Take two pills and stop thinking clearly: Fox 9 News on the nurses’ strike


I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. Take Tuesday night, for example.

We turned out the lights about 11:30 p.m. Around 2 a.m. still not having succeeded in drowsing off, I got up and moved to the chaise lounge in the living room. There I woke up about 4 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep until around 7 a.m.

My bout of insomnia did give me the opportunity to tune into one of the early, early, early morning news shows – the 4:30 a.m. newscast on Fox 9. For some reason Fox 9 claims its is the only local news show on at this time. I don’t believe that’s strictly true. But no matter. Stretching the truth is probably required by the Fox affiliate contract.

I have no idea who watches news regularly at such an ungodly hour – 4:30 a.m. Night watchmen. Technicians like those at the sleep clinic where I was a patient recently. Family farmers eating breakfast before milking the cows.

And, I suppose, hospital nurses taking a break near the end of a night shift.

If there were any nurses tuned in to the unbearably chipper, air-brushed crew delivering the news on Fox 9, they would have been treated near the top of the hour to a fairly lengthy (by TV news standards) “report” on the impending one-day nurses strike scheduled to take place tomorrow.

Organized by the Minnesota Nurses Association, the strike involves some 12,000 nurses at six metro hospitals and is being called because of an inability to reach an accord over a couple of key sticking points, one of the most important of which is staffing requirements. These are contractual agreements governing minimum ratios of nurse-to-patient coverage on any given  shift. The other key point of contention is the hospitals’ proposed 33 percent reduction in their employer contributions to the unionized nurses’ pension fund.

I’m not a nurse (thank your lucky stars, patients!), related to any nurses, nor  – as the by-now tiresome phrase has it – do I have a dog in this fight. But what I did find curious about the Fox 9 report – and which I’m sure members of the MNA probably would have found curious, too – was that while Fox 9 for some reason took the time and trouble to ship a talking head out to Edina to do a standup in front of Southdale Fairview in the pre-dawn gloaming, the station did not quote anyone from the MNA, cite any of the arguments the MNA is making about the need for higher levels of staffing at area hospitals or why the proposed pension fund cutback was unacceptable, or, indeed, interview any nurse who will be involved in the strike.

It did, however, relay in some detail information from anonymous hospital spokespeople about the pace of efforts to register out-of-state nurses to come in and staff wards during the strike – that is to say, to recruit a small army of replacement workers whom Fox 9 declined to refer to by the once-popular epithet, “scabs.”

The report also included a taped interview with an administrator at Hennepin County Medical Center, which will not be affected by the strike, about the anticipated surge in patients who will be directed to HCMC during the walkout. The report relayed as well the claim by hospitals that even after their proposed cut to pension fund contributions, “a nurse” with 25-years of experience could receive up to $3,000 a month upon retiring.

The report did not specify whether this was an average monthly pension enjoyed by said-retiree, or one that might be received by nurses who specialize and therefore earn higher annual incomes, or what. Just that figure of $3,000 per month.

The clear intent was to make the jaws of average viewers drop at this munificent amount of money.  Imagine that!, we were asked to respond — 3,000 bucks a month for a trained professional who has worked a mere 25 years of continuous service! That’s a whooping $36,000 — a year! With payoffs like that, why aren’t more hedge-fund managers abandoning Wall Street and flocking to nursing programs at our local community colleges?

Lastly, the Fox 9 report featured a taped interview with some guy with a nasty cut over his left eye who averred that patients like him – he looked to be on his way home from an emergency room – might be inconvenienced by the strike. Most of the report, in fact, dwelled on that topic, a version of the default focus of many stories in America’s mainstream news media. How consumers will be affected by the, you name it, nurses strike, Gulf of Mexico oil spill, volcano in Iceland, rising cost of arugula.

What made the Fox 9 report even more curious was that, as the Daily Planet’s managing editor, Mary Turck, noted in Wednesday’s News Day, at 1 p.m., Tuesday afternoon the Minnesota Nurses Association held a press conference, during which it issued a press release marshalling its arguments for demanding higher staffing levels. What’s more, the press conference featured actual nurses who could have been featured in a taped interview on the Fox 9 morning news, just like that.

As I said, I’m not an expert on staffing levels, but at the very least the press release (http://mnablog.com/2010/06/07/minnesota-nurses-press-release-on-unsafe-staffing/) makes for pretty gut-wrenching reading, a litany of patient care disasters at hospitals right here in Minnesota.

The MNA claims that these disasters occurred because of inadequate staffing levels. Whether that’s true or not, I am in no position to say. What I am in a position to say is that the press release features precisely the kind of “if it bleeds, it leads” stories – some of them featuring children and infants, for God’s sakes – that local TV news outlets tend to go for like a baleen whale scooping up krill.

Interestingly enough, last weekend I happened to have a lively though respectful discussion about the impending nurses’ strike with someone who works in hospital administration. I told her that, at least from my perspective, it looks to me as if part of what is at work in this dispute is an almost classic case of union-busting.

She was candid enough to admit her belief that union-busting is, indeed, one of the objectives motivating local hospitals to dig in their heels. But the main reason, she argued, is economic. Local hospitals are under the financial gun. Given bottom-line realities, the nurses’ demands are simply “unrealistic.”

If so, I responded, then isn’t the real problem  not that the nurses’ demands are unrealistic, but that we are willing to tolerate a health-care system so out of touch with reality that, instead of demanding that its practitioners (and administrators) be compensated fairly – in light of their training and workload – and its patients be provided levels of care consistent with optimum outcomes, it pits hospitals versus nurses in a nasty race to the bottom?

In return, my acquaintance was gracious and enlightened enough to concede that yes, ultimately, that may very well be the problem, but that for now, neither Minnesota nurses nor Minnesota hospitals are in a position to do anything about it. All they can do is throw themselves into the rat race.

Unfortunately, the kind of one-sided yet “objective” approach to the nurses strike story taken by Fox 9 News was not an anomaly, not the exception that proves the rule. It was very much the norm – the norm of a mainstream news media completely, albeit perhaps unwittingly, complicit in propagandizing the false consciousness necessary for us to accept a corrupt, inequitable and ultimately unsustainable political economy that lavishes power and money on the very few – less than 1 percent of the population – at the expense of the many.

This is a system that requires for its survival that the 99 percent of us living on five figure incomes be blinded to our own class interests and willingly side with plutocrats against our fellow workers.  A system that, for instance, richly rewards the shareholders and top management of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies while leaving the rest of us – nurses, doctors, patients, hospital administrators – squabbling over the crumbs. A system whose inhumane, corporatist values are unthinkingly parroted by the mainstream news media. This system is not only the best of all possible systems, according to the media. It is the only system possible!

The reality of that system, its oppressive role in immiserating most of us – not just here in the United States, but almost everywhere in world – and how its predatory greed manages each and every day to misallocate resources required to meet even the most primal needs of ordinary people, like the right to health care or to be compensated fairly for one’s work delivering health care —

Now, that’s a story I’d like to see the Fox 9 morning news crew sink its capped teeth into!