Apr 1 2014

Leading Papers’ Sources Tilt Toward TPP

Sparse, slanted coverage of corporate-friendly deal

Critics call it a corporate coup, an assault on the public interest and a threat to democratic sovereignty. It’s the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a commercial treaty currently being negotiated in secret between the US, NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada, and nine more Pacific Rim countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Though it sounds like a big story, it’s not—at least for US corporate media.

Last month, Extra! (3/14) revealed that national TV news on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News simply ignored the story. MSNBC’s Ed Show, hosted by Ed Schultz, was the only exception, featuring more than two dozen segments discussing the treaty during the year.

Now FAIR has studied TPP coverage in two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, finding that on the rare occasions the papers covered TPP over the last year, the sources they quoted tilted heavily in favor of the treaty.

With the potential to deeply affect many aspects of commerce, internationally and domestically, TPP requires intensive coverage. As Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Trade Watch (Democracy Now!, 10/4/13) explained, TPP’s impact would be wide-ranging because only five of its 29 chapters deal with trade; the other 24 “either handcuff our domestic governments, limiting food safety, environmental standards, financial regulation, energy and climate policy, or establishing new powers for corporations.”

The treaty, negotiated in secret with the input of hundreds of corporate lobbyists,  would promote job offshoring to lower-wage countries—for instance, prospective signatory Vietnam, with a minimum wage of 28 cents per hour. It would give corporations the right to enter signatory nations to extract natural resources—oil, gas and minerals—without those governments’ approval.

The pact would serve as a back door to implement unpopular policies that corporations favor, like a provision that would implement a large part of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which US activists thought they’d defeated in 2012, when it died in Congress following massive public opposition (CounterSpin, 2/21/14).

Perhaps most devastatingly, if implemented in the manner indicated by draft chapters leaked over the past two years, several life-saving generic medicines would be too expensive for millions who require them to stay alive (CounterSpin, 11/15/13).

TPPWith measures that would affect virtually every citizen in the US and TPP member nations, you might expect leading American newspapers to be keenly following TPP. But this hasn’t been the case. In the year between Barack Obama’s 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses (2/12/13– 1/28/14), the New York Times and Washington Post had a combined total of 18 news reports discussing TPP, featuring 48 sources.

TPP received a small fraction of the attention the papers devoted to stories of much less import, such as the Benghazi and IRS stories portrayed as scandals by the right—without much of anything scandalous behind them (FAIR Blog, 5/17/13, 6/25/13). Benghazi was mentioned in 618 stories in both papers. Using the search terms “IRS” and “conservative”—according to the IRS scandal storyline, the agency singled out  conservative groups for harassment—turned up 444 stories.

In the two papers combined, sources favoring TPP (31) outnumbered those opposing (14) by more than 2-to-1. Three sources were expressly noncommittal. The Post presented an almost 3-to-1 ratio of supporters to opponents (16–6) with one noncommittal source, while the Times featured a nearly 2-to-1 imbalance (15–8) with two noncommittal sources.

Of the 48 total sources, 24 were US government–affiliated, with about half speaking for the Office of the US Trade Representative and nine representing congressional perspectives. Six sources came from private US business interests. The most frequently cited source was US trade representative Michael Froman, who appeared eight times, accounting for one of every six sources.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers Union and the Yale Law School’s Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic were the US-based anti-TPP groups appearing as sources. Articles debating whether Japan should join the deal (New York Times, 3/6/13, 3/15/13; Washington Post, 4/24/13, 10/3/13) included quotes from various agricultural co-ops, a Citizen’s Congress for Opposing the TPP and a former politician from an anti-TPP delegation.

Every editorial supported TPP, though some, including all the Times’ editorials, insisted that certain environmental and labor standards be included (e.g., 1/18/14) to “ease fears that freer trade would lead to greater environmental damage and sweatshop conditions by giving businesses an incentive to ship production and jobs to countries with lower standards.” (The Times has a track record of offering conditional support for commercial deals and later continuing to support them when the conditions are not met—Extra!, 7/98.)

And while one Post editorial (3/15/13) quoted a letter signed by 43 Democratic members of Congress opposing TPP for the “economically harmful” practices of unregulated trade, the editorial board was quick to dismiss that point as “complaining,” and to assert the economic potential of TPP.

Opposition to TPP was relegated to the op-ed page, where five out of nine columns  opposed the deal. Four of seven columns in the Post opposed the treaty, three written by Harold Meyerson, who, for instance, explained the detrimental effects of unregulated trade on jobs (4/30/13). One of the Post’s three columns supporting the TPP featured Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt interviewing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, also an ardent TPP supporter. The Times ran just two op-eds, one for and one against. Then–NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (8/22/13) offered an endorsement, but expressed reservations over the health implications of TPP’s tobacco provisions. Lori Wallach and Ben Beachy of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch authored the Times column critical of the TPP (6/2/13).

Public opinion has grown increasingly leery of commercial “free trade” treaties, with opposition to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement implemented 20 years ago, being one of the few issues that unites Americans across partisan and regional lines (Eyes on Trade, 2/13/14). It would be useful to be able to compare the pro-TPP slant of the Times and Post sources with public opinion on TPP. However, as Pew Research Global Attitudes Project observed in 2013 (4/1/13), TPP

has received relatively little news coverage in the US. It is not a topic of broad public debate. And there have been no major public opinion polls that have asked Americans specifically about the negotiations.

Since then, public opinion pollsters Hart Research Associates and Chesapeake Beach Consulting have published a poll (1/27/14) revealing 62 percent of Americans oppose granting the White House “fast track” authority on TPP, which would allow the president to rush the bill through Congress without amendment or any real debate. Opponents and proponents alike, including Public Citizen’s Wallach and trade representative Froman, say it is unlikely that TPP could get congressional approval without the advantage of fast track.

If the public is not particularly sweet on the pact, and both sides agree that TPP could not survive an open congressional debate, why isn’t there a larger, broader, more inclusive media debate? Public Citizen’s Wallach told Extra! there are two answers.

Big companies with large advertising budgets can put an enormous amount of pressure on newsrooms, resulting in a situation where, Wallach said, “even if no one’s telling them ‘don’t cover the things that piss off the sponsors,’” executives make it clear that “this is not a winning topic.”

The second factor, according to Wallach, is that “newsrooms have been so decimated that there is no full-time trade coverage”:

TPP is like a smorgasbord of explosive stories with amazing pictures on every current issue of our day. From climate to the environment to food safety to medicine prices to Internet freedom to inequality of income…. It’s like the beat that keeps on giving. But no one’s assigned to it.

Additional research by Lane Wollerton.

Extra! April 2014