The Common Good
May 2007

One Side to Every Story

by Danny Duncan Collum | May 2007

The mainstream media's blind spot on "free trade."

On the morning of Jan. 8, 2007, I was driving along a narrow, twisting, two-lane highway through rural Kentucky. I'd delivered my oldest son to school. I was still on Christmas break and returning home to work on a book proposal. The newly elected Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown was on the radio talking about "fair trade." It was morning in America, and despite the grey, sleety sky, I was feeling a rosy patriotic glow. Then National Public Radio's Morning Edition co-anchor Steve Inskeep turned to analyst Cokie Roberts for a comment on the Brown interview, and I almost drove into a goat pen.

Naturally, Inskeep framed the issue as a horse-race question. "Is the notion of cracking down on free trade a winning issue for Democrats?" But Roberts brushed such petty considerations aside and turned loose an ideological tirade. "It is in some states and in some districts, but it's a long-term loser," she said. "It puts them essentially on the wrong side of history with globalization." Having declared the spirit of the age, she continued, "Even though labor unions often lose with trade agreements, consumers gain." Roberts signed off with a stern warning to Brown and anyone else who might buck the corporate trade agenda. "Democrats have to be very careful here .…"

Roberts is, of course, the ultimate insider journalist, and her reporting usually repeats conventional Beltway wisdom. But she's not in the habit of issuing Hegelian pronouncements on the tides of history. Corporate globalization, however, is covered by a different set of journalistic rules. When it comes to the supposed benefits of "free trade," virtually all of the mainstream media have, for the past 15 years, shed their customary skepticism, embraced corporate economic orthodoxy, and brooked absolutely no dissent.

As Bill Moyers put it in his Jan. 12, 2007, speech to the National Conference on Media Reform in Memphis, "For over a decade, free trade has hovered over the political system like a biblical commandment striking down anything—trade unions, the environment, indigenous rights, even the constitutional standing of our own laws passed by our elected representatives—that gets in the way of unbridled greed. The broader negative consequences of this agenda, increasingly well-documented by scholars, get virtually no attention in the dominant media."

This has been true ever since "free trade" became a major issue with the debate over the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. Back then the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) studied coverage of NAFTA in The Washington Post and The New York Times for four months at the height of the debate. According to FAIR staffer Jim Naureckas, the group's researchers identified 201 sources quoted by name in news stories about NAFTA and found that only six represented the environmental movement. The two papers quoted not a single representative of the U.S. labor union movement, which led the opposition to the agreement. Fifty-one percent of the sources quoted by the Post and Times were U.S. government representatives (including members of Congress). Among those, 81 percent were pro-NAFTA. Another 11 percent of the sources were foreign government officials, also pro-NAFTA. Corporate spokespersons comprised 13 percent of the papers' sources, and these were 85 percent pro-NAFTA. Only one NAFTA story (in the Times) quoted members of the general public who were likely to be affected by the treaty.

Also in 1993, the Washington Post op-ed page ran 48 pro-NAFTA pieces and only eight against. This gross imbalance in coverage came despite the fact that public opinion ran mostly against the treaty and the ratification vote in Congress was close.

Little has changed as the globalization era has worn on. In April 2001, FAIR revisited "free trade" coverage in a study authored by Rachel Coen during negotiations on (and demonstrations against) the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement (FTAA). Even after the Seattle protests of 1999 made corporate globalization a widely recognized issue, FAIR found that the bias of mainstream op-ed pages had changed very little. A search of the news database Nexis reported 25 opinion pieces essentially in favor of the FTAA and only nine opposing it, with four taking an ambivalent view. Daily newspaper editorials were unanimous: 34 to 0 in favor of the FTAA.

In 2001, FAIR again found "free trade" news stories to be largely devoid of critical voices. Typical, Coen wrote, was a New York Times article noting that "Mr. Bush and several other leaders now eagerly refer to the hemispheric trade proposal as an extension of NAFTA, which has already produced results." The article failed to explain what kind of results NAFTA had delivered, despite the fact that a few days earlier the Economic Policy Institute had released a report demonstrating that, after seven years, NAFTA had produced "a continent-wide pattern of stagnant worker incomes, lost job opportunities, increased insecurity, and rising inequality." FAIR found that only five newspaper stories even mentioned the EPI study.

What's behind this persistent, systematic bias in media coverage of trade issues? Sojourners put that question to Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of the blog "Beat the Press," which analyzes media coverage of economic issues. "The reason that trade reporting is so distorted," Baker said, "is that there is a huge class issue involved. While the owners of the media are generally among the group that has benefited hugely from the current path of globalization, most reporters and their friends and family also fall into this group. They are from the class of professionals that can get cheaper cars, clothes, restaurant meals, and household help because of this pattern of globalization."

Baker also noted that so far, higher-paid professional service workers have been protected from the downward pressures of globalization. "The reporters do not have to compete against low-paid workers in the developing world like autoworkers or textile workers do," he said. "It would be illegal for a newspaper or television station to replace their staff with a group of smart reporters from India who would probably do a better job and work for half the wages. However, the whole point of the current path of globalization is to make it as easy as possible for Wal-Mart to replace U.S.-made goods with low-cost goods from China."

Finally, there is the simple matter of human nature. As Baker put it, "Since reporters are among the winners, they want to believe that it is because of their talent and hard work, not because the deck was rigged in their favor. Therefore, they don't seek out anyone as a source for their stories who will claim that the deck was rigged."

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz confessed to much the same bias when he told The Washington Monthly, "Most journalists don't hobnob with the sort of people who might lose their jobs under a trade agreement."

When reporters produce news stories on a complex subject, they usually turn to policy experts for clarifying comments. When the subject is trade, the experts are often economists. And most economists, academic and otherwise, are, as Baker put it, "almost religious fanatics in support of the current path of globalization." Baker also pointed out that as an economist, he is called with some frequency by mainstream media outlets seeking comments on issues such as Social Security and the housing market. "I have a pretty good track record on a number of these topics," Baker said. "For instance, I was warning about the stock bubble from 1997 and the housing bubble from 2002." Despite his demonstrated economic expertise and his ability to give clear, pithy quotes, Baker said, "I am never asked about my views on trade and globalization."

Paul Krugman is an academic economist at Princeton who, as a New York Times columnist, has become a popular communicator and a powerful voice warning, among other things, about the danger of American's growing economic inequality. But he falls right in line on "free trade." In 2001, he wrote about anti-globalization protests at the Summit of the Americas, "Many of the people inside that chain-link fence [the policy-makers] are sincerely trying to help the world's poor. And the people outside the fence [the protesters], whatever their intentions, are doing their best to make the poor even poorer."

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, is the most unabashedly partisan proponent of corporate globalization in all of the mainstream media. And from his lofty and influential perch, he is able to influence the agenda across the media landscape. Friedman's globalist vision was summarized in his book The World is Flat, which contends that corporate globalization is creating a world in which hierarchies among nations, and within enterprises, are being replaced by free-flowing peer-to-peer relationships. Friedman may come to regret that metaphor if, like the original "flat-earthers," he continues to cling to it despite all evidence. According to media critic Norman Solomon, Friedman admitted in a CNBC interview with Tim Russert last July that he wrote a column in support of the Central American Free Trade Agreement without even knowing what was in the treaty. "I just knew two words," Friedman said. "Free trade."

But maybe Friedman's on to something, because when it comes to "free trade," the facts don't seem to matter that much. Last year, on April 10, The New York Times devoted half of its op-ed page to an article titled "Globalizing Good Government" by two Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas employees, Richard Fisher and Michael Cox. According to FAIR, the article—and its accompanying charts—claimed to demonstrate that "more globalized" nations do better than the "less globalized" on measures ranging from average inflation to the rule of law. But, FAIR noted, the article and its supporting data left out "one obvious measure of economic health, the economic growth rate."

The Times piece argued that "the more globalized nations tend to pursue policies that achieve faster economic growth," while "the least globalized countries are prone to policies that interfere with markets and lead to stagnation, inflation and diminished competitiveness." But according to statistics from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, countries in the "most globalized" group (including the U.S., Canada, Australia, several European countries, and Singapore) had an average growth rate of 3.6 percent. Meanwhile, the countries Fisher and Cox classified as "least globalized" (including China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Venezuela) had an average growth rate of 6.3 percent.

AN ACQUAINTANCE OF mine who used to work at a Gannett-owned newspaper unfailingly refers to the chain's flagship, USA Today, as "Corporate America's Newspaper." And any doubt about the accuracy of that label was dispelled in a Jan. 15, 2007, article by USA Today economics reporter David Lynch. Like Cokie Roberts' NPR analysis the week before, Lynch's news story sounded an undisguised ideological alarm at the swelling "fair trade" tide.

"At home and abroad," Lynch began, "globalization is under increasing stress. From Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez announced plans last week to nationalize critical industries, to Thailand, which has imposed new controls on foreign capital, countries are embracing long-discredited economic strategies" [emphasis added]. In his "Beat the Press" blog commenting on this article, Dean Baker noted that, especially in the case of capital controls, it's hard to call them a "discredited strategy" when they are used by such fast-growing countries as China and India, among many others.

But Lynch ranted on. "The backsliding overseas comes as a new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill … is getting down to work. Many of the new Democratic lawmakers campaigned on so-called fair-trade platforms and are deeply skeptical of the free-trade strategies pursued by Republican and Democratic presidents alike for a generation." The term "backsliding" is, of course, an unattributed value judgment, but note especially that, to USA Today, fair trade is "so-called" while free trade gets no qualifier.

Then Lynch remembers the rules of reporting and turns to an expert for support. He finds a Harvard Business School professor who will say, "The idea of globalization and continued societal embrace of openness seems to be in a very deep sense of crisis." Here we should note the common conflation of corporate economic globalization with the warm and fuzzy "embrace of openness." Only Neanderthals such as Lou Dobbs or Pat Buchanan (the only anti-globalization voices regularly heard in the mainstream media) could possibly stand against "openness."

Then American voters and ungrateful Third World types come in for a real scolding. "The ebbing enthusiasm for additional integration is particularly noteworthy," Lynch claims, "coming after four consecutive years of global economic expansion .… That's what makes the pervasive gripes over globalization—the free flow of goods, services, and capital across national borders—so striking." I am not making this up. He really said "gripes." And he really defined globalization without reference to the movement of jobs.

If anyone doubts the importance of international trade policy, and the importance that U.S. elites attach to continuing the "free trade" path, they only need to look at this unprecedented pattern of deliberate distortion in the corporate media. From fall 2002 to summer 2003, as the U.S. rushed to war in Iraq, the mainstream media showed a similar obliviousness to facts and a lack of critical inquiry. But in that case, when the American people turned against the war, the media did, too. "Free trade" is different. When it comes to trade policy, the customer is not right.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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