Feb 1 1998

Fast Track: Media Misperceptions

Soon after Congress refused to give President Bill Clinton “fast-track” authority to negotiate new trade agreements, the New York Times (11/16/97) responded with a news analysis headlined “Trade Fight Was Battle of Perception Against Analysis.” That is to say, the “perception” that trade pacts like NAFTA are bad for workers won out over “analysis” showing the societal benefits of corporations being able to move across borders as they please.

The New York Times‘ assumption, that opposition to fast track was not rational but somehow delusional, was widespread in mainstream media. This point of view freed journalists from the obligation to examine the merits of opponents’ arguments, and allowed them to analyze fast track’s failure in terms Washington reporters are more familiar with. “It’s about partisanship,” NPR‘s Mara Liasson said on Washington Week in Review (PBS, 11/21/97). “The Democrats were acting to protect their base–organized labor.”

Unions were the favorite target of the many media pundits and news outlets whose fervent support of fast track (see Extra!, 11-12/97) was frustrated by the defeat. The New York Times‘ “Labor Victory on Trade Bill Reflects Power” (11/12/97) was typical: “Of particular importance in the demise of the trade bill on Monday, which was labor’s biggest legislative victory in years,” the article reported, “was an important shift in the Democratic Party’s financial center of gravity…. By 1996, contributions from labor’s political action committees jumped to 48 percent of all PAC donations to House Democrats, up from 33 percent in 1992.”

But political action committees, which are organized labor’s primary means of making political donations, account for less than half of the Democrats’ money. Most of the rest takes the form of unrestricted donations–“soft money”–given to Democratic Party organizations. In the 1996 election cycle, more than 90 percent of Democratic soft money came from business, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Less than 8 percent came from labor.)

Taken together, PAC donations and soft money from business interests–which overwhelmingly support fast track–accounted for more than 70 percent of all Democratic funds. Few media pundits, however, pointed to corporate contributions as an explanation for why a large minority of House members voted for fast track.

And why was it the “no” votes that needed explanation, anyway? Although Cokie Roberts on This Week (ABC, 11/16/97) explained the “odd” defeat of fast track by claiming that “the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives is way to the left of where the party is and where the public is,” the fact is that polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans are skeptical of the alleged benefits of NAFTA-style trade pacts. By a margin of 56 percent to 34 percent, respondents in an October 1997 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll said that they opposed giving the president fast track authority. Another poll found only 26 percent saying they thought the U.S. benefited from NAFTA (Business Week, 9/3/97).

So if there are any Democrats in Congress whose campaign finances the New York Timesshould be looking into, it is those who voted in favor of the fast track bill. After all, which is more noteworthy: representatives voting with the opinions of their constituents, or against them? But you must remember–the establishment media have decided that those constituents are deluded.