Media Beat
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Published by Seattle Times, Nov. 13, 1993

Mass Media Cheerleading Slants Nafta Discussion

In theory, the biases of newspaper owners and publishers are confined to editorials, while the rest of the paper is fair and objective. This theory has been clearly refuted in the case of NAFTA - endorsed almost unanimously by media owners and other corporate managers.

A study of the country's two most influential papers - The New York Times and The Washington Post - shows news coverage slanted in favor of NAFTA.

Of the 201 total sources and experts quoted in the two papers from April through July, only six (3 percent of the total) were environmentalists. Not one representative of a labor union was quoted during the four months - although one person was quoted from a coalition that includes unions. Members of the public who would be affected by the pact were virtually invisible.

Who did get to speak in the Times and the Post? Most of the sources (51 percent) were U.S. government officials - overwhelmingly pro-NAFTA. Another 13 percent were corporate representatives, even more overwhelmingly supporting the pact. And 11 percent were foreign government officials - mainly Mexican and Canadian - also heavily pro-NAFTA.

Adding it all up, NAFTA supporters outnumbered opponents by more than 3-to-1.

Besides the ability to slant debate, news outlets have the power to turn reality upside down by claiming the debate is slanted the other way.

What prompted our study was the whining from major media about the unfairness of the NAFTA debate. The New York Times reported in August that business was stepping up its pro-NAFTA efforts "after months of letting unions and environmental groups dominate the debate." Yet those groups had been virtually excluded from Times news coverage.

In May, with a typical lack of evidence, Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowan proclaimed that "most of the voices being heard on the trade treaty, including those of labor union leaders and former presidential candidates Jerry Brown and Ross Perot, are solidly anti-NAFTA."

When Sen. Byron Dorgan, a NAFTA foe, conducted his own column-inch count of editorial and op-ed articles appearing in The Washington Post this year, he found that the pro-pact bias was nearly 7-to-1. (Other papers were even more lopsided.) The senator wrote up his findings in a column, "Getting a Word in Edgewise on NAFTA" - but the Post wouldn't print it.

In national media, the pundit spectrum excludes commentators who advocate for labor or the environment. Michael Kinsley, who supposedly represents "the left" on CNN, is a vehement NAFTA proponent. Anthony Lewis, the syndicated columnist who has represented the "left wing" of The New York Times for years, touted NAFTA by attacking union efforts to protect middle-class manufacturing jobs - which Lewis dismissed as largely "low-wage jobs."

With labor-bashing intensifying in the media, President Clinton picked up the cudgel when he denounced unions for lobbying Congress with "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics." In the next breath, Clinton complained that pro-NAFTA business owners "have not gotten their employees and rank-and-file people to call and say they're for it." No pundit pointed out how "roughshod" it can be for management to pressure workers to support its political positions.

For months, news reports have trivialized NAFTA opposition by referring to the "strange bedfellows" of critics: Ross Perot, Patrick Buchanan, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader. Coverage has only recently noted the oddball alliance in support of NAFTA - which unites Clinton and many liberals with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, George Will and Newt Gingrich.

Media decisions have helped make Ross Perot the most visible NAFTA critic - despite the TV networks' refusal to air his anti-NAFTA infomercials. (NBC has sold Perot air time for messages it doesn't oppose, like deficit reduction.)

Long before Perot became a household word, coalitions of environmental and labor groups were rallying the public against NAFTA. Their spokespersons are articulate and factual - but rarely allowed on prime time.

On the very day Al Gore challenged Perot to debate, Ralph Nader - who has credibility with middle-class consumers - criticized NAFTA with eloquence and detail at a National Press Club news conference. But unless you saw Nader on C-SPAN, you probably never heard about it.

Many of NAFTA's leading critics see the issue as one of corporate accountability: the need to restrain the power of multinational corporations that owe allegiance only to their bottom line - not to communities, workers or the environment.

Instead of folksy sound bites from Ross Perot, what our country needs is a serious debate on corporate flight from commitments to the public.

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