Jan 1 2000

Prattle in Seattle

WTO coverage misrepresented issues, protests

As tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Seattle to shut down the opening conference of the World Trade Organization meeting last December, mainstream media treated protesters’ concerns with indifference and often contempt. That hostility translated into slanted coverage of both the demonstrations and the police reaction.

A U.S. News & World Report headline, “Hell No, We Won’t Trade” summarized a recurring motif: “anti-trade” became a common–though wildly inaccurate–label for the demonstrators in mainstream coverage. “A guerrilla army of anti-trade activists took control of downtown Seattle today,” a Washington Post article (12/1/99) began. ABC News reporter John Cochran (11/30/99) said Seattle had become a “home for protests against world trade.” Newsweek (12/13/99) reported that activists “posted Web pages to educate their followers on the evils of foreign trade.”

It should go without saying that virtually none of those who oppose the World Trade Organization are against world trade–any more than those who boycotted General Electric were against electricity. Indeed, one of the unions most militant in its support for the Seattle protests was the Longshoremen–dockworkers whose jobs are entirely dependent on trade.

Yet ABC anchor Jack Ford (12/1/99) assumed that everyone whose job involves trade supports the WTO, as he pitted the demonstrators against the city hosting them: “No American city exports as much, President Clinton was happy to point out today, which helps explain why a good many people in Seattle are angry–at the protesters and their very anti-trade message.” Similarly, an Associated Press (11/28/99) report on the protesters’ “far-fetched” concerns claimed that “for every campaigner lying down on a sidewalk this week to protest the WTO’s efforts to reduce trade barriers, there is a happily employed Seattleite whose job depends on free commerce.”

NBC financial correspondent Mike Jensen (11/29/99) was enlisted on the eve of the WTO meeting to extol the benefits of free trade. Jensen concluded that “most experts say getting rid of trade barriers on both sides is a good thing for American workers and consumers. But no matter what comes out of this four-day meeting–and a lot of analysts don’t think it will be much–world trade has such momentum, almost nothing can get in its way.” Similarly, Newsweek (12/13/99) insisted that although “the images from the streets seemed to form a new face of protest” in America, “the reality is that global trade is going to march on in any event; human ambition and the Internet are seeing to that.”

“A stew of grievances”

Even coverage that did attempt to describe the protesters’ goals dealt with them in only the vaguest terms–and often at a level of generalization that rendered the descriptions inaccurate or meaningless. An ABC News story by correspondent Deborah Wang in Seattle failed to address the activists’ concerns with anything more than platitudes:

They are fighting for essentially the same issues they campaigned against in the ’60s. Corporations, which they say are still exploiting workers in the Third World. Agribusiness is still putting small farmers out of work. Mining companies, still displacing peasants from the land…. But what is different is that, for these protesters, this single organization, the WTO has come to symbolize about all that is wrong in the modern world.

More helpful than such generalities would have been a summary of some of the protesters’ specific complaints: that the WTO has issued rulings forcing member countries to repeal specific laws that protect public health and the environment; that it proposes new rules limiting countries’ freedom to regulate foreign corporate investors; and that its decisions are made in secret by an unaccountable tribunal.

Instead, ABC‘s Peter Jennings commented that “it seems as though every group with every complaint from every corner of the world is represented in Seattle this week.” When the conference ended (12/3/99), he remarked that “the thousands of demonstrators will go home, or on to some other venue where they’ll try to generate attention for whatever cause that moves them.”

U.S. News (12/13/99) dismissed the protesters as “causists and all-purpose agitators.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s William R. Macklin (12/5/99) referred to them as “the terminally aggrieved” with “a stew of grievances so confusing that they drowned any hope of broad public support.” U.S. News’ November 1 preview concluded that despite “up to 50,000 demonstrators” expected at the event, “for the moment, the movement against free trade seems to have little traction in the United States.”

CBS Evening News explained some of the background on its November 29 broadcast, but obscured the core criticisms of the WTO. Dan Rather reported that the WTO had ruled on many environmental issues, but failed to explain that the WTO has ruled against environmental restrictions in every case that has come before it. Indeed, Rather’s reference to the WTO’s ruling on “fishing restrictions aimed at saving endangered species” might have misled viewers into thinking that the WTO was intervening on behalf of threatened animals, instead of ruling that such restrictions are an unacceptable restraint on trade.

U.S. News (12/13/99) claimed that “many demonstrators had only a vague notion of what the five-year-old WTO actually does.” But often it seemed as though reporters and commentators were unclear on the organization’s role. When Clyde Prestowitz of the business-oriented Economic Strategy Institute disingenuously referred to the WTO as “a relatively weak international body,” CNN anchor Bill Tucker (12/1/99) complacently concluded, “It would seem to be much ado about nothing.”

“Duped” by Buchanan

The lack of understanding of the demonstrators’ concerns was unsurprising, given how seldom the media spoke with them. When the police first started using tear gas against street blockades, CNN reporter Katherine Barrett (11/30/99) turned for comment to Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Jasinowski confessed that he was “struck by how loopy some of the protesters were” and observed that they were “shouting a lot of crazy different messages.”

Perhaps the single WTO opponent who received the largest amount of time on CNN to expound his views was Pat Buchanan, who was interviewed, one-on-one and at length, by Inside Politics anchor Judy Woodruff (11/30/99). Though right-wing nationalists did not appear to be an appreciable fraction of the actual protesters in Seattle’s streets, the media seemed to anoint Buchanan as a major leader of the anti-WTO movement. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote (12/1/99) that “knaves like Pat Buchanan” had “duped” the demonstrators–“a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix”–into protesting the WTO.

“What’s driving [the protests]?” CNN political analyst Bill Schneider asked on Inside Politics (11/30/99). “Resentment of big business for its irresponsible behavior, a resentment shared by the left”–followed by a soundbite of AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney–“and the right”–followed by a soundbite of Pat Buchanan. This type of right/left “evenhandedness” concerning the protests did not appear to be justified by the actual composition of the anti-WTO movement.

Media outlets seemed unconcerned by Buchanan’s ineptness as a representative of labor, environmental and human rights activists. (See Extra!, 5-6/96.) As co-host of CNN‘s Crossfire (7/3/91), for example, Buchanan once grilled public-sector union leader Gerald McEntee–one of the labor officials present years later at the Seattle demos–on “the suicidal impulses of American unions”:

A lot of the jobs now have disappeared–they’re gone. One reason, one complaint, is the pay of the United Auto Workers and the benefits…. Aren’t you fellows committing suicide by yourselves?

Anarchists smash, police respond

Perhaps mainstream news outlets’ confusion concerning the protesters’ composition and goals contributed to their often skewed coverage of the behavior of the Seattle police and National Guard. A continuing theme in news reports was that the use of tear gas and concussion grenades was an appropriate response to “violent” activists. (“Violence” was a term consistently applied to the breaking of windows, a questionable way of characterizing property crimes.)

CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported (12/1/99) that “the meeting of the World Trade Organization was thrown into turmoil by violent demonstrations that went on into last night. That brought on today’s crackdown.” A CNN report from Seattle (12/1/99) claimed that “as tens of thousands marched through downtown Seattle, [a] small group of self-described anarchists smashed windows and vandalized stores. Police responded with rubber bullets and pepper gas.”

But the sequence of events described in these reports was wrong. As Detective Randy Huserik, a spokesperson for the Seattle police, confirmed, pepper spray had first been used against protesters engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. CNN anchor Lou Waters asked Huserik (11/30/99) why the chemical irritant was used:

Waters: How would you characterize the nature of the threat today? Were police assaulted? Is that what precipitated this?

Huserik: Well, a rather large group of protesters…were determined to continue blocking public entrance and exit in access of some of the various venue sites. They were given a lawful order to disperse, which was ignored. Officers then announced that the Seattle police officers would deploy pepper spray if the crowd did not disperse. For those that remained, the pepper spray was deployed in order to disperse that crowd.

In retrospect, it’s ironic that on the eve of the protests, NBC News (11/29/99) was hyping Seattle authorities’ precautions against “a potential chemical or biological attack.” Chemical agents were widely used in Seattle, but only by the police against protesters.

One eyewitness, nonviolence trainer Matt Guynn, distributed the following account of police brutality over the Internet:

In one scene I witnessed this morning (at 8th Avenue and Seneca), police who had been standing behind a blockade line began marching in lock-step toward the line, swinging their batons forward, and when they reached the line they began striking the (nonviolent, seated) protesters repeatedly in the back. Then they ripped off the protesters’ gas masks, and sprayed pepper spray at point-blank range into their eyes repeatedly. After spraying, they rubbed the protesters’ eyes and pushed their fingers around on their lips to aggravate the effect of the spray. And after all THIS, they began striking them again with batons…. The police then were able to break up the line, and the protesters retreated to the steps of a nearby church for medical assistance.

The lack of condemnation of police tactics–especially their tear-gassing and pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters–was a striking feature of the coverage. “Thanks for joining us and good luck to you out there,” CNN anchor Lou Waters told a Seattle police spokesperson (12/1/99) as police continued their crackdown on demonstrators. A front-page Los Angeles Times article on the protests (12/2/99) featured a subhead that read “Police Commended for Restraint.” Yet the only source cited by the Times was Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who praised the “professionalism, restraint and competence” of his forces.

Contrast that with this account from Seattle physician Richard DeAndrea, posted on the website emperors-clothes.com:

The police were using concussion grenades. They were…shooting tear gas canisters directly at protesters’ faces. They were using rubber bullets. Some of the damage I saw from these rubber bullets took off part of a person’s jaw, smashed teeth…. There are people who have been…treated for plastic bullet wounds. Lots of tear gas injuries, lots of damage to [the] cornea, lots of damage to the eyes and skin.

One of the few mainstream media accounts that conveyed the brutality of the Seattle police was written by a local correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/2/99), who himself was arrested during the police rampage. Keri Murakami reported that “three Seattle police officers slammed me to the pavement, handcuffed me and threw me into the van. I was charged with failing to disperse even though I showed them reporter’s credentials and repeatedly said I was just covering a story.”

A disturbing indication of mainstream media attitudes toward coverage of the WTO meeting came before the conference, when Disney/ABC‘s Seattle affiliate announced that it would “not devote coverage to irresponsible or illegal activities of disruptive groups,” adding that “KOMO 4 News is taking a stand on not giving some protest groups the publicity they want…. So if you see us doing a story on a disruption, but we don’t name the group or the cause, you’ll know why.” In a revealing choice of words, news director Joe Barnes described civil disobedience as “illegally disrupting the commerce of the city.”

This decision by a corporate-owned news outlet to explicitly ignore the messages of groups practicing civil disobedience underscores the importance of independent journalism. Organizers in Seattle made a priority of setting up an Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org), which offered alternative news on the demonstrations and their issues in every format from Internet chatrooms to satellite TV feeds.

ABC News offered a backhanded compliment to the Independent Media Center in its December 5 broadcast, noting that “the meeting of the World Trade Organization was a turning point for the so-called independent media–small, partisan news organizations and individual reporters with political opinions they could never express in the mainstream media.” The media activists, correspondent Brian Rooney said, “got out a worldwide message about the working poor, endangered species and the power of the World Trade Organization.” Perhaps alternative media wouldn’t be needed to get such messages out if there weren’t so many political opinions that you can never express in mainstream media.

Sidebar: U.S. Corporate Media Speak for Third World

“It’s a familiar plea for the downtrodden of the world,” wrote Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria (12/13/99), citing anti-WTO protesters’ complaint that the trade body promotes the exploitation of Third World workers and the environment.

There’s just one problem: the downtrodden beg to differ. Representatives of developing nations at the meetings angrily pointed out that the demonstrators were seeking to protect the jobs and benefits of Western workers, who are rich and privileged by any standard. In fact, if the demonstrators’ demands were met, the effect would be to crush the hopes of much poorer Third World workers.

One of the corporate media’s favorite debating points in dismissing the World Trade Organization protests last December has been to claim that the poor, underdeveloped countries many protesters said are being hurt by the WTO in fact support the trade group, which represents their best hope to become wealthy–by gaining access to Western markets.

“Officials from developing countries scorned the social activists’ concern for both their workers and environments. In their view, America really wants to drive up their costs and stymie their export-driven growth strategies, while invoking anti-dumping laws and textile quotas to block their products,” wrote U.S. News & World Report (12/13/99).

“The left professes concern for Third World labor,” wrote Time columnist Charles Krauthammer (12/13/99). “But its real objective is to keep jobs at home…sentencing Third World workers to the deprivation of the pre-industrial life they so desperately seek to escape. Some champions.”

Anyone tempted to believe this spin would benefit from reading the joint statement signed by more than 1,000 mostly Third World labor, environmental, consumer, church and development organizations in more than 70 countries, opposing a new WTO round–one of the most massive petition efforts in recent memory. (The statement, called “No New Round–Turn Around!,” is available at http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/turn-cn.htm).

The statement declares that the signing groups “oppose any effort to expand the powers of the World Trade Organization (WTO) through a new comprehensive round of trade liberalization. Instead, governments should review and rectify the deficiencies of the system and the WTO regime itself.”

The petition goes on to denounce the WTO and the agreements that created it, using language nearly identical to that of the protesters on Seattle’s streets:

The Uruguay Round Agreements and the establishment of the WTO were proclaimed as a means of enhancing the creation of global wealth and prosperity and promoting the well-being of all people in all member states. In reality, however, in the past five years the WTO has contributed to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich few; increasing poverty for the majority of the world’s population; and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

The Uruguay Round Agreements have functioned principally to prise open markets for the benefit of transnational corporations at the expense of national economies; workers, farmers and other people; and the environment. In addition, the WTO system, rules and procedures are undemocratic, untransparent and non-accountable and have operated to marginalize the majority of the world’s people.

As the Third World Network pointed out (“Why We Should Oppose a New WTO Round”), the signers are particularly concerned that a new WTO round would attempt to reach into new areas such as investment policy and government procurement. While many Third World activists are concerned that President Clinton’s vaguely defined “labor standards” could be used as a tool for protectionism by developed nations, this does not mean that the Third World is unconcerned about labor rights: The petition demanded an assessment of the WTO’s impact on labor, as well as on human rights, the environment and other issues embraced by the Seattle protesters.

In characterizing the developing world as pro-WTO, the media seem to be identifying entire Third World societies with the narrow interests represented by the trade and finance ministers gathered at the Seattle talks, some of whom are indeed broadly enthusiastic about free trade. To see the fallacy of the media’s logic, check out the following quote, uttered by a former State Department official at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations (American Prospect, 12/6/99):

What you don’t understand is that when we negotiate economic agreements with these poorer countries, we are negotiating with people from the same class. That is, people whose interests are like ours—on the side of capital.