Putting Workers on TV: MSNBC's Chris Hayes on Bringing Labor to Prime Time

As host of All In, a weekday prime-time show on MSNBC, Chris Hayes has emerged as one of the most prominent progressive commentators in the country. Still in his 30s, Hayes earned distinction in the 2000s as a labor and political journalist for magazines such as In These Times and The Nation. Given that labor journalists are an endangered species in the United States, the rise of someone with experience in the field to a platform with wide popular reach is an encouraging development.

This month, I spoke with Hayes about how he approaches workplace issues on his show, about the state of labor journalism, and about how All In interacts with programs such as The Ed Show, hosted by Ed Schultz, another labor-friendly broadcaster.

How do you think the prospects for labor journalism have changed over the past decade?
Labor coverage has shrunk dramatically. Unions have shrunk. I think there has been a new crop of excellent young journalists writing about labor. Sarah Jaffe is really, really good -- as are Mike Elk and Josh Eidelson, to name just three. They are writing about the frontiers of labor.

As the number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements has shrunk, what ends up happening is that the coverage has expanded to look at workers who aren't in unions. I think that is right and appropriate. So I have a lot of faith. There's a lot of really good reporting in the progressive press on workers. It's looking at different kinds emerging models to build worker power that aren't necessarily [based on] an NLRB election, since that process has been rendered completely dysfunctional and impossible.

The idea of a labor beat sounds anachronistic now, doesn't it? But there used to be one at each of the major daily newspapers.
Yeah. I came in at the tail end. I think even by the time I was coming of age that was on the wane. Now it's really gone.

Would you have any recommendations for today's labor journalists trying to elevate their voices above the noise?
I think whether you're doing cable news every night, or you're writing about the NSA, or you're writing about fast food workers striking, the thing is to find the story. Stories are different than topics. Stories are different than issues. Something happening, some new policies -- that's not a story. A story is about people. It's about protagonist and antagonist, about the trajectory of a hero's journey, and about conflict. All of those things. What ends up grabbing us as readers or as viewers is when you find the right story to talk about whatever the underlying injustice is.

Along with Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow, you've covered topics like the bankruptcy in Detroit, the Wisconsin uprisings against Gov. Scott Walker, and the movement to raise the minimum wage. How do you think MSNBC's coverage has affected the wider media landscape, in terms of making issues of concern to working people more central?
I think it's a huge net benefit. And I think Ed Schultz deserves tremendous credit for being a pioneer in this regard. Labor issues are getting more coverage than they've ever gotten before on cable news, first and foremost thanks to Ed Schultz, and then assisted by others of us who've taken up that mantle. I've been covering labor since I was a reporter at In These Times at the age of 24 or 25. When you actually can put workers on television, like we've done a whole host of times, I think that's really powerful.

It's such an uphill battle to drive the conversation. But I have to say -- to use the example of the fast food workers -- we started covering that story in the spring, during maybe our first week on the air. We had some fast food workers on then. This time around, [during the most recent wave of strikes], the workers were on Morning Joe; they were all over Fox; they were on CNN. The McDonald's budget was on the Today show and it was on Colbert. I know the way this industry works: People do look at what other people are covering on TV. So I think we do have an effect when we elevate that kind of stuff.

Your debut as a host of your own prime time show on MSNBC was not without controversy. Some viewers were upset that Ed Schultz's program -- which had a focus on labor issues -- was moved to the weekend. They worried that the network would be less aggressive in speaking to the concerns of working people. How did you handle that type of feedback from viewers?
The decision about how the network is programmed is quite literally made above my pay grade. I came into it after the decision with Ed had already been made. I genuinely was not a party to that. I take seriously people's concern about the uniqueness of Ed's focus on the working class and labor issues. I think we have done a pretty good job of fulfilling that, making sure the voices of workers are front and center. I think that we're putting more working people on prime-time television than anyone else right now.

The thing I've learned more than anything in my first four months on the job is [to appreciate] that old serenity prayer about what you can control and what you can't. The one thing I can kind of control every day is what we put on air between the hours of and eight and nine eastern and whether that meets the standards and vision I have for what we can do with this very precious real estate. Everything outside of that -- what people think about the show, how they react to it, how they react to me, what they think of me -- I genuinely can't control. So I don't try to control it. I try to focus on the work and produce the best work I can produce. And I try to have faith that will ultimately be what makes or breaks me.

Do you see yourself more in a role of illuminating the problems facing our nation, or as highlighting efforts to resist and turn things around?
I think it's a balance of both. That's something we think about. There are different stories that might produce pathos, empathy, anger, rage, sadness, inspiration, or hope. You need to be thinking about combining and mixing those every night. Viewers will get exhausted if it's just an hour of rage, or an hour of stories that are total bummers, or if it's just an hour of bright, inspirational segments.

Hitting those different notes is something we think about all the time -- not just with stories about working people and the economy. It's about making sure there's a mix of stories that have different colors to them in terms of how you emotionally connect. It might be, "That's an outrage. I'm angry about that." Or, "That's really sad." Or, "That is totally inspirational." Or, "That is hilarious." Whatever it is, you need to be attentive so that you are not playing one note.

You have mentioned a decline in labor coverage. At the same time, you seem to be indicating that there is more good labor writing out there today than in years. What do you make of these contradictory trends?
I don't think there is enough [labor journalism]. But the nature of the current media environment is that there's more amazing work being done on more topics than probably ever in the history of journalism. The downside is that it's harder and harder for those things to get traction.

There's a lot of amazing work being done. It's just that there's such a crowded field that things don't have the power they would have if they were on the front page of the Kansas City Star thirty years ago. That's the tradeoff.

--Amy Dean wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Amy is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. You can follow Amy on twitter @amybdean, or she can be reached via www.amybdean.com.