ordinary” citizens, honoring the concept of noblesse oblige, justifies its blatantly frivolous treatment of the striking Broadway stagehands, instead concentrating on the inconveniences the shutdown has caused affluent New Yorkers and tourists who now won’t be able to fork over the exorbitant ticket prices that a show like Jersey Boys commands. Yes, a work stoppage by entertainment employees doesn’t carry the same weight as say, a transit strike, although ancillary businesses directly or marginally affected by this action—restaurants, hotels and retailers—are none too pleased that their holiday revenues are taking a hit. Still, those are real New Yorkers on the picket line in Midtown, and The Times—which by the day after Thanksgiving still hadn’t issued an editorial on the subject—isn’t giving them a fair shake.

David Carr, one of The Times’ star media columnists, wrote a very strange piece on Nov. 19, the day after negotiations broke off between the Broadway producers’ league and Local One. Carr, once the editor of the weekly Washington City Paper, is hailed in the industry for his “irreverence,” although as he becomes increasingly enmeshed in The Times culture, that characteristic has nearly morphed into self-parody. A writer can begin a Times career as a smart aleck, but that’s not tolerated for long; otherwise superb writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Mark Steyn would be found on the op-ed page.
Carr, who earlier this year wrote a trivial blog about the Oscars called “The Carpetbagger,” is clearly more interested in the concurrent Writers Guild strike, which, since Nov. 5, has shut down production of television shows—the supposed tragedy that Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” is in re-run mode without current material provided by his staff eludes me—and demonstrated that preference in describing the aggrieved workers.

He writes, for example, that the Hollywood writers “even had [film producer] Ron Howard walking a picket line in front of Viacom in New York [on Nov. 17]. (When you’re riding with Opie, your cause must be just.)…So how will 400 or so (mostly) beefy guys in Manhattan accomplish what currently seems beyond the reach the 12,000 members of the writer’s guild?” What in the world does Carr mean by the adjective “beefy” in describing the stagehands while, not incidentally, giving very short shrift to their demands? Like most people who on occasion attend a Broadway performance, the stagehands are invisible to me, but I doubt they’re “beefy” like the stereotypical stevedores from On the Waterfront (and in stark contrast to Carr’s invocation of Howard’s childhood “Opie” character on “The Andy Griffith Show”).

Perhaps this is uncharitable speculation, but Carr appears mesmerized by Hollywood and power-players, as the following entry from his March 2 blog would indicate: “Despite this third-person conceit of riding above it all, the Bagger was as much a fanboy as anyone, hyperventilating at the slightest Oscar doings.” Coming soon: David Carr takes a meeting in Malibu or Tribeca’s Nobu with Harvey Weinstein to discuss a film project.

Also on Nov. 19, in Sewell Chan’s Times blog headlined “Estimating the Broadway Strike’s Economic Cost,” there’s nary a mention of the labor gulf that separates the stagehands and the producers’ league. Instead, the focus is on the loss of revenue caused by “suburban visitors” (and, presumably, Times readers) who wouldn’t venture into the city because all but eight Broadway shows are dark.

The Times’ Charles Isherwood, on Nov. 21, reduced the labor dispute to a farcical level in a ham-handed attempt at comedy, after beginning his article with an acknowledgement of the perils the “ever-fragile theatrical economy” faces. “[T]he trauma inflicted,” he writes, “on a very small but, in my biased view, hardly worthless demographic has gone sadly unremarked upon. No one has probed the painful effects of the strike on, oh, a full dozen or so of our city’s citizens: theater critics.”
Some critics, like The Post’s shrill columnist Andrea Peyser, complains of the stagehands—“It is hard to cry for these well-paid workers [union publicist Bruce Cohen told her the average stagehand makes in the “high 80s”]—who are “treat[ing] the public like dirt.” And if that salary figure is correct, maybe that’s why The Times is giving the Broadway workers the back of its hand, although I certainly recall a lot more sympathy for Major League Baseball players (whose average salary is over a million dollars) when they shut down the season, including the World Series, in 1994.

Then again, since the number of striking Broadway workers is small, it could be that Times editors, mindful of their upscale audience (which is catered to with fashion and styles articles that plump Fifth Avenue merchandise that “ordinary” citizens could never afford), calculated that a large dose of hypocrisy is just a cost of doing business.

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