Media and Trade: A Love Story
On the final day of the Seattle demonstrations this past December, Peter Jennings of ABC's World News Tonight introduced the story with a sly aside: "The thousands of demonstrators will go home or on to some other venue, where they'll try to generate attention for whatever cause that moves them." His tone reflected the media's general puzzlement. Where did these odd creatures come from? And good riddance to them.
Six months later, at the time of the China-WTO vote, the media's puzzlement over "free trade" opponents had hardened into disdain, and stories that supported the opponents' arguments were hard to find. It wasn't until the day after the House vote that the Wall Street Journal reported in a lead story that the China-WTO deal is important to US companies as an investment agreement that lets them move more factories into China, not as a boost for made-in-USA exports. "If the strategic plans of American companies are anything to go by, U.S. exports aren't the big trade story here," the article said. This is the very point that trade critics like Alan Tonelson of the US Business and Industry Council had been making--in a media vacuum--for weeks.
"I'm seeing a huge change in the media," said Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, whose May report on horrendous factory conditions in China received almost no coverage despite his having established a strong track record for accuracy with the Kathie Lee Gifford story. "We've never had such a hard time. There was enormous self-censorship on this China vote; the [New York] Times and the [Washington] Post turned themselves into cheerleaders. I sense there is a certain fear about the issues raised by Seattle--a feeling in the media that if we go down that road, it can open up some real dangerous doors."
One-sided coverage of globalization is not new, of course, but what's striking is how the best and brightest have mobilized, post-Seattle, to support the corporate line. Like governing elites in general, the media have embraced the mantras of globalization as the new sustaining ideology for America's role in the world--better than the cold war because nobody's getting shot and lots of people are made wealthier. Seattle scared them, more deeply than many of us at first appreciated. Seattle forced uncomfortable facts--the empirical contradictions--into a public discussion that has long been confined to ideological abstractions. The alarmed reaction may be read as a backhanded compliment to the movement, but the media also have the power to poison the political atmosphere and block out an honest debate that's grounded in facts. That direction is potentially dangerous because if there is no space for dissenting views, the conflicts may well drift into irrationality and rage (at which point, those in power will accuse dissenters of extremism--but, hey, that accusation has already been made).
What's especially disturbing is how the New York Times--bell cow for the media herd and indisputably the best newspaper in the country--has taken the lead in trying to snuff out dissent. The Times has always spoken for the establishment and generally scorned rabble newcomers (a century ago, during the last Gilded Age, the Times expressed similarly harsh contempt for Populist reformers). Yet in recent years, the newspaper has brilliantly enriched its coverage and developed bold ways of opening up neglected issues that aren't in the news but should be. On this subject, its mind is closed, its gaze averted.
The opacity and plain ignorance are regularly reflected in the news columns, but the bully pulpit is the editorial pages, where the Times has not one but two Op-Ed columnists repeatedly assuring elites that their ideology of the self-regulating marketplace is not only correct but unassailable. Thomas Friedman's views on globalization, reiterated twice a week, are simple: "Shut up and eat your spinach. Globalization is good for you, even if you're too stupid to understand why. Besides, there's nothing you can do about it." He resolves complex disputes on large matters with words like "crazy" and "ridiculous," accusing globalization's critics of being "quacks" and "extremists." His colleague Paul Krugman relies on a loftier form of condescension. "Economists are smarter than most people, and I'm smarter than most economists. Anyone who disagrees is an unlicensed hack or a hired gun with an economics degree from a second-rate university." Regular readers of the Times can attest that my mild caricature does not exaggerate.
These two strain to be amusing as well as wise. "Everyone knows that I am a hired tool of global capitalism," Krugman wrote. "This charge upset me greatly. In fact, I asked my masters for a raise, to thirty-five pieces of silver, to compensate for my hurt feelings." Friedman's over-the-top denunciations of people who disagree with him are more entertaining than Krugman's pose of weary sarcasm, though perhaps not in the ways he intends. (Personal disclosure: Krugman was instrumental in drawing elite readers to my own book on the global economy, One World, Ready or Not, by attacking it repeatedly in learned journals for several years. Smart people began to wonder what I had said to so upset the professor.)