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Early Labor Movement Strike Violence, the Press, and the Upton Sinclair Hypothesis

In: Journal of Labor and Society
Authors:
Larry W. IsaacDepartment of Sociology, Vanderbilt University, 201 Garland Hall, Nashville, TN 37235-1811, USA, Corresponding author, e-mail: Larry.isaac@vanderbilt.edu

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Jonathan S. ColeyDepartment of Sociology, Oklahoma State University, 460 Social Sciences & Humanities, Stillwater, OK, 74078-4062, USA, Jonathan.s.coley@okstate.edu

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Hannah IngersollDepartment of Sociology, Vanderbilt University, 201 Garland Hall, Nashville, TN 37235-1811, USA, Hannah.ingersoll@vanderbilt.edu

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Abstract

During the labor movement’s formative years, Upton Sinclair was among the most vehement critics of the press for, as he claimed, a wide variety of “capitalist corruptions.” The authors examine one of Sinclair’s central charges in his The Brass Check, the first major book-length criticism of the U.S. corporate press: When strikers are violent, they get reported on the wire services; when they are not violent, they are ignored by the wires and thus the papers. This press selection process serves to create in public consciousness a strong association between strikes and violence. Focusing on coverage by the New York Sun and New York Times for fourteen major strikes spanning the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, evidence suggests that Sinclair’s claim was, with some qualification, generally correct. The authors discuss implications of negative press as “soft repression” during the formative years of the labor movement and prior to journalism’s major moves at professionalization.

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