There was nothing Ed Schultz loved more than flying into the midst of a labor struggle that most of the media was missing—or misreporting—to give workers a chance to tell their stories. He loved unions and union members, and he had a deep faith in their ability to touch the hearts and souls of the millions of Americans who listened to his “Straight Talk from the Heartland” radio show and tuned in to watch him on MSNBC’s The Ed Show.
It was a faith that most media personalities lack, perhaps because they don’t come from a working-class background, perhaps because they haven’t spent enough time in places like Fargo or Freeport or Racine or Lorain.
For Ed Schultz, however, this solidarity sensibility ran deep. It inspired the broadcaster who died Thursday at age 64. He acted on it, again and again and again.
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched his 2011 assault on public employees and their unions, thousands of workers marched into the streets of Madison. Ed was on story from the start—initially on the radio and then on MSNBC. But phone interviews and satellite feeds did not satisfy him. Ed wanted to be in the thick of it. Within days, he was in Madison, literally claiming a corner of the Capitol Square and going live night after night.
Thousands of people who could have watched the show on television instead gathered in the streets to watch as we broke down the details of the fight. Democratic and Republican legislators appeared; so did lawyers and union leaders. But Ed was most excited to talk with nurses and firefighters and snowplow drivers. Each night, he turned the microphone over to people who rarely if ever are asked their opinions by cable hosts. A brilliant broadcaster who had made the long journey from conservative talk radio to progressive cable TV, Ed knew instinctively that these working men and women would be serious and factual and illuminating.
They were also grateful.
Someone had finally showed up to tell their story.
In 2012, Ed learned that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s old investment firm, Bain Capital, was outsourcing jobs from Freeport, Illinois. Ed flew into Freeport and put the workers on national television.
Ed did the same thing in Lorain, Ohio, where he explained—with a hand from Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—how failed trade policies were devastating the US steel industry. Prominent political figures from both parties scrambled to get on his MSNBC show. But Ed always found time for laid-off auto workers and for retirees who feared for their pensions.
In 2015, Ed parted company with MSNBC. He eventually ended up on RT, the Russian cable network. It was not so prominent a perch, and not so popular with many longtime viewers and guests—especially as concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election surfaced. Ed took the criticisms in stride, explaining that he had a few more stories to tell about bad trade deals and shuttered plants.
But I will always remember Ed on those frigid winter nights in Madison during the Wisconsin uprising of 2011. After the cameras were turned off, he kept talking to the teachers and the truck drivers as the hour grew late, as the temperature declined. If they had a story to tell, Ed Schultz was listening.