At the Top of the World
When demonstrators packed the streets of Seattle last December to scuttle the World Trade Organization meeting and shout about their dissatisfaction with economic globalization, some journalists described them as "politically correct" activists. Reporters and pundits contended that the protestors offered simplistic and one-sided solutions lacking any objectivity. Two months later, scores of these same media commentators showed up in Davos, in the Swiss alps, to cover the annual summit of the World Economic Forum, a gathering of many of the most important corporate and government leaders in the world. I joined them to watch top media chieftains interact with the overlords of the global economy-only to discover, ironically, that there was a PC quality to the media's cheerleading at Davos.
In this case, "P" stood not for "political" but for "participate"-and "promote": many media people were invited to Davos as insiders, not outsiders; to join, not to watch. The agenda of globalization requires public acceptance of that model as the only viable strategy for economic growth. That was the message that Bill Clinton brought to Davos. The architects of the new global economic order need to market this message; that's the role they've assigned to the media. Media outlets have become willing promoters of globalization and consistent attackers of its noisy critics. The media not only spin global news to hype market values but are themselves purveyors of products, which they bring to the world market. They sell as they tell. In Davos, many media companies had displays to demonstrate their wares and push propaganda via their information technology and specialized services.
As for the "C" in "PC," I was struck by how the media landscape was literally, physically divided along class lines. The working press-the grunts who file daily copy-were stuck in the dungeon-like basement of the high-tech Congress Center, with its plethora of conference rooms, meeting halls and executive lounges looming above. They were crammed into small, smoky rooms in the area typically used, in Swiss buildings, for fallout shelters. You had to squeeze your way between the rows of computer screens and reporters babbling in a cacophony of different tongues. There, behind bombproof doors, many media drones seemed tethered to their computers, pounding away to meet deadline cycles. It's important to note that all of these working class journos had badges restricting their access to certain Forum events. Thus, much of the copy they wrote was based on reams of handouts, session summaries and the snatches of the proceedings they watched on live, closed-circuit TV. The whole building was quickly awash in tons of background documents and company promo packets. The airlines would later rack up a fortune in excess baggage charges for overweight luggage, stuffed with forests' worth of Davos documents. I nearly suffered a hernia hauling all my booty home.
A level up, some of the better-known media brands, such as CNN, CNBC and Reuters, had their own suites and mini-studios, designed to shuttle interviewees in and out for quick Q&As and pithy soundbites. A state-of-the-art, user-friendly computer conferencing system with scores of available terminals made requesting appointments from the high and mighty easy and efficient-for the media's high and mighty. Outside crews from lesser media outlets were escorted in for limited shooting on the conference floor.
Further up the media food chain, and not confined to offices or routines, "name" correspondents were given privileged "all access" white badges and full conference status. The editors and star columnists were labeled "media leaders" and invited to join key panels to share their punditry with the crowds. Usually, these were globalization gurus such as the MIT economist Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times op-ed page. The more skeptical among us were kept in the seats, not on the stage. We could ask questions but not offer perspectives.
Finally, at the apex of the heap, were the big media bosses and new media honchos who were there to do much more than report on the schmoozing. They wheeled and dealed in separate meetings in nearby well-guarded hotels and special offices. I met Microsoft chief Bill Gates; Howard Stringer, the newly knighted head of Sony; Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg Media; Rob Glazer of Real Networks; Shelby Coffey of CNN; and Robert Bartlet, the ultra-conservative commissar of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. I missed AOL's Steve Case, News Corp's Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller of USA Networks, and other top players who were on hand to promote their companies and explore new business alliances.
Significantly, and not surprisingly, there was no discussion, at any level of the media pyramid, of the media's role and responsibility in covering economic issues-nor did any media company take part in the many discussions of corporate social responsibility. As well, none of the handful of well-known critics of globalization from non-governmental organizations, who were invited to add spice and conscience to this year's debates, challenged media practices or the largely uncritical coverage of the event. They, like the policy makers they came to criticize, were happy to get their 15 seconds in the media sun.
This is not to deny that critical and reflective reports on the Forum did emerge in some outlets. The Wall Street Journal's news pages exposed the business-related conflicts of interest of Forum founder Klaus Schwab, while the International Herald Tribune reported thoroughly on NGO concerns and gave op-ed space to globalization critics like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Malaysian environmentalist Martin Kohr. London Observer's editor Will Sutton slammed the lack of critical voices in the conference, noting that "the voices arguing that corporations need to behave...socially responsibly, and with an eye on environmental sustainability, are the weakest in the 11 years I have been coming here. In over 70 sessions on business there are no more than half a dozen in and around this territory-and they tend to be undersubscribed. The 'hard' conversations are about how to maximize shareholder value and how to be a winner in the new economy." Nonetheless, there were many experienced and thoughtful writers on hand who deserve credit for competent and balanced takes.
Overall, however, the Forum did a good job of comforting-some might say co-opting-reporters. I'll admit to enjoying media dinners (paid for by Coca-Cola) and a special program for the "Club of Media Leaders" featuring briefings by His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan and the billionaire King of New Media, Bill Gates. It was hard not to feel a sense of importance and entitlement when supping with kings and king-servers. These "briefings" were largely superficial. Gates, for example, sang the praises of Microsoft's 2000 product line, sounding like a salesman, not a visionary. There was an unmistakably American spin on all of this, too, evident in the cozy meals arranged with U.S. trade-negotiator Charlene Barshefsky and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.
American officials dominated the Forum, perhaps reflecting the still ballooning U.S. economy. President Clinton flew in, along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and National Economic Advisor Gene Sperling. While other countries dispatched Presidents and Ministers to lobby the corporate elite, none sent more big guns than Washington did. This year, Davos was USA all the way.
While CEOs and monarchs wined and dined with the press, activists got nowhere near this high-toned brand of access to the media-though top U.S. financier George Soros, who has warned of a "capitalist threat" as dangerous as yesteryear's communist threat, did get his own meet-the-press luncheon. A watchdog group, Public Eye on Davos, condemned the focus of the Forum and sponsored a debate between NGO leaders and Forum officials, which I moderated. It was poorly covered-perhaps because it was held at a nearby asthma clinic, which would have required journalists to leave the warm cocoon of the Conference Center.
TV crews did hustle into the streets when a smaller than expected anti-globalization demonstration finally materialized. The protest was quickly contained by the Swiss police, who physically limited media access. I was in the right place at the right time, which gave me a front-row seat when a handful of stick-wielding, slogan-shouting anarchists trashed the windows of a local McDonald's. Unfortunately, the fast-charging demonstrators-with their German signs calling for victory for Mexico's Zapatista rebels and freedom for American death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal-made little effort, unlike their Seattle counterparts, to communicate their ideas to the press, or even to translate them for non-German speakers. Confused and incoherent, the messages and concerns of the protestors were reduced to a side bar in most articles. Some TV units did get pictures of the melee, which included snowballs hurled at tear gas-toting police (two of whom were assaulted by the protestors).
Often, media coverage snidely denigrated globalization critics. Here's Diane Francis of Canada's National Post on John Sweeney. "While some CEOs try to skimp, union chiefs live like kings. Take John Sweeney, head of the 13 million-member AFL-CIO union giant in the United States." After criticizing Globalization, "he left for his spacious Davos apartment digs. No spartan ski lodgings for this self-appointed champion of the working class around the globe." Self-appointed? Of all the critics in Davos, Sweeney was one of the few who was elected. He doesn't deserve this type of cheap shot in a town where most corporate CEOs were housed in far fancier luxury suites.
To their credit, many of the journalists and editorialists I met at the Forum had thoughtful and critical insights to share about their own media experiences, though it is doubtful many of these critiques will make it into print. One of these conversations-an informal discussion about media corruption worldwide among an international group of journalists-will be the subject of an upcoming "Dissector" column
For now, I am still digesting the dialogues and diatribes I attended at Davos. Then, too, I've resolved to work hard at losing calories from all those freebie, sauce-rich Swiss meals as I sort through my piles of Davos detritus and watch the follow-up globalization infomercials.
Danny Schechter, "The News Dissector," is the Founder and Executive Editor of the Media Channel (www.mediachanne.org) and author of News Dissector (Electron Press, February).