Dec 3 1999

WTO: The Whole World Is Watching– Except Ted Koppel

Media from around the world have followed the World Trade Organization summit meeting in Seattle, as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered to voice their concerns about corporate globalism, environmental abuse and labor rights. The ensuing arrests, police abuse and property damage dominated much of the mainstream media discussion.

But one news outlet in particular stood out for their peculiar lack of coverage: Since the demonstrators began gathering and marching on Monday, Nov. 29, ABC‘s Nightline has not so much as mentioned the events unfolding in Seattle.

Nightline‘s record on covering the World Trade Organization is not terribly impressive to begin with. A search of the Nexis news database finds that the words “World Trade Organization” or “WTO” have rarely been uttered on the show, and haven’t been mentioned at all since a passing reference on June 26, 1998.

One explanation might be found in Nightline‘s Oct. 4, 1994 broadcast. In his introduction to a discussion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT), Koppel explained to viewers that capturing the public’s attention with light news was “relatively easy, even when the subject has little or no widespread impact. Impact is not what draws a crowd, high interest does.”

Koppel named the O.J. Simpson case as an example of low-impact news that interests everyone, in contrast to the GATT, the mere mention of which, he said, “seems sufficient to turn most otherwise active minds to mush.” He continued: “Our problem is holding onto your attention with a subject that will have enormous impact on your lives, but is seen as being so complicated that we’d rather take the consequences than a close look.” (During one seven-week stretch in early 1994, Nightline devoted 45 percent of its airtime to discussions of the O.J. Simpson trial–see Extra!, 5-6/95.)

Despite the global importance of the WTO talks, not to mention the level of citizen involvement, it seems that Nightline opted to “take the consequences” rather than a “close look.” Among the stories Nightline judged to be of “higher interest” this week than the WTO protests was “Father Wants Son to Return to Cuba” (12/1/99). The show to air on Friday, December 3 will tell the story of Precious Bedell, a woman who spent time in prison for murder and earned a master’s degree while incarcerated.

No one is arguing that such stories are not important. But do they really justify ignoring the labor, environmental and human rights issues raised by the demonstrators in Seattle?

ACTION: Contact ABC‘s Nightline and ask them why they decided not to cover the WTO summit. The overwhelming news value of the events in Seattle, not to mention the availability of progressive critics and WTO supporters throughout the week, makes Nightline‘s silence all the more regrettable.


Tom Bettag, Executive Producer


1717 DeSales St NW

Washington, DC 20036

Phone: (202) 222-7000