The Mainstream Media and Free Trade

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, July 14, 2002

Beliefs in the benefits of international trade and investment is one of the most sacred convictions of economists. To question the existence of efficiency gains from specialization and trade is tantamount to a confession of economic illiteracy in professional circles.

Robin Hahnel, Panic Rules: Everything you want to know about the Global Economy

The mainstream media has been flooded by corporate globalization proponents and heavily backed by those that will profit from it the most. This makes public debate more difficult. Given that most of the media companies are privately owned corporations themselves interested in making profits, this also makes them a natural partner for proponents of corporate globalization and advertisers that they need to attract.

In fact, some supporters of the current model of globalization portray an almost romantic notion of market forces being natural. However, the media as well as various institutions have helped to create and facilitate the emergence of market forces. Also, that means that these entities are likely to continue to have influence over such “natural” forces.

Not explaining theory from reality and impact on poor

In the previous section on this site on some criticisms of free trade, it is suggested that the current model of globalization is not “free trade” though it is claimed to be and though that is the term used to describe the current system. Instead, it is suggested that the corporate capitalism is more like the older monopoly or mercantilist capitalism of previous centuries. These previous systems fostered hostile conditions, plunder and even wars. Yet, we cannot expect the mainstream media to discuss this;

  • Mainstream media companies themselves are large corporations.
  • If they support the current process, then of course suggesting that the global system may be mercantilist, for example is not going to be seriously looked at.
  • Adam Smith, often regarded as the founder of modern free market capitalism with his influential book in 1776, The Wealth of Nations was highly critical of both big government and big corporations for their undue power and influences that distorted free markets. Often, the media is good at highlighting systemic problems of “big government” but less of “big business” (although individual instances will likely be analyzed deeply, such as the Enron collapse, while the underlying ideologies will not).

(See the media section on this web site for more about the corporate influence on media in the US and around the world).

Developing nations, especially the poorer ones, have already been dealt an unfair hand by corporate globalization oriented policies, such as the structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank (which have required cut-backs in things like health and education, and other government spending deemed to be a barrier to market forces). As a result, poverty has increased and there has been more volatility and less economic stability, while making it easier for the corporations to influence conditions. Discussions about economic issues are often left to business sections in news reporting, unless it is very major news.

And yet, it is likely that it is unintentional that the mainstream desires a world of inequality, or knowingly supports a system that leads to it. As J.W. Smith suggests, the economic processes have become a lot more sophisticated today and it is sometimes harder to see outside it:

Although in [the] early years the power brokers knew they were destroying others' tools of production (industrial capital) in the ongoing battle for economic territory, trade has now become so complex that few of today's powerful are aware of the waste and destruction created by the continuation of this neo-mercantalist struggle for markets. Instead, they feel that it is they who are responsible for the world's improving standards of living and that they are defending not only their rights but everybody's rights.

This illusion is possible because in the battle to monopolize society's productive tools and the wealth they produce, industrial capital has become so productive that — even as capital, resources, and labor are indiscriminately consumed — living standards in the over-capitalized nations have continued to improve. And societies are so accustomed to long struggles for improved living standards that to think it could be done much faster seems irrational.

J.W. Smith, The World's Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), p. 158.

However, economic decisions and policies impact people around the world. A broader discussion and presentation to a wider audience is therefore important. As disparities the world over have increased, between the haves and the have-nots, Smith quoted above, adds

Looking only at their bottom line, and listening to their own rhetoric, the managers of capital are unaware they are moving society back towards the wealth discrepencies of the early Industrial Revolution; this return to quasi-aristocratic privileges is a recipie for eventual contraction of commerce and destruction of their own wealth along with that of labor.

J.W. Smith, The World's Wasted Wealth 2, Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), pp. 164-165.

While Smith wrote the above in 1994, it is applicable today as well, with the recent wave of news about “corporate crime” and fascination of some CEOs and other executives as some major American companies have faced bankruptcy or have collapsed. Yet, the media, while offering an outpouring of news and analysis have by and large concentrated on individual characters and looked for scapegoats (CEOs being the current flavor!). The impacts of the underlying system itself has been less discussed and when it has, often been described as basically ok, but just affected by a few “bad apples”. As media critic Norman Solomon describes,

On the surface, media outlets are filled with condemnations of avarice. The July 15 edition of Newsweek features a story headlined “Going After Greed,” complete with a full-page picture of George W. Bush's anguished face. But after multibillion-dollar debacles from Enron to WorldCom, the usual media messages are actually quite equivocal — wailing about greedy CEOs while piping in a kind of hallelujah chorus to affirm the sanctity of the economic system that empowered them.

...Corporate theology about “the free enterprise system” readily acknowledges bad apples while steadfastly denying that the barrels are rotten. ... (“Let's hold people responsible — not institutions,” a recent Wall Street Journal column urged.)

...Basic questions about wealth and poverty — about economic relations that are glorious for a few, adequate for some and injurious for countless others — remain outside the professional focus of American journalism. In our society, prevalent inequities are largely the results of corporate function, not corporate dysfunction. But we're encouraged to believe that faith in the current system of corporate capitalism will be redemptive.

Norman Solomon, Renouncing Sins Against the Corporate Faith, Media Beat, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, July 11, 2002

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Access to Information and Economics

Economic policies are treated almost exclusively as business stories with coded language, more familiar to insiders than general readers or viewers. The absence of analytical reporting i.e., “they say this, they mean that” means that business news, especially when it comes to international stories, is rarely made clear. And international stories are often treated as business stories, as if only the business world should be interested. As a consequence, business values have triumphed, and business news is expanding as other coverage shrinks. This feeling of triumphalism in the business world has trickled down into every corner of life. Writing in the July 24th [2000] Fortune, Geoffrey Colvin urges capitalists to “savor this moment....[B]usiness is at the center and that's pretty much OK with everybody. It doesn't feel remarkable for us for the same reason that fish don't notice water; we live in it ... [L]ook at commerce's role in the culture. It's unprecedented.”

Danny Schechter, Globalization Limits Media Change, MediaChannel.org, July 26, 2000

While it sometimes appears as though trade and economic issues are boring and not of interest for most people in a society, it is in fact one of the most important. Economic decisions affect not only businesses, but individuals. Most wars throughout history have had economic and trade resources at their core. Legislation, or removal of some, can have an impact on factors such as working conditions, job security and wage stability. Access to information, then, plays an important part of enabling a society to know more about its nation's trade and economic policies.

Most agree that one part of allowing access to information is to ensure governments make their information available to their public in the first place. This is also enshrined in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. However, while there is some progress being made in increasing the transparency of some governments, it is often just rhetoric. In addition, it is just one aspect of society. In the increasingly globalized world where some transnational corporations wield a lot of political power as well, there are legitimate questions about whether private corporations should also be held accountable to the public via access to their information.

International institutions like the World Bank recognize the importance of the media in development issues. As a result they are attempting to address this more. However, they wish to directly influence journalists to promote their ideas and perspectives of markets and globalization etc, whereas critics, including Frank Vogl, former World Bank Director of Information and Public Affairs suggest that the Bank instead supports NGOs and independent foundations to carry out education for journalists. This way, the Bank is not seen as unfairly influencing important issues. Additionally, by supporting a myriad of NGOs and others, they may provide a better forum, or potential, to provide more balanced critique and support, based on issues at hand, rather than ideological influences and perspectives, which would be the effect if the World Bank was to directly influence journalists. (See this article from the Bretton Woods project for more information on this aspect.)

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Inaccurate Stereotyping of Protestors

Readers might be familiar with the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, USA during November 1999. These protests were covered by the mainstream media concentrating on images of the violence, the riot police beating back the “ruthless” (and unarmed) protestors who were “anti-trade and anti-international” etc.

The mainstream media made it seem that the protestors were misguided, when, in fact, they were protesting the concerns that a lot of people around the world have been raising for years. The protestors were in fact largely pro international trade, but not in its current corporate-led form (which is also not free trade, which proponents confuse the theory and reality with).

During that protest, there was indeed a minor element that were involved in violence, but most by far were non-violent. However, violence and sensationalism sell. Media corporations benefit from the current form of globalization. Combine both these perspectives and it is easy to see how the media distorted the events.

The following highlights quite well some of the mainstream media response to dealing with the anti-corporate globalization protests:

Author and environmentalist Paul Hawken, writing of his experiences in Seattle during the 1999 demonstrations, has a telling vignette:

[O]ne of the two Newsweek reporters in Seattle, called me from her hotel room at the Four Seasons and wanted to know if this was the '60s redux.

No, I told her. The '60s were primarily an American event; the protests against the WTO are international.

Who are the leaders? she wanted to know.

There are no leaders in the traditional sense. But there are thought leaders, I said.

Who are they? she asked.

I began to name some. . . .

Hawken goes on to mention at least a dozen and a half individuals and their institutions. His story continues:

Stop, stop, she said. I can't use these names in my article. Why not? Because Americans have never heard of them. Instead, Newsweek editors put the picture of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynksi, in the article because he had, at one time, purchased some of [anarchist leader] John Zerzan's writings.

The protests and the property damage caused by a decided minority of protesters make global headlines and television news. But little is written about the tens of thousands who attend teach-ins and conferences or about what those giving talks and leading workshops at such events, even at the demonstrations themselves, actually have to say.

Robin Broad, Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, March 2002) p.2 (link is to an on-line sample)

It is also worth noting some comments made by economists and others that support globalization in its current form. Some, including economists from the World Bank, have suggested that the protestors are misguided and that non internationalism is what lead to Nazi Germany. This is a fairly serious accusation. However, there may be some truth to it as well. That is, while much of the “movement” can be described as left-wing in their politicial stance, there were also right wing elements that protested against the WTO. While a broad spectrum of people, from left and right are to be expected, it is the more extremist versions, from all sides, which can be a concern.

Some extremist right wing groups in particular do have an isolationist type of agenda with the risk that the largely social justice, pro-democracy oriented protest movement against corporate-led globalization could attract more people to the extreme perspectives. Some extremist left wing groups worry institutions for their methods or ideas as well, such as having a completely decentralized system where there are less power holders. Side NoteSaying that, the diversity of the “movement” could be considered both a strength and a weakness — a strength in the number of people and issues, but possibly a weakness due to sometimes separate specific agendas or issues being campaigned on. Since the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the subsequent “War on Terror”, as the U.S. and others now have an excuse to clamp down on civil rights (in the name of freedom!) the largely vocal social justice movements have become somewhat subdued. However, if in addition, the media continues to distort and dumb down the perspectives and issues of such large movements, then the issues of social justice, democracy and rights etc risk getting drowned out.

In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen has pushed political discourse towards intolerance. Those who support Jörg Haider in Austria, the Vlaams Blok in Belgium, the Lega Nord in Italy and Pauline Hanson in Australia are doing the same. The hard-edged liberal populism of Anglo-Saxon countries - the Republican right in the US, neo-Thatcherism, the Canadian Reform Party - have also mobilised populist anxieties against cosmopolitan elites [corporate elites and others backing the current form of globalization]. Phenomena like Americans who believe that the UN, the World Bank and their own government are conspiring to destroy their republic are disturbing, especially when they justify armed enclaves and blowing up federal buildings.

George Ross, Business is our only Business, Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2000

However, for the World Bank economists to have claimed that the protestors are going down this path suggests that they do not understand the wide variety of reasons people are protesting. Given that by far the largest majority of people were in some way social justice and democracy activists, not right wing extremists, then these accusations distort the perspectives of the protestors. These World Bank economists apparently do not then seem to realize that diversity exists, and use scare mongering for any dissent that threatens all they have learned. While most protestors show that the current form of corporate-led globalization is increasing poverty, the World Bank economists scoff and scorn at them, smug in their faith of the current form of globalization to be the only way to help the poor.

If such a claim can be made from such mainstream economists that the protestors are heading towards Nazism types of scenarios, then it would be fair to point out that corporations have top down, fascist structures, and corporate-led globalism doesn't say too much for democracy. (In fact, as mentioned in the geopolitics section of this web site, dictators have been supported by the likes of the United States and others primarily because they have been able to control their people, and hence labor and resources are available cheaply. The US usually “intervenes” in the name of democracy, but usually it is when a democratically elected group is seen as a threat to the US because they may be able to provide more rights to their people. This has been a common theme throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world, since World War II.)

While all corporations are not bad, as some have made some great contributions to society, such sweeping statements about corporations like this would be met by the mainstream media with ridicule and would not be mentioned. That is fair enough. However, when other sweeping statements are made on other issues, there is no problem with the mainstream media echoing those!

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The World Economic Forum at Davos

At the beginning of 2000, keen to avoid the embarrassment of Seattle, the world economic powerhouses (corporate leaders and major governments) met again at Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. Here, as well as reiterating the positive benefits of free trade, the mainstream media were actually urged to be the message carriers of the virtues of free trade and the New World Order. That should perhaps start to ring alarm bells. This surely sounds like the mainstream media are being asked to push forth a certain propaganda, rather than remain (or, more accurately, become!) objective and allow alternative views to be voiced, fairly.

President Bill Clinton indicated similar things himself. He stressed how open, or free, rules-based trading was the only possible way forward and that the media would have to be responsible for selling that message to the public to gain their support for this New World Order. (Interestingly, this is also what the new U.S. President, George Bush said, in Quebec, 2001, during the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement negotiations that saw similar protests). But no-one questioned him (or Bush) about the reality it actually is;

  • Who is free? (And what is free -- it is mainly capital, which has had the increasing ability to move around unchecked. It is part of the reason that volatile capital flows have led to economic collapse in some countries during the global financial crisis towards the end of the 1990s.)
  • What are the actual rules (are the rules themselves actually fair or not)?
  • Who can get away with not having to abide by the rules? (Typically it is the multinational corporations and more powerful western governments -- after all, who would be able to force them to abide by the rules?)
  • And, ultimately, who benefits, and who doesn't?

These are the types of points that the protestors are typically trying to make. Yet, the media helps to generally avoid voicing such hard-hitting criticisms that are close to home. (Often, they may concentrate on the views of groups who are against free trade for ulteria, nationalistic reasons, and make it seem as though all who oppose the current form of globalization have these reasons behind their motives.)

If these questions are allowed to be tackled and answered from a diverse set of perspectives, it may help result in increased public debate. This may help pressurize fairer rules, practices and accountability on to corporations which they would then need to abide by. This in turn would increase the possibility for globalization to become a positive force compared to how it is seen today by so many.

(In 2001, at the next Davos meeting, there was, in parallel, a massive World Social Forum meeting in Brazil, which didn't get too much attention in the media either.)

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More Information

  • For more about the portrayal of protestors, some of the real issues the protestors were trying to raise and additional insight into the media portrayal of the events at Seattle, please go to this web site's look at the Seattle protests. It explores some of the above in more detail and provides a number of links to detailed discussions and thoughts.
  • The protests page on this section looks more into how the protests of corporate globalization has been a world wide event, not just restricted to children of the well off in the West, as many media commentators have claimed. Also listed is a sample of nations where protests have occurred since Seattle, and long before.
  • For a look at some additional, and in-depth, issues into a free media in the context of trade, check out the Free Trade and Media section from IMPACS (Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society). They have numerous reports and articles worth looking at.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, September 07, 1998
  • Last Updated: Sunday, July 14, 2002

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