Outside View: Skewed view on trade

By ALAN TONELSON, Special to United Press International  |  April 26, 2002 at 4:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 24 (UPI) -- Every now and then something happens showing that the situation is even worse than we think -- that on a routine basis, media coverage of globalization violates the most basic principles of sound journalism, and even common sense, in ways that would simply never be tolerated in reporting and analysis on other subjects.

Similarly, every now and then something happens to remind us that the globalization cheerleaders will stop at nothing to advance their "America Last" agenda. Such an episode was prompted recently by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick's April 14 op-ed article in The New York Times on fast track trade negotiating authority for the president.

As indicated by its title, "Falling Behind on Free Trade," Zoellick's article sought to create the impression that Congress's recent failure to approve presidential trade negotiating authority was paralyzing America's international economic policy.

While dozens of foreign countries were signing trade agreements with each other and allegedly locking the United States out of their markets, U.S. trade diplomats could only watch helplessly from the sidelines.

Actually, Zoellick's article wasn't even an article -- it was a patchwork of recent speeches and government "fact sheets." Nor was there any new content, at least not for anyone even minimally informed on globalization. "Stale propaganda" is a more accurate description. In fact, Zoellick's figures have been a staple of Congressional fast track rhetoric for months.

Most important, however, the Zoellick article was completely misleading. And most discouraging, the Times op-ed staff was completely snookered.

Apparently, no one in that office knew enough to question Zoellick's claim of years of U.S. inactivity on the trade front. In politics, the biggest lies are indeed usually the most successful. And, of course, no one knew how clichéd his arguments had become.

True, such editors need to be generalists, for they publish articles on everything under the sun. But their performance certainly mocks all the talk about traditional journalists providing desperately needed quality control over published material in the Internet age.

Moreover, on a regular basis, the Times' own admittedly scattershot coverage of globalization belied Zoellick's claim on a regular basis.

Nor, apparently, was anyone at the Times imbued with enough skepticism to question or fact-check a government official's assertion. It was simply taken at face value.

Evidently, we've come a long way from the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Zoellick's dishonesty prompted me to write letter to the editor, which the Times wound up running. But the U.S. Trade Representative's office could not simply accept being caught red-handed. They tried justifying their deceit with a display of parsing that would have made President Clinton proud.

As my letter pointed out, far from being handcuffed by the lack of trade negotiating authority, the United States between 1992 and 1999 alone had signed and entered into 142 bilateral trade agreements, several multilateral agreements, and 22 bilateral investment agreements closely related to trade.

Reflecting even more poorly on Zoellick, the source of this information was his own agency's Web site, www.ustr.org.

To their credit, the Times letters staff decided to verify my figures. I pointed them to the Web site material, and soon after was told that the op-ed staff, which was thinking of running a correction, called Zoellick's office for an explanation.

What they got was the grown-up's equivalent of "my dog ate it." According to a staffer, Zoellick and I were talking about two different things. He was referring to free-trade agreements, which seek to eliminate conventional trade barriers like tariffs and quotas altogether. These are totally different from other kinds of trade agreements, the staffer explained.

I managed to convince the letters staff that this was a distinction without a difference at best -- especially since the Web site itself described the agreements Zoellick ignored as designed to "afford increased foreign market access or reduce foreign barriers and other trade distorting policies and practices." And the letter ran a few days later.

The entire episode bugged me big time, and it should bug you, too.

I am not expecting the op-ed staff of the world's most important newspaper to know the ins and outs of the fast track debate. I am not even expecting them to question the manifestly absurd premise that the rest of a slow-growing world will not negotiate with the most important, most dynamic market on earth simply because our legislators insist on taking the Constitution seriously. (Though wouldn't that be refreshing!) And I am certainly not expecting these staffs to be regular readers of government Web sites. (We policy wonks will gladly carry that burden.)

By the same token, I am not expecting government officials to abjure playing fast and loose with the facts.

But when they're caught red-handed, the least public servants can do is respond with a curt "No comment" rather than embarrass themselves further with transparently amateurish and increasingly inane fibs.

Democracy is difficult enough when our leaders have scant regard for the truth. It's impossible when they lose all self-respect.

Alan Tonelson, a columnist at Tradealert.org, is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation. His recent book on globalization, "The Race to the Bottom," will be issued in paperback this fall by Westview Press.

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