Glende essay: Researching Riesel and organized labor

glende
Philip Glende, Indiana State University

I became interested in Victor Riesel while researching for my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin. I was examining how organized labor was covered by mass circulation newspapers during a period of dramatic and contentious growth of unions in the 1930s through the mid-1950s. In some communities, Business Week observed in 1951, Riesel’s work was the only labor coverage readers could expect to regularly find in their local daily papers.[1] I knew that I needed to know more about this New York-based syndicated columnist.

Supported by a small research grant from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, I visited the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University, which holds Riesel’s personal papers. The collection is not large, but it is rich, though heavily spiced with favorable correspondence from writers Riesel characterized as “Friendlies.” Armed with notes and photocopies, and informed by a sampling of his columns, I included a small section on Riesel in my dissertation. The article that appears in the Winter edition of Journalism History grew from that New York trip and related research on labor coverage.

A Critic of Labor Leadership

Riesel was a feisty and unrelenting critic of labor leadership. He vigorously opposed the Communist tilt of some unions, and he frequently warned of the dangers of labor racketeering. At the time of his death he was eulogized as a crusading journalist who fought for “honest labor.”[2] However, though known early in his career as a pro-labor writer, and a member of the American Newspaper Guild himself, Riesel echoed the public criticism of a broad array of anti-union forces. His newspaper columns, his broadcast appearances, and his contributions to popular magazines such as Reader’s Digest often focused on the same themes voiced by conservatives in business and politics who sought to discredit organized labor.

What effect did all that negativity have? I don’t know for sure. You cannot, as my grad school advisor pointed out, interview the dead. However, as media historians we can attempt to reconstruct the communication environment and try to understand journalism as a part of public knowledge and civic life. This article attempts to do that by examining the work of one of the most prominent labor writers of the day, to see what he said about unions at a time when they were very much part of the daily news.

Riesel may be familiar to some readers as the journalist who was blinded with acid tossed by a thug on the streets of New York early one morning in 1956. Riesel, whose work was appearing in nearly two hundred daily newspapers, insisted the attack was in retaliation for his hard line against racketeers in unions. The U.S. attorney’s office claimed the assault was meant to dissuade Riesel from testifying before a grand jury. Though his reporting on the mob was a widely accepted explanation for the attack, the actual reason remains a mystery.

Regardless, Riesel’s relentless criticism of labor leadership placed him in sync with the anti-union movement in the late 1940s and 1950s. It is not possible to definitively say that his work influenced popular opinion about unions. In fact, organized labor reached the height of its overall approval and its penetration into the nonagricultural workforce in the mid-1950s, exactly when Riesel was harping on the evils of union bureaucrats, Communist leadership, and mob infiltration. But public opinion polls from this era, imperfect as they are, also show that the general population was concerned about these very issues.

How much and in what way does it matter that a nationally syndicated and highly visible columnist is continually hammering on the faults of a group of American political actors, in this case organized labor? Scholarship in the last half century has explored agenda-setting and framing as influential functions of mass communication. The rise of the highly partisan “news” outlet in the last quarter century certainly seems to demonstrate the potential to limit, redefine, and reinforce the options that citizens have for understanding their world. Was Riesel reflecting mass opinion, parroting conservative talking points, or helping to shape popular attitudes about unions? Again, I don’t claim to know with certainty, but surely his columns were not mere words with no effect whatsoever.

The Research Journey

Riesel was extraordinarily prolific, with a syndication schedule that had him writing five or six times a week. I have not read every newspaper column that he wrote. However, I believe I have read enough to generalize about his work. Indeed, common themes emerged in the first fifty or so columns that I read, and they were repeated in the more than one hundred additional columns I examined from a span of eight years. As an historian, you ask yourself whether you have it right. Do you understand the context and the meaning of what is being said?[3]

After spending countless hours with microfilm from his two home papers – the liberal New York Post and Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror, consulting private correspondence of friend and foe, reading other published articles by and about Riesel, and examining primary and secondary sources on organized labor as a political, economic, and social phenomenon, I can say that I believe I do. There is always room for more research, of course, and that is what leads to nuance and new interpretations.

Research, many have said, is a journey. Although combing through archives and scanning microfilm are solitary activities, many people have contributed in some way to shaping this article. I would like to thank the editor of Journalism History, Dr. Gregory Borchard, for shepherding this work into publication, and I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers who offered thoughtful observations and trenchant criticism of my original submission. Archivists in many locations have assisted my research visits, and my campus librarians at Indiana State University have accommodated numerous requests for interlibrary loans of books and newspaper microfilm.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal granted permission to use a photo of Riesel from a visit he made there in 1954. Indeed, securing permission to use photographs of Riesel proved to be one of the most daunting and frustrating challenges related to this project. Many photos of Riesel were taken after he was attacked, but these remain under copyright in news outlets and other organizations that asked for cost-prohibitive rights fees. Although I did not use the photo, I am grateful to Dr. Ann Segan for granting permission to use a photograph taken by her father, Arthur Rothstein of Look, and for introducing me to the beautiful photo collection she maintains at www.ArthurRothstein.org.

Study of an Era

This article draws from and builds on my broader research emphasis. I have examined coverage of organized labor to address several overall questions relating to the practice of journalism and its place in American life. I am interested in how newspapers responded to the burst of union activity that began in the Great Depression, and what that can tell us about the business of journalism and how news organizations create public knowledge.

I am interested in professional practices during this time, as well as what those routines say about how mass media journalists operated and how they saw their role in the community. Furthermore, I am interested in the problem of media bias, how citizens come to understand their world through mass communication, and how they make choices about what to believe.

My original dissertation work was inspired by commonly voiced complaints from labor leaders and liberals in the 1940s that the press was biased against unions. Although I found examples of newspaper coverage to support this argument, I have also found many that challenge it, leading to the conclusion that it is just more complicated than critics have argued. At the risk of lapsing into uncritical nostalgia, I believe it is worth trying to understand how the news industry functioned when the daily newspaper was a dominant source of information on public affairs.

As John Nerone argued, there was a time before the decline of legacy journalism and the fracturing of the audience that elites cared about what the press did, because journalism acted as a representative of the public.[4] That is a loss worthy of a eulogy.

Notes

[1] “Labor Reporting: How Good Is It Now?” Business Week, Oct. 20, 1951, 42-43.

[2] See, for example, “Victor Riesel, Blinded Crusading Labor Columnist,” Newsday, Jan. 6, 1995; George McEvoy, “Now This Was One Tough Reporter,” Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, March 1, 1995; and Pete Hamill, “The Lives They Lived: Victor Riesel and Walter Sheridan; In Defense of Honest Labor,” New York Times Magazine, Dec. 31, 1995.

[3] On appreciating the context of the text, see David Paul Nord, “Intellectual History, Social History, Cultural History … and Our History,” Journalism Quarterly 67, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 645-648.

[4] John Nerone, “Why Journalism History Matters to Journalism Studies,” American Journalism 30, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 15-28.

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