Jul 1 2001

Free Trade = Freedom

FTAA coverage spins pro-business as pro-democracy

In coverage of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the tens of thousands of people who rallied outside the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this April to oppose it, U.S. media went to remarkable lengths to promote corporate and government spin on the liberating powers of trade.

The FTAA is a trade agreement negotiated in secret by trade ministers, heads of state and business executives with virtually no input from civil society. It is meant to extend and even expand NAFTA’s pro-business provisions “from the high Arctic to the Argentine pampas” (New York Times, 4/19/01), and it has been designed to erode national sovereignty by granting corporations the power to override the laws of democratically elected governments.

Yet much of the “free press” has been selling the FTAA to the American public as a cure-all for poverty and oppression, through stacking the opinion pages and through selective and distorted news reporting. The anti-globalization movement won a real victory by forcing media to begin broadening the trade debate, but press and punditocracy are fighting back, working to defuse popular challenges to corporate power by demonizing activists and rewriting “free” trade’s real record.

Trade will set you free

It is difficult to overstate the fact-crushing enthusiasm shown by the editorial boards of most major U.S. newspapers showed for the free trade future represented by the FTAA.

A search of major papers in the Nexis database for the month of April found 34 editorials in U.S. papers supporting the FTAA–and none opposing it. Several editorials expressed worries about whether the current version of the FTAA does enough to ensure minimum labor and environmental standards, but none of the 34 suggested that the agreement would not be fundamentally beneficial for the people of the Americas. (One additional editorial, from the April 20 Minneapolis Star-Tribune, was ambivalent, stating that the FTAA had the potential to either raise or lower living standards, depending on whether social provisions were added to the agreement.)

Nearly every pro-FTAA editorial also argued strongly in favor of Congress granting George W. Bush his coveted fast-track (or “trade promotion”) authority, so that he could forge ahead with the apparently miraculous trade agreement. (See Extra!, 11-12/97.)

Newspapers’ op-ed pages were less univocal, but still skewed almost three to one in favor of the FTAA. The same Nexis search found 25 opinion pieces essentially in favor of the FTAA vs. nine opposing it, with four others with a more mixed analysis.

The editorial line was remarkably consistent in papers across the country. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (4/25/01) summed up the underlying theory: “Trade is a tool that spreads prosperity, and prosperity is a quality that boosts chances for freedom and democracy.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (4/25/01) declared that “there is an undeniable synergy between free enterprise and the rights of free peoples…. Free trade works.” “Bush has rightly said that open trade is an essential foundation for prosperity and freedom,” applauded the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (4/20/01).

The Seattle Times (4/30/01) explained that the FTAA “is all about” encouraging countries to provide their citizens “telephones that work, roads and ports, peace, honest government and a rule of law,” making the familiar claim that “trade works.” Long Island’s Newsday (4/20/01) could hardly contain itself, insisting that “there’s hardly any downside to this country in the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas,” since “it would be, broadly speaking, an expansion of NAFTA,” which has been “a solid economic success.”

In fact, there’s little evidence to support the theory that free enterprise promotes democracy, or the idea that the FTAA’s brand of free trading will bring prosperity to working people. Latin American economies, for example, grew much faster in the 1960s and ’70s, when they generally followed a protectionist approach, than they have since laissez-faire trade policies were adopted in the ’80s. As economist Dean Baker points out (Economic Reporting Review, 4/21/01), even applying the term “free trade” to the FTAA–which the press routinely does–is misleading, given that the agreement is centered around investment as well as trade, and actually extends protectionist measures such as copyrights and patents.

Skimming the surface

In many cases, newspapers’ editorial enthusiasm for free trade seemed to filter through to their news coverage, which on the whole failed to critically review the assertions of pro-FTAA officials and eschewed serious review of the details of the FTAA or of the track record of its forerunner, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Some outlets, like USA Today–the highest circulation U.S. newspaper after the Wall Street Journal–paid little attention to the mammoth trade deal. USA Today ran no editorials or op-eds about the FTAA in April, and offered readers only two news articles (4/19/01, 4/23/01) that took up the question of what the FTAA might do, plus one about U.S./Brazil relations (4/2/01) that featured some discussion of the agreement. The paper’s news coverage was superficial, tending toward generalities like “globalization means that trade and economics are critical elements of foreign policy” (4/2/01).

Television coverage on the three major networks wasn’t any more helpful in explaining the FTAA. It focused almost entirely on the potential for sensational violence at the protests, yet managed to largely ignore the civil liberties questions raised by Quebec’s substantial use of force against demonstrators. “Battle lines. Violence erupts at the Summit of the Americas. Rioters storm security forces,” intoned Tom Brokaw in his introduction to a representative NBC Nightly News segment (4/22/01).

Outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post took a more highbrow approach to the Summit, and did report on the actual negotiations. But they tended to focus more on the politicking and “challenges” that Bush must navigate to seal the deal than on the particulars of what might happen if he succeeds.

Typical was one New York Times article (4/23/01), which accurately relayed the delegates’ pledge of “equal support to democracy and free trade” and their vow “to ensure that [the FTAA’s] benefits are shared by the hemisphere’s 800 million people,” but stopped short of reporting on how these promises compared to the provisions of the agreement. The article went on to note that “Mr. Bush and several other leaders now eagerly refer to the hemispheric trade proposal as an extension of NAFTA, which has already produced results.” True enough, but what kind of results? Were they democratic and equally shared? The article doesn’t say, and though the Times ran one piece about labor’s criticisms of NAFTA (4/29/01), the paper didn’t run any other stories in April that might have filled in the gap by investigating the agreement’s impact in depth.

Shortly before the Summit, the Economic Policy Institute released a report that could have shed some light on the question. “NAFTA at Seven” warns against extending NAFTA’s “deeply flawed” model through the FTAA, emphasizing that by extending protections for investors while excluding any real protections for working people, NAFTA introduced “a continent-wide pattern of stagnant worker incomes, lost job opportunities, increased insecurity and rising inequality.”

Though the economists at EPI aren’t the first to release such data, the report was comprehensive and amounted to a thorough debunking of the most prevalent free trade myths. The media’s weak response is instructive: According to a Nexis search, EPI was cited in only five articles in major U.S. newspapers in April, once on CNN‘s Headline News (4/10/01), and not at all in national mainstream magazines. Of course, more important than media missing any one report is the ongoing failure to acknowledge NAFTA’s negative impacts, no matter how much data is available.

Keeping poor people poor

This fact-deprived media environment provided commentators the perfect climate in which to demonize and misrepresent critics of the FTAA–a strategy the media have stuck with since the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle (Extra!, 1-2/00). The same opinion pages that spoke lovingly of free trade and liberty launched caustic and dishonest attacks on overwhelmingly peaceful activists.

A pair of New York Times columnists, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, once again led the charge in trying to discredit not only the expertise of FTAA critics but their motives. Pronouncing the anti-globalization movement to be “The Coalition to Keep Poor People Poor,” Friedman claimed that the world’s poor, particularly in Africa, “will tell you that their problem with globalization is not that they are getting too much of it, but too little.”

In Friedman’s world, anti-globalizers are not only “choking the only route out of poverty for the world’s poor,” but are cynical foes of democracy to boot. “The fact is,” wrote Friedman (4/24/01), “virtually all the leaders who met in Quebec to expand trade were democratically elected, while the ‘people’ in the streets clamoring for ‘justice’ were self-appointed or paid union activists.”

Krugman agreed (4/22/01), declaring that though “the activists got the images they wanted from Quebec City: leaders sitting inside their fortified enclosure, with thousands of police protecting them from the outraged masses outside,” the truth was that “many of the people inside that chain-link fence are sincerely trying to help the world’s poor. And the people outside the fence, whatever their intentions, are doing their best to make the poor even poorer.”

Editorial pages across the country echoed the New York Times op-ed page’s twin accusations that protesters were for poverty and against democracy. The bizarre notion that political protests against elected officials were somehow undemocratic was disturbingly widespread.

“So earnest in their speech, so self-righteous in their claim to a higher moral ground,” the “extremists” in Quebec “argue for policies that can have but a single result: keeping poor people poor,” editorialized the Chicago Sun-Times (4/22/01)–referring to protesters, not Summit delegates. The Baltimore Sun (4/24/01) described demonstrators as “speaking for themselves, elected by no one,” a group that had chosen violence “because their numbers are not great and their arguments are not persuasive.”

Perhaps the most startling thing about these editorials was their failure to acknowledge that the “world’s poor” have in fact themselves been taking to the streets to protest globalization (Extra!, 7-8/00). The U.K.-based World Development Movement calculated in a recent report that “conservative estimates” suggest that in the short time since the 1999 Seattle protests, over a million people have participated in more than 50 separate demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in at least 13 countries in the global south.

This reality is present only peripherally in the mainstream U.S. media–one New York Times article (4/23/01) explained that it could take years for Bush to strike the right political balance for the FTAA to pass. Attempting a wry touch, the article concluded that “along the way, he and Mr. Powell are likely smell some more tear gas.” Unasked, of course, was the question of why it will take years of tear gas to enforce an agreement that’s all about democracy and prosperity.