Labor Shortage

by John B. Judis | October 11, 2006

I have read BusinessWeek regularly for 30 years. I began reading it on the advice of the late Michael Harrington, the socialist agitator and author of The Other America. Mike used to pepper his speeches calling for capitalist reform with supporting evidence from this eminently capitalist journal, which he regarded as the best of the newsmagazines.

BusinessWeek became my window into what Marx called "the relations of production." In the 1980s, it was the place to follow the debate over deindustrialization and the Japanese challenge; in the 1990s, it was the best source on globalization and the new cyber-economy. And BusinessWeek didn't just cover management; it also covered workers: labor unions, wages, working conditions, job training, job safety, you name it. It was less boosterish than Fortune and less concerned with Wall Street and the rich and famous than Forbes.

But, over the last year or so, I started reading it less, and finally stopped altogether. I didn't know why at the time, and I even felt somewhat guilty about neglecting the magazine. But I figured out why last week when I heard that the magazine's new editor, Stephen Adler, had fired Aaron Bernstein, who had worked at the magazine since 1983 and had written many of its most outstanding stories.

Bernstein, whom I know slightly from covering AFL-CIO conventions, was one of the last people to report regularly on the labor movement. (Not counting dilettantes like myself or Harold Meyerson, the only others I can think of are David Moberg from In These Times and Steven Greenhouse from The New York Times. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times no longer have someone assigned to cover the labor movement.) And Bernstein was terrific at it. If you had wanted to follow the growing conflict between afl-cio President John Sweeney and his former prot?g?, Andy Stern (of the Service Employees International Union), you had to read Bernstein. In September 2004, well before the conflict burst into the open, Bernstein wrote a cover story on Stern for BusinessWeek.

But Bernstein didn't just cover the labor movement. He covered the ferment over trade, outsourcing, immigration, inequality and the minimum wage. He wrote cover stories for BusinessWeek about the growing income gap between workers and managers; he covered the backlash against globalization that led to the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle in 2000. For his reporting, he won Gerald Loeb and George Polks awards and accolades from the Overseas Press Club, the New York Press Club, and the Sidney Hillman Foundation.

So why fire him? Magazine spokeswoman Kimberly Quinn said that the magazine would not comment on the reasons for letting him go. The New York Post, which first reported the story, speculated that Bernstein's firing, along with that of 13 other writers and editors, was due to financial problems. But, still, why Bernstein, a prize-winning reporter? I will venture another explanation--one that reflects what I had heard from someone at the magazine and one that also helps explain why I stopped reading BusinessWeek.

Since Adler, former head of The Wall Street Journal Online, took charge in April 2005 from former Editor Stephen B. Shepard, BusinessWeek has increasingly become like SmartMoney and Success: a magazine for wealthy consumers. To see the difference between the old BusinessWeek and the new, you need only compare issues from a few months toward the end of Shepard's tenure with some recent issues that Adler has put out.

Here are some cover stories from Shepard in January and February 2005: "THE FUTURE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES," "SOCIAL SECURITY: ARE PRIVATE ACCOUNTS A GOOD IDEA" (written by Bernstein), "NANOTECH: THERE'S STILL PLENTY OF HYPE, BUT THE SCIENCE IS FINALLY MOVING FROM THE LAB TO THE MARKETPLACE," and "CAN ANYONE SAVE HP." There were all very important stories--the story on Social Security exposed the shoddy economics undergirding the administration's plan, the story on Hewlett-Packard anticipated the chaos that has descended upon one of America's foremost high-tech companies.

Looking at the last few months, I can find one cover story that resembles the old approach, but here are a few from July, August, and September that clearly don't: "REVEALED! SECRETS OF THE MALE SHOPPER," "HOW TOXIC IS YOUR MORTGAGE," "50 BEST PLACES TO LAUNCH A CAREER," "AM I READY TO RETIRE?", and "HOW THIS KID MADE $60 MILLION IN 18 MONTHS." As I looked over these issues, I suddenly understood why I had stopped reading BusinessWeek and why its new editor would let someone like Bernstein go. A serious writer--and particularly one who writes about the American worker--has no place at a magazine that aspires to be the People of the business world.

Perhaps this new BusinessWeek will make more money than the old. Then Adler will be vindicated in the new cutthroat world of magazine publishing, which sees magazines as simply another commodity to sell. But I somehow doubt that a magazine named BusinessWeek can attract the narcissistic readers that advertisers love. My guess is that, under Adler, BusinessWeek will become a magazine that is neither particularly profitable nor socially useful. In any case, it has already lost at least one reader.

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