Feb 1 2003

As Others See Us

As the poet Robert Burns noted, it’s hard to see ourselves as others see us–especially if we rely on the mainstream U.S. press.

Here’s a paragraph from an editorial in the Los Angeles Times–headlined “Lifesaving Trade Policies” (1/2/03):

Yes, the $1.66 billion the Bush administration has earmarked for international development aid in fiscal year 2004 is a pittance compared with the $50 billion to $100 billion that a war against Iraq could cost. But the measure of altruism that foreign critics most often use to deride the United States–that it spends just 0.1 percent of gross national product on “official development assistance,” ranking it last among the 22 most industrialized countries–does not take into account the mammoth humanitarian contribution this nation’s science, medicine and biotechnology industries make to the world’s poor.

In newspapers outside the U.S., however, these industries’ “mammoth humanitarian contribution” is sometimes seen in a different light. Take a story that ran in the London Guardian on December 21: “U.S. Wrecks Cheap Drugs Deal: Cheney’s Intervention Blocks Pact to Help Poor Countries After Pharmaceutical Firms Lobby White House.”

The Guardian story reported that Washington “blocked a global deal to provide cheap drugs to poor countries, following intense lobbying of the White House by America’s pharmaceutical giants…. Faced with furious opposition from all the other 140 members of the World Trade Organization, the U.S. refused to relax global patent laws which keep the price of drugs beyond reach of most developing countries.”

Imagine what a different view of these events you’d get from reading the New York Times report on the same negotiations (12/21/02): Under the headline “Trade Talks Fail to Agree on Drugs for Poor Nations,” the Times‘ account begins: “The World Trade Organization failed tonight to break a yearlong deadlock over providing impoverished countries with access to life-saving medicine, but the United States pledged that until a deal was reached it would not take any country to court for breaking current trade rules by exporting cut-rate medicine to poor countries.”

In the New York Times‘ framing, it’s not one country against 140–it’s just a “yearlong deadlock” that’s the fault of no one in particular. But the lead paragraph does manage to work in a reference to Washington’s benevolent pledge to refrain from suing countries for selling medicine to the poor. Just another example of our “mammoth humanitarian contribution.”