The argument that television is unnecessarily rough on big business has always had a central flaw: who do people think owns television--small business? In an attempt to give big labor's side of the story, and to help rectify union image problems--the ring around the blue collar--the AFL-CIO has commissioned "America Works," a quietly biased public affairs program that premieres in this market at 8 tomorrow night on Channel 20.
Subjects to be covered on the weekly syndicated half hour include job retraining, voter registration and pay equity for female workers. The first program deals with plant closings, responsible for 215,000 layoffs last year, and focuses on the shutdown of an International Harvester truck manufacturing plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., that resulted in 10,000 layoffs and boosted the community's unemployment rate to 15 percent.
The first half of the program is a mini-documentary about Phil Ginder, a labor activist described as "a typical victim of a plant closing--too young to retire, too old to start over." Unfortunately, Ginder seems to be one of the least charismatic galvanizers ever profiled on a TV screen; he makes Lech Walesa look like a veritable thunderbolt.
Although the Fort Wayne report was produced to avoid the "talking head" syndrome, it's flat and antiseptic, like something one would see in a civics classroom, whereas the actual talking head segment, which comes later, is livelier and more substantial. Host Marie Torre moderates a fairly feisty argument about whether government regulation should be invoked to discourage plant closings, with Barry Bluestone, a Boston College economics professor, taking the pro-labor side and Richard Rahn of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce arguing on behalf of management.
Although the program makes an attempt at balance, Bluestone is by far the more effective debater. Rahn sounds less than compassionate when he says "every plant that is ever built is eventually going to be shut down" and less than credible when he proclaims, "Businessmen are rational individuals" (oh, the exceptions to the rule!).
Torre is a tough, skillful moderator. She is less successful during the stand-up portions of the program, when she stares into the camera reading script. Her tone is too severe and her eye contact too intense. But then, Marie Torre has won a certain unassailability; in 1959 she became the first journalist ever to go to jail for refusing to reveal a source. A formidable professional indeed.
The AFL-CIO pays stations to run the program and lets them sell a certain amount of commercial time within it. It also includes a commercial or two of its own, including, on the first program, one called "Union Card" that features people in various walks of life declaring their allegiance to unions. One of them, surely the most notable, is Redskin superstar John Riggins, who is discovered in the locker room saying, "Here's my union card. I wouldn't go to work without it."
Those 30 seconds may deliver the message more effectively than the program itself, but for a project underwritten by a bureaucracy, and thus one that doubtless had to go through the usual obstacle course of approvals and revisions before reaching the air, "America Works" works.