By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Published by Seattle Times, Apr. 13, 1994
Ignore The Cheerleading; There's A Rat In GATT
Although the media debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement was imbalanced - with pro-NAFTA voices dominating news reports and commentary - at least there was a debate.
That can't be said about a more earth-shaking pact signed yesterday by over 100 countries in Morocco. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has received remarkably little media coverage and virtually no debate - even though Congress has held countless hearings on the agreement.
Most of GATT's scant news coverage has amounted to cheerleading.
Last December, GATT spent two days in the news when U.S. and European officials concluded a seven-year round of negotiations - the so-called "Uruguay Round."
A front-page story in The New York Times began this way: "Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Just say it 50 more times and all doubts will melt away." It seemed like satire, but the one-sided article - headlined "How Free Trade Prompts Growth: A Primer" - did little more than quote economists singing the praises of "free trade."
And it was no joke when ABC's Peter Jennings introduced a report on what GATT "means for the U.S." - which allowed only one person to answer: Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, the man who'd negotiated for the United States.
Kantor's response: "Jobs. Wealth. Increased standard of living. Growing capital. More profits." (He forgot to promise "eternal life.")
There are opposing views on GATT. You just don't hear them much in the mass media.
When Ralph Nader and Public Citizen recently unveiled a detailed study showing how GATT could undermine U.S. food safety standards, the press yawned.
Consumer-rights groups strongly oppose GATT and have joined with unions and others in the Citizens Trade Campaign. Key environmental groups - including several that supported NAFTA - are also in opposition. GATT doesn't even recognize the meager environmental and labor safeguards contained in NAFTA "side agreements."
Launched in 1948, GATT negotiations initially were aimed at reducing tariffs. But critics say that the recent Uruguay Round - propelled by Reagan-era deregulation mania - became a power play by multinational corporations to weaken the authority of national legislative bodies in protecting consumers, workers and the environment.
Critics fear GATT would usher in a New World Corporate Order by establishing an unaccountable, secretive World Trade Organization - similar in authority to the United Nations, but without giving nations any votes - that could jeopardize democratically enacted laws.
GATT will reduce not just tariffs, but also so-called "non-tariff trade barriers" - allowing the World Trade Organization to rule against health and safety inspections, environmental laws, farm subsidies, etc.
GATT tribunals have already obliged Thailand to lift its ban on tobacco imports, and ruled in favor of Mexico when it challenged the U.S. dolphin protection law as an "illegal barrier" to Mexico's ability to sell us tuna.
The European Union is currently using GATT to challenge U.S. auto fuel economy standards as a barrier to gas guzzlers. Europe says other "trade barriers" include the U.S. Consumer Nutrition and Education labeling act, and state recycling laws. Under the new GATT, if a U.S. law is declared a trade barrier, the United States would have to change the law or pay perpetual trade penalties.
Although signed by more than 100 countries, the Uruguay Round was driven by giant companies based in the wealthiest nations. A vice president of the huge Cargill agribusiness firm drafted the GATT provisions deregulating agriculture - which have sparked protests by family farmers in many countries, and riots by farmers in India.
Ralph Nader denounces GATT and the "megacorporations" that secretly helped negotiate it. Testifying before Congress he argued: "The Fortune 200's GATT agenda would make the air you breathe dirtier and the water you drink more polluted. It would cost jobs, depress wage levels and make workplaces less safe. It would destroy family farms and make the food you eat contaminated with bacteria and pesticides and preservatives."
Nader's testimony didn't get any major media attention.
GATT could empower big corporations to undermine laws in closed trade hearings, at the global level, that they could not defeat in open debate in state legislatures or Congress.
It comes down to a conflict between big business and democracy. Judging from news coverage of GATT, major media outlets are siding with big business.