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How the New York Times Covered Two Transit Strikes, 42 Years Apart

The vastly disparate NY Times coverage of two NYC transit strikes illustrates the dramatic transformation of mainstream coverage of working-class life in recent years. As media companies chase an upper-crust audience, workers have been erased.

March 8, 1983, New York City: Passengers from Westchester, New York, who normally use the Metro North commuter lines to reach their daily jobs, leave buses and walk up the ramp to the subway entrance at the Pelham Bay station. Many of the suburban commuters turned to special buses provided by Westchester County and Connecticut because of a transit strike. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

In his excellent 2019 book, No Longer Newsworthy, Christopher R. Martin charts the gradual erasure of America’s working class from its media landscape. This process, as Martin shows, has brought about profound changes in the way all kinds of stories are written and framed. And, far from being a product of some unknowable alien force, it has both observable causes and discernible material roots. Amid consolidation and competition from the then-ascendent medium of TV, newspapers pivoted to a business model premised largely on advertisement aimed at upscale and middle-class audiences — transforming not only their own readerships but also the way vital issues were conceptualized. As Martin writes:

In this new vision of how a newspaper should serve its community, the newspapers and their corporate owners only wanted the right kind of readers, those who were “well-to-do,” “affluent moderns,” “influentials,” and people with plenty of “effective buying power” and “giant-sized household incomes.” Nearly every newspaper began publicizing their readership as if they were the children of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon: all above average.

Among the most memorable illustrations of what these changes have done to transform the news comes midway through the book as Martin contrasts New York Times coverage of two strikes separated by roughly forty-two years — a chasm, it turns out, defined at least as much by ideology as the actual passage of time.

A Tale of Two Strikes

In March 1941, some 3,500 members of the Transport Workers Union walked off the job, demanding, among other things, a 25 percent pay increase, paid vacation time, and an eight-hour workday. “WALKOUT HALTS 1,305 BUSES, NO SETTLEMENT IS IN SIGHT; THRONGS JAM SUBWAYS, CABS,” blared a headline on the front page of the March 11 edition of the New York Times. This, in itself, was perhaps unsurprising. As the accompanying story reported, the workers — employed by two companies that together supplied 95 percent of all surface transit in Manhattan — had successfully paralyzed a bus system used daily by some 900,000 New Yorkers.

Remarkably, though, the lengthy article quite prominently detailed the workers’ demands and implicitly celebrated the extra business going to taxi drivers as a result of the strike. As Martin notes in his book, no riders were even quoted or represented in photos — which instead featured empty buses sitting in their warehouses, the chairman of one of the companies involved, and a street packed from end-to-end with cabs.

More than four decades later, in March of 1983, America’s great newspaper of record would report on another transit strike, this time brought about by several hundred conductors and other workers employed on suburban commuter lines. “RAIL STRIKE CLOGS TRAFFIC ON ROADS IN NEW YORK AREA,” announced the paper on its front page, its headline accompanying a story framed heavily around frustrated and inconvenienced riders.

Many paragraphs are expended before the actual cause of the dispute finally enters the picture, the article instead emphasizing the disruptions inflicted by the strike and its impact on hapless (and seemingly well-off) commuters. “I’m lost,” remarks one Don Gilbert of New Canaan, Connecticut — the first of several to be quoted and reportedly an employee of the Chemical Bank at Park Avenue and Forty-Seventh Street. “I’ve never done this before. If I didn’t follow the crowd, I wouldn’t know where to go.” The last word of the piece, meanwhile, is reserved for an explicitly anti-union message. “The idea of such a small minority having such an impact on such a huge majority is just not right,” says someone identified only as a “25-year-old man from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.”

Particularly when seen to scale, the contrast between the two reports only becomes more striking. As Martin notes, 1983’s labor action concerned far fewer workers and ultimately affected one-tenth of the riders impacted by its equivalent in 1941. Nevertheless, it was largely packaged to readers of the New York Times as a tale of needless chaos and middle-class inconvenience.

It’s just one of many possible examples, but a clear illustration of the way changes in the media’s business model have gradually transformed the way news is consumed and, ultimately, the way it tends to be presented. In the first half of the twentieth century, many large outlets drew on a broad swath of readers and were compelled to serve up a vision of the world that was at very least legible to working-class audiences.

Today, as many newspapers populate their pages with consumer reporting, pricey real estate listings, and other content tailored to a predominantly upper-crust subscriber base, it’s become all too clear that the orientation of the media has changed — and that the concerns and interests of a far narrower socioeconomic niche now overwhelmingly shape its business.