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The Media's Love Affair with "Free Trade"

By Norman Solomon



Few political issues get more one-sided media treatment than "free trade." So it's unlikely that we'll see much journalistic balance as the July 1 deadline nears for President Clinton's report card on the first three years of the NAFTA trade pact.

Even before Mexico joined the United States and Canada under a free-trade banner, major U.S. news outlets were in the habit of cheering for NAFTA and similar agreements.

Back in mid-1993, as the NAFTA debate gathered steam in Congress and around the country, the New York Times was so gung- ho that it published a seven-page special section on the controversy -- and refused to include any ads or articles opposed to NAFTA.

The Times sent out a letter that sought only pro-NAFTA advertising: "In an effort to educate the public and influence Washington decision-makers, the New York Times has planned a series of special advertorials presenting the positive economic and social benefits of NAFTA."

In medialand, the tilt for ratification of NAFTA was drastic. The Washington Post provided a typical slant, with pro- NAFTA sources in news coverage outnumbering opponents by 71 percent to 17 percent. Among scores of Post opinion-page articles, the pro-NAFTA ratio was 6 to 1.

Taking effect when 1994 began, the North American pact was a prelude to something much bigger. The global GATT treaty -- promoted by the news media and approved on Capitol Hill later that year -- made the United States a member of the World Trade Organization.

After clamoring for NAFTA and GATT, media giants are hardly inclined to second-guess themselves. In June, as Clinton readies his report, the incentives will be strong to put a pretty face on NAFTA.

Avid news watchers are apt to encounter someone from the Heritage Foundation, the influential think tank that has just declared NAFTA to be "a remarkable success." Heritage claims that "if NAFTA were to be graded on its effects ... it would receive an A-plus."

But you'd be lucky as a lotto winner under a blue moon to search the TV channels and find a rebuttal from someone at Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch -- where the deputy director, Chris McGinn, remarks that "giving NAFTA an A-plus is like giving `Ishtar' five stars." He cites "a mountain of evidence of NAFTA's failure."

You probably won't hear much about sobering economic realities:

* Sure, U.S. exports to Mexico have increased. However, reporting on exports but not imports is like mentioning only one team's score in a baseball game.

NAFTA raised the U.S. trade deficit by almost $40 billion. A modest U.S. trade surplus with Mexico changed into a new trade deficit of more than $16 billion -- and the trade deficit with Canada climbed by $23 billion.

* The U.S. Department of Labor has certified that more than 125,000 Americans lost their jobs because of trade with Mexico and Canada. This is a tip of NAFTA's job-loss iceberg, since the figure only covers one retraining program (to which most eligible workers do not apply).

In fact, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute estimates that NAFTA eliminated close to half a million U.S. jobs in its first 32 months.

* Two out of three laid-off U.S. workers end up in lower- paying jobs.

Overall, current hype about job creation ignores a disturbing trend: The vast majority of new jobs are now in low-paying sectors of the U.S. economy.

* NAFTA has coincided with a severe economic crisis for Mexico's people. Extreme poverty jumped from 31 percent of the population in 1993 to 50 percent in 1996.

Meanwhile, factories along the U.S.-Mexico border continue to spew out large amounts of toxic chemicals -- and there are a lot more of those factories as a result of the trade accord.

A growing number of firms are using NAFTA and GATT to circumvent national health protections for workers, consumers and the general public. Often the clinching argument is that such safeguards are "anti-competitive."

By now, "free trade" is a hallowed media buzz phrase. But it's a misnomer. The freedom, more and more, is for corporations to cross borders and do as they please. No wonder huge vested interests are fueling the globalization steamroller.

As the May 19 edition of Asia Times reported, "The major constituent supporting free trade, of course, is big business. It has led the charge for change in recent years and still wields great influence in both major U.S. parties." Closer to home, American media are rarely so blunt.


Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His book "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) has been published by Common Courage Press.

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