In the Jan./Feb. 1993 issue of Extra!, writers John Summa and Patrice Greanville reported that news coverage of NAFTA had a pronounced pro-"free trade" slant, promoting the views of government and business groups who support NAFTA. Critics of the pact, like environmentalists and labor unions who warned that the pact could have negative effects on the U.S., Mexico and Canada, had much less access to the debate.
Lately, however, the mainstream press has featured claims that NAFTA foes are actually dominating the discussion:
- Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowen (5/9/93) complained that "most of the voices being heard on the trade treaty, including those of labor union leaders and former presidential candidates Jerry Brown and Ross Perot, are solidly anti-NAFTA."
- Newsweek (7/12/93) decried the "new trade gospel -- that America's openness to the international economy helps the world but hurts itself." The magazine asserts that "trade is good for you" -- though "that may not be apparent from the headlines."
- The New York Times (8/10/93) reported that business groups were stepping up their efforts on behalf of NAFTA, "after months of letting unions and environmental groups dominate the debate."
Have opponents really controlled the national debate about NAFTA? FAIR decided to survey two of the most important arenas for national policy debates -- the New York Times and Washington Post -- to see who actually got the most opportunities to speak.
We looked at news reports in the Times and Post from April through July 1993, identifying all the sources quoted by name in stories focusing on NAFTA. We categorized these sources by whom they spoke for and whether they had an identifiable position, pro or con, on the trade agreement.
Environmentalists and trade unionists, who were said to be dominating the debate, were in fact almost invisible. Out of 201 sources in the two papers, only six (3 percent) represented the environmental movement. No representative of a labor union was quoted during the four-month period. (One person was quoted from the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition that includes labor unions.) Spokespersons for all public interest or civic action groups -- including ones who endorsed NAFTA -- made up only 7 percent of named sources.
Who did get to speak? U.S. government representatives -- including administration officials and legislators -- were 51 percent of sources in the two papers, with 62 percent of sources in the Times. These sources were overwhelmingly pro-NAFTA (81 percent), as were other government sources, mainly Mexican and Canadian, who made up another 11 percent of sources.
Corporate representatives made up 13 percent of sources, though they were much more prominent in the Post (21 percent). These sources were also strongly pro-NAFTA (85 percent).
One gap in the four months of coverage was the absence of members of the general public -- the people who will feel the effects of the trade pact. The 2 percent of sources in this category all appeared in one story, a New York Times piece (7/12/93) on the impact of NAFTA on Mexican corn-farming.
In all, 68 percent of quoted sources had pro-NAFTA positions, with 66 percent in the Times and 71 percent in the Post in favor. Only 20 percent of the two papers' sources were opposed to NAFTA -- 24 percent in the Times, 17 percent in the Post. In other words, almost three times as many sources were defenders of NAFTA as critics in the New York Times; in the Post, the ratio was more than four to one.
When the two leading papers' coverage is so lopsidedly pro-"free trade," opponents of NAFTA can hardly be said to be "dominating the debate." Although grassroots efforts by environmentalists, labor unions and other critics were having a significant impact, they were hardly reflected in the two elite papers we studied.
Defenders of mainstream media often say that government officials are quoted so frequently because they're the ones who "make news." But the New York Times and Washington Post's treatment of the NAFTA issue suggests that even when grassroots groups are central to a political contest, they are still marginalized in the media debate.
(from EXTRA! Nov./Dec. '93)
When Michael Kinsley argued in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement against Sen. Don Riegle (Crossfire, 9/14/93), he seemed to feel he had a foolproof argument: "What are these Mexicans going to do with these dollars they're earning?" he demanded of the senator, a leading NAFTA critic. "When these plants rush down to Mexico, that you say is going to happen in huge numbers, and they earn dollars, those dollars are only good for one thing, which is buying stuff in the United States.... You can't spend your dollars in Mexico. You can only spend them in the United States.... That's the key point of free trade." Of course, workers in U.S.-owned plants in Mexico earn pesos, not dollars, and in any case dollars are freely exchanged for pesos anywhere in Mexico. But co-host Pat Buchanan's response seemed to accuse Kinsley of being overly academic: "Michael, let's not go back to Economics 101," he said. "Well, you need to learn a bit of it, Pat," Kinsley replied.