Media and Trade: A Love Story

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


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.)

Krugman and Friedman may not be “hired” tools, but both have been officially credentialed as “Global Leaders for Tomorrow”–so selected by the World Economic Forum that gathers multinational titans for the annual confab in Davos, Switzerland, every winter. The GLTs, as they call themselves, are a kind of junior varsity for the New World Order, several hundred under-45 moguls and managers from business and finance (familiar brands like Disney, AOL, Microsoft, Siemens, the Gap, IBM) who mingle with a smattering of rising political figures and prestigious journalists. The GLTs meet every few months to consider how they might solve the world’s problems and work on projects with titles like “Wake Up Europe!” Their stated mission is “to create a worldwide network of individuals for dynamic mutual support in facing the challenges of leadership for economic and social progress.”

Friedman often talks like that in his column. He went tramping through the rainforest of Venezuela (or at least flew over it) with corporate execs and conservationists to report that the major oil companies are now most sensitive to the needs of indigenous peoples and other endangered species. “In a networked world,” he explained, everybody works amicably together for social progress, not like those nasty people in the streets throwing rocks at the IMF and World Bank. “The real solution lies not with he who throws the biggest stone but he who builds the most effective coalition to get these players working together.” Friedman actually wrote that sentence, and the Times actually published it.

Krugman has a more supple intellect, certainly, but seems less interesting because he more or less tells the same story in every column. The subject is how right reasoning as an economist has, once again, spared him from errors of thought made by us commoners. Friedman at least goes places–always traveling to exotic datelines where he breakfasts with trade ministers or important CEOs. Then he enthusiastically relates what he told them (and how they agreed with him). Differences aside, the two GLTs come out at the same place: Unions are morally defective protectionists trying to take bread from desperately poor people, and the other social activists are deluded. Companies are taking us on the high road to a better future, if governments are wise enough not to interfere. The public’s role is cleaning up afterward.

Pundits are naturally entitled to preach their own eccentric views, but the weird inversion at the Times is that the sermons sometimes seep into the news columns. After K. and F. pounded away at the unions, the newspaper followed with a front-page lead on the same theme: Unions Deny Stand Over Trade Policy Is Protectionism…Some Economists Criticize Its Opposition to Legislation as Myopic and Selfish. The story, more balanced than the headline, did not cite economist Krugman as authority, but it did quote an executive vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce, a California Republican Representative whose principal contributors include Nike, and a trade economist whose think tank is financed by multinational banks and corporations. Are these the “hired guns” Krugman warned us not to trust?

In any case, organized labor is no more selfish or myopic than Nike or Boeing or Motorola, all of whom are “protectionist” in the sense that they will vigorously oppose any trade agreement that does not serve their self-interest, regardless of its supposed benefits to the world. The only difference is that labor lacks the power–even a seat at the table–to influence the outcomes, just like the other protest elements in Seattle. The great, unreported story in globalization is about power, not ideology. It’s about how finance and business regularly, continuously insert their own self-interested deals and exceptions into rules and agreements that are then announced to the public as “free trade.”

The antidote for biased coverage is, of course, more honest reporting–old-fashioned, on-the-ground reporting where the story is happening, free of abstract presumptions promoted by the established order. In this complex new world of globalization, that kind of reporting is never easy, especially when authoritative experts are assuring editors and reporters that they can ignore those voices in the streets. The realities are dispersed across continents, always complicated and sometimes ambiguous–difficult to see with clear eyes whether the story is labor conditions in a poor developing nation or the cloaked investment strategies of the multinational corporations.

In other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for the big media to back off their convictions and dig into the story. Notwithstanding its heroic self-image, the press does not lead the way when a new social movement arises but usually follows hesitantly, reluctant to side with dissent until the public itself is greatly aroused or the story too big and obvious to be ignored. So the smart work of this new movement is to keep on agitating–explaining globalization to people in the human terms they do not read in their newspapers or see on TV, dramatizing the conflict that events pose between public ideology and visible truth on the ground. In time, if we are lucky, a few brave reporters will also start some arguments in the newsrooms.

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