By Michael Farquharson (2011)
Analysis of the Bombing of ‘The Los Angeles Times’
The newspaper article that I have chosen to analyse is The Los Angeles Times article entitled ‘Burning Words of the Press on the Bombing of “The Times”.’ The bombing was perpetrated on October 1 1910, by labour union activists angry with the Times and its President for supporting an “open-shop” policy throughout the city, which will be elaborated further later in the essay. The attack resulted in a substantial amount of property damage and the death of 21 people, with many others injured (Rayback 1964: 220). This report is especially interesting as it is a Times article on the bombing of its own building. The article is an amalgamation of other press articles that have been hand-picked by the Times to appear under the encompassing headline. The article was published only 15 days after the attacks, and ‘since a fellow newspaper had been damaged, [the press] led the attack’ (Renshaw 1967: 123) on the suspected culprits; the labour unions. As it was an attack on the newspaper itself, the report has a severely biased rhetoric which is very evident throughout. The attackers were still unknown at this point and so therefore speculation is rife, with most of the accusations directed resolutely and in hindsight, accurately, towards the labour unions. All of the press in the article support the Times and have seemingly been selected for their staunch tone and their unwavering language of fraternity with a fellow newspaper. There is a plethora of controversial language in the articles, including calling the act a ‘crime against all humanity’ (The Los Angeles Times 1910: VI6) and claiming that it was ‘an act of criminal frenzy… the act of the devil rather than that of a human being’ (Ibid: VI6). We must therefore be cautious in examining the incident purely through the article, and drawing analysis of the incident also from more objective information through other secondary sources by academics.
The articles are vehemently anti-union, and this is highlighted by the fact that the reports do not describe the plight of the perpetrators, nor their aims or objectives, they just emphasise their support for the Times and deplore the act passionately. The articles identify leaders of some of the union organisations as instigators of the violence due to the apparent culture within the organisations of ‘tyranny and aggression’ (Ibid: VI6). The articles literally demonise the labour unions with the rhetoric they use, pitting them against the Times in a good vs. evil scenario which further emphasises to the reader how they should be reading the article. Despite the article being extremely biased and opinionated due to the special nature of the attack on its own organisation, it is extremely useful and interesting to analyse the content with the aim of understanding what the general sentiment of the conservative press to the incident was at the time. It also will be a useful task to compare the sensationalism in the press at the time of the incident with academic secondary sources that have been written with hindsight and objectivity about the bombing. This essay will first look at the incident itself, with special attention being paid to the open-shop and closed-shop divide that was a major cause of the bombing. We will also determine what form of political violence that the incident falls under, and whether violence was legitimate in order to further the terrorists’ cause. The essay will then move on to further analysis of the bombing, with consideration being paid to how it was handled by the authorities at the time and how successful the plot was in achieving its intended outcomes. The essay will then continue with a final look at how the press depicted the incident and how it was all framed within an anarchistic terrorist environment of the time. It will then conclude with a summary of the main points and final observations on the incident as a whole.
The history of the conflict between organised labour unions and employer conglomerates in the United States is a long and complicated one and it would be impossible to even get close to describing all the events that ultimately led to the bombing of the Times. But an important concept that is crucial in understanding the incident and why it happened was the divide between open-shop and closed-shop employment policies. An open-shop policy is one that doesn’t require workers to be unionised in an industry. In Los Angeles at the time there was a campaign to ensure that Los Angeles remained an open-shop city by the powerful anti-union organisation, the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association which was heavily involved with the Times and its President General Harrison Gray Otis (Taft 1964: 222). In fact, the Times, under the leadership of Otis ‘almost single handed[ly] kept Los Angeles an open-shop town’ (The Los Angeles Times 1910: VI6). In some cases in the city, the open-shop policy was so extremely anti-union that employers even ‘denied employment to known union men’ (Taft 1964: 222).The opposite of an open-shop policy is ‘the “closed shop,” indicating, in the ordinary acceptance of the term, that in which union conditions prevail throughout, and in which none but union men are employed’ (Hibbard 1905: 178). This is the system that the large unions preferred because when all workers are unionised, they can hold their employers to ransom and have huge negotiating powers. The war between the unions and the employers that favoured open-shop policies was bitter and divisive, and ultimately culminated in the violent actions of October 1 1910.
Was the bombing necessary in order to achieve the perpetrators’ end-goals? In answering this question, the nature of the terrorist act must first be defined. In this case, the perpetrators are sub-national actors that were affiliated to unions that wanted to change the existing system so they can therefore be described as ‘revolutionary dissident terroris[ts]’ (Martin 2006: 157). This definition is a suitable one because the act was committed to further a wider struggle for workers rights that was aimed at abolishing the current system to be more in favour of workers than employers. The preamble of the manifesto of the Industrial Workers of the World describes the struggle as the:
‘historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for every-day struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old’ (Renshaw 1967: frontispiece).
The bombers were not members of the IWW directly but the union was more of an umbrella organisation and general ideology for militant labour activists. They were also very involved in protesting the innocence of the bombers and campaigning to free them following their arrest (Renshaw 1967: 125). Although advocating terrorism is not explicitly mentioned, the emotive language and militantly suggestive rhetoric in the preamble led to the general opinion that the ‘IWW was widely believed to advocate dynamiting’ (Ibid: 125). This preamble therefore fits perfectly into Martin’s description that the perpetrators were revolutionary dissident terrorists, as their ideology advocated abolishing the current system and had clear objectives for what was to come after the destruction of the system (Martin 2006: 157).
To ask whether it was a legitimate method to further their aims and objectives, we need to look at the contextual environment in which the act was perpetrated. Martha Crenshaw in her 1981 article, The Causes of Terrorism, acknowledges that, ‘The observation that terrorism is a weapon of the weak is hackneyed but apt. At least when initially adopted, terrorism is the strategy of a minority that by its own judgment lacks other means’ (Crenshaw 1981: 387). This statement is fitting to this example of terrorism, as described before, the unions in Los Angeles were being squeezed by the employer conglomerates that were making sure that Los Angeles remained an open-shop town. The Iron-Workers Union to which the McNamara brothers who committed the act were affiliated, were indeed seemingly in a compromised situation at the time. By 1907 the union was considerably weakened from the allocation of subcontracts to open-shop only contractors, blacklisting and industrial espionage (Rayback 1964: 220). As a result, ‘it resorted to terror and dynamite’ (Ibid: 220) as an option of last-resort. We can also turn to Martin for an explanation of why revolutionary dissident terrorists commit the actions they do because, ‘as a practical matter, revolutionary dissidents are often outnumbered and outgunned by the established order’ (Martin 2006: 157). This certainly seems to be the case in this instance, as the trade unions were acting in ‘desperation’ and were ‘reeling’ from the tactics used by the powerful employer conglomerates (Rayback 1964: 220).
As to whether this act was an act of terrorism, we will take the U.S. State Department definition of terrorism, as it was an act perpetrated on U.S. soil. Terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” (U.S. State Department, 1997 cited in Martin, 2006: 48). Taking this definition, the act in question is a match for the U.S. State Department’s definition of terrorism, and so therefore was right to have been treated as such within U.S. borders. The obvious limitation to this definition is that it is a modern definition of terrorism, so we will also look at an earlier definition by the League of Nations in 1937; ‘[terrorism is] all criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public’ (League of Nations Convention, 1937 cited in Siegel, 2009: 328). This definition also confirms the classification of the act as an act of terrorism, and since there is no universal definition of terrorism, we will take these two definitions as suitable evidence to describe this incident as an act of terrorism.
Now we will turn to the response by the authorities to the attack and the subsequent aftermath of the bombing. The article and secondary sources indicate that there is not a consensus on what caused the explosion. The President of the International Typographical Union was ‘convinced the explosion was caused by faulty gas mains and due entirely to unsanitary condition of The Times plant’ (The Los Angeles Times 1910: VI6). However, a slew of evidence was discovered against the bombers and so therefore we can assume that the unions at the time were trying to dissociate from the act, as they witnessed the ‘wave of hysteria swe[eping] the nation’ (Rayback 1964: 221) over the bombing. Police found dynamite at the headquarters of the Structural Iron-Workers Union and also at a farm nearby, rented by the secretary-treasurer of the union, Joseph J. McNamara. He was subsequently arrested along with his younger brother James, who was a member of the Typographical union, and another co-conspirator Ortie McManigal (Renshaw 1967: 122). James received a life sentence and his brother Joseph received a less harsh sentence (Rayback 1964: 221) However, the case did not end there. McManigal exposed other members of the Iron-Workers Union in a wider conspiracy that resulted in 38 members being found guilty of plotting to transport explosives (Ibid: 221). This gives further evidence that the bombing was clandestinely planned and ‘premeditated’ in accordance with the State Department definition of terrorism given earlier. If we are to assume that the objective of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building was to further the advancement of closed-shop enterprises in the city of Los Angeles, then the operation failed. Not only did Los Angeles remain an open-shop city but the bombing, ‘reinforced the open shop advocates’ contention that the closed shop was an un-American institution by emphasizing the point that labor unions which secured a closed shop used their power in a manner contrary to public interest’ (Ibid: 221). The act had the complete opposite effect of its purpose, actually furthering anti-union sentiment rather than creating sympathy for their cause.
After having looked at the incident through more objective sources, we will now return to the press reports about the incident in the article, explaining how they misrepresented information and are conceptually misleading in their definition of the terrorists. The first inaccurate proclamation in the article is the labelling of the suspected union terrorists as ‘anarchists’ (The Los Angeles Times 1910: VI6). This is a misrepresentation of these labour union terrorists because as we described before, the labour unions had a reasonably coherent plan for what came after the system they wanted to destroy, it was not just ‘revolution for the sake of revolution’ (Martin 2006: 158). According to Martin, anarchists of the time ‘adapted basic nihilist philosophy to [their] activism’ (Ibid: 158) and so therefore, describing these terrorists as anarchists by the press was fallacious. One reason the press might have described the terrorists as such might have been the “Anarchist Wave” of terrorism that existed at the time (Rapoport 2002). The conceptual confusion and mislabelling of the terrorists may have therefore just been a mistake by the press because of the nature of the terrorist activity of the period. It also might have been a deliberate mislabelling technique to further sensationalise the anti-union message in the article that would appeal to readers’ presupposed negative sensibilities of anarchism as a concept at the time. This pejorative association with the word anarchism at the time can be show with the incorrect grouping of, ‘the assassination of President McKinley, the recent attempt on the life of Mayor Gaynor and the destruction of the Times property [as all] belong[ing] in the same category’ (The Los Angeles Times 1910: VI6). This combining of all these acts under the umbrella term of anarchism is a ‘verbal slippage’ (Vincent 1995: 114) on the part of the press because of their possible misconceptions of anarchism. The press made the mistake of equating the chaos and disorder of the bombing with the term anarchism, which is a confusion of speech which Vincent argues anarchists would object to (Ibid: 114). It was a mistake for the press to associate the anarchistic motivations that inspired McKinley’s assassin, and the motivations of the labour union terrorists who destroyed the Times building because their ideologies and motivations were completely different.
The bombing of the Times was framed within a time of increased awareness of terrorist behaviour, especially that of anarchists. The pejorative meaning attached to the word ‘anarchist’ in the press article was typical of the time as the word ‘anarchy [was and is] usually equated with chaos and disorder; and in the popular imagination anarchists are not uncommonly seen as bomb-toting terrorists’ (Heywood 1998: 186). The sensationalist news article that reported the incident, although heavily biased, is an interesting example of how the media perceived and reported the actions especially as they misrepresented the terrorists as anarchists. This style of reporting and ‘news triage’ (Martin 2006: 391) of the period would have certainly added to the ‘anti-Red sentiment’ (Renshaw 1967: 125) that endured in Los Angeles after the trial of the bombers. The news triage is a concept described by Martin as a selection process by the press over what news they cover and how they cover it (Martin 2006: 391). The article we looked at was much more subjective and sensationalist than most mass media of today, therefore the processing of the incident by the readers will have undoubtedly been affected because the news triage is a ‘critical element in the audience’s analysis of a particular terrorist environment’ (Ibid: 391-392). This can be shown through the equating of leftist movements and anarchist violence into one bracket, described by the media and subsequently interpreted by the public as a general anti-state movement that was presented under one pejorative term, ‘anarchism’.
To conclude, the bombing of the Times was an attempt by an exasperated labour union effort to transform Los Angeles into a closed-shop town. However, in their efforts to change the system, the McNamara’s actions only ensured that ‘Los Angeles continued to be known as the open-shop city’ (Foner 1999: 29). The media reaction to the bombing also bolstered an already negative public opinion of the labour unions as ‘un-American… and insidious institution[s]’ (Rayback 1964: 221). The incident was a perfect example of asymmetric warfare as the labour unions used terrorism because they were in a desperate situation and used dynamite as a weapon of last-resort (Ibid: 220). Finally, the article importantly highlights how powerful the role of the media is, and how it can misidentify ideological concepts, which can lead to a misinformed public that will have warped perceptions of the terrorist environment.
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