Rare is the evening when we would suggest that turning on the television set could represent the best way to study up on a vital issue -- especially so complex an issue as the damage done to workers, the environment and democracy by the North American Free Trade Agreement. For the most part, we would argue that reading a newspaper or magazine would be the better route to knowledge.
But Tuesday, February 5, is different. Author and commentator Bill Moyers, whose rare, documentary-style reports are the closest thing to serious investigative reporting on broadcast television these days, will focus his attention on one of the least-examined stories in America today. "Bill Moyers Reports: Trading Democracy" (PBS stations on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 10 p.m. EST, check local listings) examines the way in which NAFTA restrictions on barriers to trade are being used by multinational corporations to overturn environmental protections enacted by governments in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
"When the North American Free Trade Agreement became the law of the land almost a decade ago, the debate we heard was about jobs," explains Moyers, in a discussion of the program. "One provision was too obscure to stir up controversy. It was called Chapter Eleven, and it was supposedly written to protect investors from having their property seized by foreign governments. But since NAFTA was ratified, corporations have used Chapter Eleven to challenge the powers of government to protect its citizens, to undermine environmental and health laws, even to attack our system of justice."
Studies of the Chapter 11 provision by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch and Friends of the Earth, as well as detailed reports by The Nation's William Greider, have illustrated the ways in which corporations use NAFTA provisions and tribunals to undermine local, state and national law. But getting this dramatic story on national television represents an important breakthrough in the struggle to inform American citizens about a genuine threat to democracy.
In addition to providing a rare glimpse into the workings of existing trade policy, Moyers' report has serious political ramifications.
The US Senate will soon vote on whether to grant the Bush administration Fast Track authority to negotiate in secret a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement. Referred to by Public Citizen's Lori Wallach as "NAFTA on steroids," the FTAA would create a corporate free-trade zone covering the entire western hemisphere -- except Cuba.
At a when every Americans should be asking tough questions about whether democracy and the rule of law ought to be sacrificed in order to make it easier for corporations such as Enron to do business however and wherever they choose, most Americans do not even know that important debates on trade policy are taking place. That is how the corporations want it; they like to operate in secret -- especially when they are at cross purposes with democracy.
That's why Bill Moyers' "Trading Democracy" report is not merely good programming. It is essential viewing for everyone who worries about whether America is still a democratic state.