Media Beat, July 21, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

"Free Trade" vs. Free Press

Our country's most influential daily, the New York Times, has long claimed to cover the news "without fear or favor." But if you saw the Times business section on July 21 [1993], you saw that paper tilting in favor of one side in a national debate.

Labor unions were so upset by the bias that they set up informational picket lines at the newspaper's headquarters in New York and at Times bureaus in seven other cities.

The protests were sparked by a seven-page "advertorial" that combined ads with simulated news articles and columns, all harmoniously singing the praises of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - the controversial pact that would open up investment and trade across the Mexican border.

It's hard to imagine the Times bestowing a seven-page package on one side in the abortion, gun-control or gays-in-the-military debates. But in the NAFTA controversy, the Times has granted "most-favored" treatment to the corporate side.

In the coming months, NAFTA is likely to embroil the country in a rancorous debate. But there was little rancor in the New York Times NAFTA section, and no debate. The Times adamantly refused to accept articles, or even paid ads, from anyone opposing NAFTA.

So readers of the Times did not hear from critics who argue that NAFTA will speed the exodus of U.S. investment and jobs toward border-area industrial plants in Mexico - "maquiladoras" - which employ low-paid labor in often unsafe conditions, and which pollute both sides of the border.

NAFTA is opposed by many U.S. labor unions, Public Citizen (founded by Ralph Nader), and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. None of them was allowed to take out ads or contribute a word to the Times supplement.

By offering its pages exclusively to U.S. and Mexican companies that stand to profit from NAFTA - like AT&T and SkyTel - The New York Times grossed an estimated $200,000.

The package contained columns extolling NAFTA by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and Sen. Bill Bradley, articles on NAFTA's myriad benefits, and a newsy item reporting that "special interest groups - most notably labor and environmental - have funded and organized their attempts to derail the agreement very well."

When we called The New York Times to get its explanation, the paper's spokesperson stressed that the word "Advertisement" appeared in top corners of each page, and that a small print disclaimer said the supplement "did not involve the reporting or editing staff of the New York Times."

But we've obtained a letter that the Times sent to companies soliciting their ad dollars to underwrite the pro-NAFTA section. "In an effort to educate the public and influence Washington decision makers," the letter stated, "The New York Times has planned a series of special advertorials presenting the positive economic and social benefits of NAFTA."

According to the letter, the Times' pro-NAFTA supplement would address the "many Americans (who) require further understanding if they are to be supportive of free trade."

The best way a newspaper can promote "understanding" of an issue is with in-depth reporting - not a profit-making scheme that chooses sides. By opting for the latter approach, the Times cast doubt on its ability to engage in fair coverage of the issue.

In its editorials, the Times - like other national dailies - has been unabashedly pro-NAFTA. Big media outlets are often owned by multinational corporations that profit from "free trade" policies. The Times, for example, benefits as a result of its ownership interest in Canadian paper mills.

For years, the New York Times has maintained an editorial posture that frequently equates what's good for the country with what's good for business: deregulation, free trade, standing tough against unions, etc.

And now there's the advertorial promotion of NAFTA.

It's ironic that only nine days earlier, on July 12, the New York Times front page featured a Times opinion poll showing little support for NAFTA. Remarkably, 49% of U.S. citizens said they knew nothing about the pact.

Given the extent of ignorance about such an important topic, a newspaper truly committed to covering the issues "without fear or favor" might have published a special section of solid journalism, not just advertorials limited to one point of view.

Of course there's an economic advantage to the New York Times approach: Journalism requires that reporters be paid. When it comes to one-sided propaganda, politically minded corporations will foot the bill.

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