Ideal Journalism: Newspaper Coverage of the Oshawa Strike

The 1937 Oshawa strike represents an event in Canadian history where the media tangibly used the ideals of journalism for the betterment of Canadian citizens. Specifically; newspaper coverage portrayed the events of the Oshawa strike in a way which exemplified good reporting. The pillars of journalism namely; balance, fairness and accuracy, are observable in the articles with a portrayal of the situation that informed readers without overtly exuding bias nor attempting to manipulate reader perception. The presentation of a variety of perspectives without discrimination and with equal fervor is observably an effort to perform their duty (as objective news agents) without falling prey to the types of manipulative reporting frequently seen in contemporary news organisations. As will be discussed further in the paper, the deprecatory practices of the media can be described as a calculated tool of the government yet in the case of the Oshawa strike there is little evidence to support such an assertion. Before discussing deprecatory influence, a review of the overarching themes found throughout the articles will be conducted along with a synthesized account of these themes in terms of the assessment of the strike as a movement.

From the first day of the strike the articles presented within The Toronto Daily Star aimed at depicting the events as they unfolded. One of the dominant themes throughout the events coverage was an emphasis on the well-organized and tightly controlled nature of the strike by organizers and movement leaders. Many of the articles commended the management of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) for their dedication to civility, orderliness, precision and the steadfast commitment to a positive outcome for the workers, the government and General Motors. For example, in a piece written April 8, 1937; the goals of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) were listed and the workers enactment of the walk-out strike was described as “not only peaceful but undramatic” although “there was no hiding the fact that a stern industrial struggle had been initiated by the men” (The Toronto Daily Star, April 8, 1937). The emphasis on peace and order served to place the walk-out strike in a positive light from the very beginning, something which was advantageous to the cause because it functioned to earn both public and governmental support.

Organizers from the UAW union were reported as working with municipal governmental officials, enacting the cessation of liquor sales during the strike in order to ensure the picketers remained focused on their objective (The Toronto Daily Star, April 8, 1937). This was to ensure that the walk-out strike did not degenerate from its political goals which was embraced positively by the local community and several government officials. Such actions were taken as a sign of good faith that the strike was aimed directly at the achievement of unionist goals, rather than a mere disruption of the township’s peace. These themes were supported throughout the event, with mention paid several times to the work of Union leaders and movement organizers working to maintain and promote the legitimacy of the strikers as paramount. As the movement progressed; it could be argued that the representation of the strike actually reflected media bias against a governmental agenda. In refutation of this, an important factor to remember is that originally media sources were used as a means of informing the public of significant news. If such an event were to be working towards the benefit of society but the perspective is not shared by the government, it is still the media’s responsibility to inform the public in a way that allows for personalized decision making.

The difference in opinion of municipal and provincial government figures is another interesting theme to note. Ontario Premier Michael Hepburn was quoted several times in The Star’s coverage of the strike as staunchly against the intervention of the CIO and UAW into Canadian labour policy. The premier’s comments drew several rebuttals and editorials aimed at un-doing the damage to public perception caused by callous remarks connecting the labour union groups to communist ideology. Such comments were unfounded and yet were aimed exclusively at connecting the event to the ideological bias against communist ideals in order to invoke negative perceptions among the general public. While these comments were reported by the media, those who rose to challenge these comments were also conveyed and given equal attention. The mayor Alex Hall of Oshawa was quoted in statements that backhandedly rebuked Mr. Hepburn for making utterly ‘provocative’ comments. This was again observable in coverage of the premier’s comments regarding assistance made available (although unused) from the Federal government, which was noticeably a veiled threat in case the labourers became unruly. The mayor was quoted as commenting “personally, I can’t begin to understand the man, from what I can see here around me…it must be that Mr. Hepburn is talking of some other place” (The Toronto Daily Star, April 15, 1937). What should be understood about the dichotomy within governmental opinion is that the developing discourse served to demonstrate the relative isolation of the premier’s opinion. Newspapers conveyed a picture that demonstrated the municipal government as sympathetic to the strike whereas the provincial government’s opinion was split between Mr. Hepburn’s staunch opposition and select members of his cabinet’s support towards the labour movement. This was another factor that worked to further estrange the Premier since coverage was given to the forced resignation by the Premier of two of his cabinet members who did not support him in his fight against the CIO. The inference could be made that there was a personal vendetta was occurring between Mr. Hepburn and the CIO; in addition to the battle between the strikers and their union representatives and the management of General Motors. While this private dispute was certainly a factor of concern within the larger scope of the event, it did not however, do much to influence public opinion except perhaps in public perceptions of Mr. Hepburn.

Indeed public opinion is another theme worthy of note during the strike. Discussion was sought out through journalistic interviews of citizens and through published pieces by those wishing to share their perspective. Interviews with the strikers’ wives and citizens of Oshawa revealed additional support for both the strike objectives and rejection of Mr. Hepburn’s allegations of communism. One interviewee was quoted as saying “the stuff about Canadians not going to be dominated by the United States organizers is old, that doesn’t go over with us anymore, there is nothing they would like better than to call us communists but they know the people of Oshawa aren’t communists” (The Toronto Daily Star, April 19, 1937). Additionally articles written by pastors and religious figures demonstrated support for the union groups and condemned the actions and statements of Mr. Hepburn. Thus it was accurate to report that in the public eye there were two distinct yet intertwined issues at play. One concerning Mr. Hepburn and his provocative suggestion that allowing the CIO to gain a foothold within Canadian labour policy would lead to Communism and anarchy, and the other regarding the outcome of the strikers at the GM plant. It could be argued there was a dislocation of attention on behalf of the public because they supported the strikers and yet drew offence at the suggestion of the premier that a victory for the strikers would beckon in the looming nemesis of communism. This is unlikely though due to the fact that discussion of the labour issues and Mr. Hepburns implication of communism were easily untangled meaning that articles written in to the paper both denounced the premier’s comments and provide support for the labour movement at the same time.

Drawing from Jules Boykoff’s book, Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (2007), he outlined several techniques used by the media (and by extension the government) to either detract attention from a given topic, or to misrepresent certain aspects as a way of delegitimizing the movement in the public eye. Given the significant attention paid to the Oshawa strike, one can identify the process of agenda setting at work. Specifically the prominent attention paid by the media set up the issue to be one that the public saw as vital, thus it gained additional support from those not directly affected by the outcome of the decision (Boykoff, 252). There is little evidence within the analyzed articles to show support for disparagement by numbers since the articles mostly cite the number of workers from the General Motors plant and there are almost no references to counter protestors unless inclusion of police strike breakers are included. The brunt of dissent discussed in the articles is focused entirely on the perspective of Mr. Hepburn and his cabinet. This is interesting though because it could be evidence for a ‘hyper individualized stance’ in regards to the focus on the premier’s observable conflict with CIO officials (Boykoff, 252). Several articles mentioned this theme although the articulation of the personalized dispute can be described as the papers merely reporting the comments and actions of the premier. In Boykoff’s estimation, the hyper individualized stance misdirects public focus away from the larger issue and places it on a few important figures, thus reducing the conflict from a collective issue to a personal one. In this instance; it is shown that the actions of Mr. Hepburn in his (personal) vendetta against the Union organizers actually served to amplify public response in a way that resulted in more attention and communal support for the larger collective labour movement.

In many contemporary issues covered by the media, Boykoff argues that these types of practices are used in a deprecatory manner to negate attention or to entirely stifle engagement with important events. This is not the case with the Oshawa strike, as can be seen from analysis of media coverage and thematic assessment of topics presented throughout the movement. There are few examples of the types of practices acknowledged by Boykoff (within the Oshawa strike) which can arguably be explained simply by time period disparity. With the labour movement taking place in the early 20th century and Boykoff’s focus on the anti-war protests during the late 20th century there is plenty of time for the media to develop deprecatory malaise either through increased governmental influence and/or other development related factors.

In sum, the Oshawa strike clearly represents an event in which newspaper (media) outlets preformed their duty in admirable fashion. A focus on the presentation of all related perspectives on the movement helped contribute to a positive outcome for the labour organization movement which was to the benefit of millions of Canadians. It would be interesting to examine what the outcome could have been if the media had acted in the fashion noted by Boykoff as a tool of the government (namely Premier Hepburn) to suppress what was considered to be an antagonistic movement. If there had been a media blackout for instance, prompted by governmental influence, in order to suppress communal support for the dissent of labourers then conceivably the result would not have been a victory for collective labour groups. Or, if not a decisive victory for unionization, perhaps it would have led to an agreement that only saw small concessions to the workers rather than the foothold for the collective labour unions as a whole. Nonetheless, one should understand that the media plays a large role in these types of movements and can either make or break the momentum for social change. While the Oshawa strike seemed to avoid many of the problems outlined by Boykoff, it is imperative that contemporary society be cognizant of such practices if at least as a reminder that bias exists and that it is not always in favor of the people at large.

Bibliography:

Agree to Negotiate In Hepburn’s Office, Ask for Appointment. (1937, April 21). The Toronto Daily Star, p. A1.

Asks Only Security, Says Strikers Wife. (1937, April 10). The Toronto Daily Star, p. A2.

Boykoff, J. (2007). Mass Media Underestimation, False Balance, and Disregard. In Beyond bullets: The suppression of dissent in the United States. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

First Strength Test ‘Twixt Employers, CIO In Canada Under Way. (1937, April 8). The Toronto Daily Star, p. A1.

Hepburn Warns Workers Against Foreign Agitators. (1937, April 9). The Toronto Daily Star, pp. A1-A2.

Millard Hails Agreement as Victory for Strikers. (1937, April 16). The Toronto Daily Star, p. A3.

Ottawa Won’t Interfere in Strike Until Asked. (1937, April 15). The Toronto Daily Star, p. A3.

United Church Seen Behind Strikers in Oshawa. (1937, April 17). The Toronto Daily Star, p. A2.

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