A nationwide flood of complaints to C-SPAN wasn't what it seemed

C-SPAN has occasionally been subjected to organized call-in campaigns. (Getty Images)

The official topics were the debt limit, energy policy and the end of federal covid relief funding, but that's not what many people wanted to talk about on C-SPAN's morning call-in program this week.

They wanted to complain about C-SPAN - specifically, about one of its board members and his connection to a labor dispute at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which was not exactly the stuff of national headlines.

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"The callers keep missing the point," a woman introduced as Linda from Connecticut complained on Tuesday. "It's not about Joe Biden. It's not about Republicans in Congress. I don't know why so many of you are ignoring the fact that in Pittsburgh, C-SPAN board member Allan Block is trying to bust a newspaper union."

By Wednesday, word of Block's affairs seemed to have spread to Arkansas. "Rich people don't have your best interest in mind, they never do," said a caller introduced as Patricia. "Especially not union-buster Allan Block, who is on your board of directors and shouldn't be."

On it went throughout the week. On Thursday morning alone, nearly a dozen callers claiming to live in as many different states made it on to the "Washington Journal" program. Using remarkably similar epithets, they awkwardly segued from topics as varied as federal pandemic guidelines and the Chinese spy balloon to their singular focus: Allan Block, and what one caller described as his long "tentacles."

Host Pedro Echevarria frequently protested that the board member and his business in Pennsylvania had nothing to do with C-SPAN's programming or the news of the day, but to little avail. What one nonplussed caller from Kansas termed "these Allan Block people" kept flooding the lines.

The outrage was not entirely genuine.

The calls were part of a coordinated campaign by a labor union, the NewsGuild, to call attention to Block, a C-SPAN board member for more than three decades, and his role in resisting a strike against the Post-Gazette, which his family-owned company publishes.

A union representative acknowledged in an interview that the callers - a mix of striking workers from several unions at the Post-Gazette, plus "volunteers" - misrepresented their real names and where they were calling from. The names and states were changed because "they wanted to raise these important issues and were afraid C-SPAN would start screening out calls from Pennsylvania if they did not," she said.

After a long-running series of labor issues and editorial disputes, five unions at the Post-Gazette went on strike in October, chiefly over a rollback of health insurance benefits. The NewsGuild, which represents newsroom employees, has launched an all-out PR campaign against Block and his company, Block Communications of Toledo.

Given Block's involvement with C-SPAN, that makes the network a target for the union, too. Block, whose company owns cable TV systems that carry C-SPAN's three channels, has been a C-SPAN board member since 1991.

C-SPAN has occasionally been subjected to organized call-in campaigns, but arguably none as relentless as the NewsGuild's. The calls about Block came all week, interrupting whatever policy discussion was underway on the air.

NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss said the call-in campaign was a tool to raise awareness of the strike and to hold C-SPAN and Block accountable for their association. He said the effort would continue until the network removes Block from its board, although no more calls to C-SPAN were immediately planned.

"The question for C-SPAN is, why does it have someone on its board who willfully violated federal law?" he said, referring to a National Labor Relations Board judge's ruling last month that the company had failed to bargain in good faith and had illegally imposed working conditions.

Block holds no power over the network's programming as a board member - something C-SPAN hosts have been at pains to tell upset callers over and over.

"No C-SPAN board member or their companies has a say in C-SPAN content, a long-held principle which the board codified in the company's corporate bylaw," network spokesman Howard Mortman said in a statement. By the same token, he said, C-SPAN doesn't get involved in the corporate affairs of its board members.

A Post-Gazette spokesperson declined to comment. Block Communications didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

No matter. The C-SPAN callers have plenty of them.

After "Arthur from New Jersey" ranted about Block on Tuesday, host John McArdle tried to bring the conversation back around.

"Do you want to talk about oil and gas?" McArdle asked. "That's our topic for the moment."

"No, thank you!" Arthur said cheerfully, and hung up.

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