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Conn Hallinan: He Knew Whose Side He Was On

Former FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan, who passed away on June 19 at the age of 81, wrote sharply and passionately about international issues for five decades.

I learned a lot from Conn “Ringo” Hallinan, who passed on June 19. Ringo had a full life as both a writer and political organizer, and ran the journalism program at UC Santa Cruz for 23 years. But that’s not the way I knew him. For me, Ringo was a guide to a path through the hard knocks of labor and radical journalism.

Ringo was foreign editor at the West Coast People’s World for many years. I spent a year of apprenticeship there, as it became a national newspaper, the People’s Daily World. Both were publications of the U.S. Communist Party, but regularly carried news and analysis that went beyond, and usually in contradiction to, the mainstream media. Ringo’s international columns, especially during the Cold War and the era of national liberation conflicts, were often the issue’s high point.

Ringo was a voracious reader with an encyclopedic knowledge, ranging from defense budget figures to the world view of anti-apartheid fighters in southern Africa. He carried his “Dispatches from the Edge” into Foreign Policy in Focus after he left the paper and got his teaching gig at Santa Cruz.

I had no problems with the idea of being, as we called it at the paper, “profoundly partisan.” I came out of union organizing drives and factory work, and became a labor reporter at the PW after getting laid off for a time as an organizer. So, while I shared Ringo’s general perspective, I had a lot to learn as a would-be journalist.  The terrible PW pay couldn’t sustain my family for more than a year, and I then had to go back to organizing work. But the bug bit me, and eventually I found a way to freelance fulltime journalism.

Organizing gives you a good grounding in the lives of working people, but the PW job taught me how to put that into a coherent news or feature article. Although no longer at the paper, Ringo would often send me critiques of my articles, and our former editor, Carl Bloice, and the previous labor reporter, Billy Allan, helped me learn as well.

Ringo had a sense of dry humor and irony about the vicious absurdities of capitalism that appealed to me. His last column, written many years after his PW days, still could make me laugh. “But the illusions of Empire are stubborn,” he wrote. “The US still thinks it can control the world, when every experience for the past 50 years or more suggests it can’t: Vietnam, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, the last war we ‘won’ was Grenada, where the competition was not exactly world class.”

Or giving unwanted advice to the British about independence for Scotland and northern Ireland, or the Spanish about Catalonia: “You can’t force people to be part of your country if they don’t want to be, and trying to make them is like teaching a pig to whistle: can’t be done and annoys the pig.”

I could never imitate that sly style. But what I really learned from Ringo, and what I think he passes on, is his demand that journalists take sides, recognizing our interest in being participants in a broad movement for social justice. That includes his sharp analysis of the relationship between media workers and the people who employ them.

I interviewed Ringo not long after the huge and bitter Detroit News Strike, which ground on from 1995 to 1997. “The anti-union bias in the industry is very deep,” he said.  The strike put that on display, but Ringo warned that the bias went beyond violent efforts by corporate owners to break the Newspaper Guild (as we were then called—the NewsGuild now). That bias is evident in the content of the papers and media, which gives it enormous political power in our world.

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“So how is that produced?” he asked. Although corporate class interest certainly leads to overt censorship, media workers themselves share responsibility, he argued. Thousands of us belong to unions and care a lot about our salaries and working conditions. “And there were real efforts by dedicated newspaper union activists to challenge the suppression of the news from Detroit. But most media workers didn’t feel a strong sense, not just of personal, but of class responsibility to report it.”

Journalists are taught, Ringo observed, both by their education and the rules of the corporate newsroom, that they must not participate in movements for social justice, especially organizations on the left that challenge the established order. “Many reporters internalize the ban on being participants,” he explained, “and believe it would compromise their supposed neutrality and objectivity. For reporters and editors, if they don’t already know about something, it’s not news. But the neutrality rule says you can’t cover a story if you know about it from your personal experience, because it’s a conflict. And of course, behind this lies the knowledge of what you need to do to please your boss and get ahead.

“The objective persona is like the tooth fairy—it doesn’t exist,” he added. “It not only makes reporters unwilling to be participants, but it keeps them from being good journalists. Was I.F. Stone neutral on Vietnam and Korea, or Mike Quinn on the San Francisco general strike? The point isn’t to be objective and neutral, but to be fair and accurate. Neutrality destroys independent reporting—no one but reporters believes in it.”

Belonging to the union can provide important job protections for journalists who challenge corporate power. But union membership doesn’t automatically lead to better coverage of workers and communities of color, or international stories where U.S. foreign policy demands agreement. “For that, unions need to actively educate their members and appeal for loyalty to the labor movement and struggles in working-class communities. Some of the stories most hostile to workers during recent strikes and organizing drives, were written or aired by union members,” Ringo charged.

“Look at the class origin of reporters and editors. Seventy-five years ago, they were overwhelmingly working-class people. Today they’re largely middle class. Yes, corporations own the newspapers. But if reporters bit and screamed more, they could change a lot. Newspapers have to rely on them to produce the copy. Sure, publishers and editors have a class stance, but so does the average reporter, even if they belong to the Guild.”

Ringo demanded political independence, both to know what side you’re on, but even more important, to give working people what they need to make social change. “We need an analysis of the system in this country that reflects the reality of our lives,” he said.

The media talk about our economic system in black-and-white terms. Communism is dictatorial and repressive. The free enterprise system is the savior of all people. The media says our economic system allows us the freedom to do wonderful things, but there’s no discussion of how this system really works, and its true impact on working people.

I took Ringo’s call to heart. When the United States bombed the headquarters of Serbian television during the Yugoslav war, media workers in other countries voiced outrage.  But the U.S. journalism profession generally remained silent. I wrote a letter to our union newspaper, the Guild Reporter, with his words in my ear.

“We need independent international relationships, based on mutual working-class interests, free from the defense of U.S. foreign policy which characterized so much of labor during the cold war,” I warned.

The Guild has to find ways to support our right to independence from the bias of the corporations we work for, and the efforts by our own government to enforce political conformity. Independence means a culture of solidarity, identifying our common interests with other journalists and workers internationally and here at home.

The letter stirred up the predictable controversy, and I still remember the “Right On!” note I got from Ringo. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and fought the battles that make our own work possible. Ringo’s were pretty broad.