Dec 1 1999

Initial Reports from Seattle Gloss Over WTO Issues

As trade ministers from over 130 countries meet in Seattle this week for the World Trade Organization summit, tens of thousands of activists from all over the world have converged on the city to protest both the undemocratic structure of the group and its record on labor and environmental issues.

But the news coverage anticipating the protests has shed little light on the specific charges being made against the WTO by most of the protesters. As the conference gets under way on November 30, a few trends in the coverage have already emerged.

To begin, news stories preceding the conference demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the issues involved. A November 1 article in US News & World Report was headlined “Hell No, We Won’t Trade: How an obscure trade organization became a lightning rod for protest.” While one can debate the merits of labeling a group with international jurisdiction over global trade an “obscure” organization, “We Won’t Trade” is a grossly misleading characterization of the anti-WTO arguments.

The article goes on to note that “For the moment, the movement against free trade seems to have little traction in the United States.” This is a puzzling conclusion for an article that notes that “up to 50,000 demonstrators” are planned to “attend mass rallies, a march, teach-ins and prayer services” to protest the Seattle trade meeting. Nonetheless, the assertion is backed up by this: “All major presidential candidates support free trade and the WTO.”

Reports prior to the summit, and many appearing this week, argue that the WTO stands to “open up” trade around the globe. That is inaccurate, as Dean Baker pointed out recently in FAIR’s Economic Reporting Review:

While its rules are designed to facilitate foreign investment, such as a U.S. auto manufacturer building a factory in Indonesia, in other areas the WTO has taken little action to facilitate trade, while in some areas its rules are intended to impede free trade. In the case of professional services, such as those provided by doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals, the WTO has done virtually nothing to facilitate international trade and competition. In the case of intellectual property claims, such as patents and copyrights, the WTO has worked to impose these protectionist barriers on developing nations, at an enormous cost to their consumers.

Nor do many media accounts explain what the protesters are focusing on–in most cases, a specific set of concerns and issues that have been before the WTO in the past few years (summarized well at 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.”

CBS Evening News explained some of the background on the same night’s newscast, but obscured one of the core criticisms of the WTO. Dan Rather reported that the WTO had ruled on many environmental issues, but declined to make the simple point 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 mislead viewers into thinking that the WTO was intervening on behalf of threatened animals.

Some reports, rather than dealing with the concerns of the protestors, instead focused on the hypothetical danger they pose. Tony Snow’s first question to teamsters president James Hoffa, Jr. on Fox News Sunday (11/28/99) was: “Do you worry that there’s going to be any violence there?” Likewise, NBC Nightly News (11/29/99) devoted their lead WTO segment to security concerns in Seattle (“The stakes are high, so is the security, so is the provocation”), highlighting local authorities’ precautions against “a potential chemical or biological attack.”

The report was followed by a segment by NBC financial correspondent Mike Jensen extolling 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.”

Yet, as Dean Baker points out in a recent ERR, there is “near consensus among economists that trade has been one of the factors that has increased wage inequality in the United States over the last two decades.” But that “consensus” is decidedly harder to find in mainstream press accounts.

The theme of free trade “momentum” is also present in a story on MSNBC‘s website ( ), which includes a link to a special section encouraging readers to “find out more about the hurdles on the way to free trade.”

Similarly, a recent Associated Press report called protesters’ concerns “far-fetched,” and continued by noting 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.”

A disturbing indication of mainstream media attitudes toward coverage of the WTO meeting came when 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.” (KOMO has requested comments on its policy at

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 have made a priority of setting up an independent media center (, and much is planned for the coming week, including a daily newspaper, a daily radio broadcast (World Trade Watch Radio, and from-the-scene video documentaries that will be available via satellite to many public television stations.

For more information, see FAIR’s Resources on Trade .