Nearing Global Summit, WTO On High Media Ground
When thousands of protesters converge on Seattle at the end of this month to challenge the global summit of the World Trade Organization, they're unlikely to get a fair hearing from America's mass media.
Consider how one of the nation's most influential newspapers framed the upcoming confrontation as November began. The Washington Post reported on its front page that the WTO has faced "virulent opposition" -- an assessment not quoted or attributed to anyone -- presumably just a matter of fact.
"Virulent"? According to my dictionary, the mildest definition of the word is "intensely irritating, obnoxious or harsh." The other definitions: "extremely poisonous or pathogenic; bitterly hostile or antagonistic; hateful."
Don't you just love objective reporting?
Headlined above the fold on page one of the Post, the Nov. 2 article went on to quote four pro-WTO sources: the organization's president, a top executive at the Goldman, Sachs investment firm, the U.S. trade representative and a member of the British House of Commons. In contrast, quotations from foes of the WTO were scarce and fleeting.
Such coverage of trade issues is significant because it's routine. For much of the U.S. news media, the virtues of economic globalization are self-evident, like motherhood and apple pie.
Overall, in recent years, journalists depicted the NAFTA and GATT trade pacts as steps toward rationality and global progress. Opponents have been frequently discussed -- but not often heard. The media "debate" over globalization has resembled the sound of one side clapping.
Many of the anti-WTO activists who'll soon be heading to Seattle have gained in-depth knowledge about key aspects of trade and the global economy. They will bring a wealth of information and deep concern about the environment, labor, human rights and economic justice.
Meanwhile, in the halls of corporate power, strategists are worried.
The Nov. 8 issue of Business Week features a downbeat piece by Jeffrey Garten, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, who declares: "In late November, Seattle is likely to be the scene of a big test for global capitalism. That's when more than 1,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are planning to disrupt the kickoff of a new round of global trade negotiations."
Similar concerns are being voiced by many other media commentators. What are they afraid of? Undue democratic participation in decision-making. NGOs "have skillfully exploited the void between shrinking governments unable to cushion the impact of change on ordinary citizens and multinational companies that are the agents of that change," Garten writes.
Translation: Huge firms have been able to bend and shape government policies, while "ordinary citizens" have suffered dire consequences. Rather than passively accept the results, activist groups are resisting -- and what's worse, they're getting somewhere.
"While governments and chief executives bore the public and the media with sterile abstractions about free markets," Garten adds, "NGOs are sending more nuanced messages sensitive to the anxieties of local communities around the world. At the same time, they are preparing sophisticated strategies to influence television networks, newspapers and magazines."
Translation: Activists are threatening to usurp the prerogatives of big money to determine the main media messages.
"If Washington and Corporate America don't move decisively," Garten warns, "NGOs could dominate public opinion on global trade and finance."
Translation: Washington and Corporate America must make sure that they continue to dominate public opinion.
But the fears of some are the hopes of others: During the week after Thanksgiving, events in Seattle could signify a breakthrough for advocates of democratic processes. The surfacing activism could create a new dynamic powerful enough to shift the terms of public discourse.
Throughout this decade, as government leaders and corporate execs have marched to the beat of multinational drums, grassroots oppositional movements have taken root and flowered in many communities. Gradually, since the founding of the World Trade Organization five years ago, they have developed ways to monitor the secretive WTO's activities and to work together -- across boundaries of race, class, language, culture and nationality.
Truly democratic procedures -- not unelected WTO officials -- should determine the rules of the global economy. The implications are profound: for human rights, workers, public health and the environment. With a worldwide movement emerging to challenge the corporate globalizers, we'll see how much of its message can get through the media filters during the historic Seattle summit.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."