Initial Reports from Seattle Gloss Over WTO Issues
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 30 Nov 99 15:27:16 -0800
Subject: Initial Reports from Seattle Gloss Over WTO Issues
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Sender: "media analysis, critiques and news reports"
From: FAIR-L <FAIR-L@FAIR.org>
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
Media analysis, critiques and news reports
Media Advisory: Initial Reports from Seattle Gloss Over WTO Issues
December 1, 1999
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 1st 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
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
http://www.accuracy.org/press_releases/PR112999.htm ). 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 bungled 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 (http://www.msnbc.com/news/340513.asp ), 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
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 email@example.com .)
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 (http://www.indymedia.org ), and much
is planned for the coming week, including a daily newspaper, a daily radio
broadcast (World Trade Watch Radio, http://www.radioproject.org ) 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 at
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© 1999 Peter Langston