The cover of Newsweek seemed dredged from the archives of 1968. Anguished protestors manhandled by police in riot gear – one almost expected pictures of Black Panthers and LBJ inside. The scene of course was Seattle, and the protests at the World Trade Organization meeting there. But the visual reference to the 1960s was deliberate. Newsweek, like most of the major media, wanted to portray the protests as violent, threatening, irrational, and just a little deranged.
We could write this off to the corporate media’s congenital instinct for gore, or to aging baby boom editors who are mentally frozen in the political psychodramas of their youth. Yet the very next week, the cover of another news weekly suggested that more was involved. Time magazine’s person of the year was not someone who had labored for the well-being of humanity. It was Jeffrey Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, who is seeking to put your local bookstore out of business and whose mission in life is to sell a lot of stuff.
The choice had a grim reality, but the magazine was not making social comment. It was declaring, rather, that America is now officially the Land of Stuff; and our highest character type, our hero, is the guy who moves a lot of it. The symmetry was almost too good: Amazon.com is also based in Seattle.
The media take on the WTO protests there was probably the most revealing part of the whole episode. There was an offended and indignant quality, as though the media took the protests as a personal affront. “Is there anything more ridiculous in the news today,” huffed Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, “than the protests against the World Trade Organization?”
One rarely sensed that people like Friedman were trying to understand the protests. Rather, they were trying to make sure that no one took them seriously or thought about the issues that they raised.
A crude Marxist interpretation would point to economic interest – the way the major media in the US are multinational corporations with a lot at stake in the WTO. But here again, much more was involved. The coverage of Seattle reflected changes in the American newsroom. A generation or two ago, reporters were paid modestly, like schoolteachers or cops. They had a healthy skepticism of expert authorities and financial big shots. H.L. Mencken once skewered both in a delicious essay on academic economists and how they toadied to the moguls on their university boards of trustees.
Today, by contrast, reporters often make six-figure salaries. They are trained at the feet of the kind of experts that writers like Mencken ridiculed. More, they depend upon these experts for their daily story line. Most economic journalism is really authority journalism – what experts say, not what actually is. So reporters seek to show themselves reliable to their expert sources.
Instead of regarding economic dogma with curiosity and dispassion, reporters identify with it, and look down their noses at those who don’t. In an essay in Time magazine, Michael Kinsley explained patiently for the benighted that “students of economics are led step by step through layers of reasoning [on trade policy] until they see the light.”
He did not mean that ironically. Economics is the light. The answers are all there, in “the math,” Kinsley said. It did not seem to occur to him that critics of the WTO might have done the math and found it circular and tendentious, counting what economists want to count and leaving out what they don’t.
It helps, of course, that reporters themselves are wonderfully insulated from the bracing rigors of the international marketplace they urge upon everyone else. They enjoy built-in subsidies from mega-corporations like Microsoft, and they have the de facto protectionism of language. The day US publishers find a way to contract out their column-writing to low wage scribblers in Sri Lanka will be the day the opinion class in the US begins to have second thoughts about its myopic dogmas regarding trade. These changes in the newsroom have set the stage for a major shift in the media take on business and finance. High tech has been the catalyst that made it all congeal. Back when the economy was a matter of soybeans and steel, it seemed like dull stuff. High tech has made business sexy. It gives reporters neat stories to write; as players in what they euphemistically describe as the “information economy” (much of it is hype and noise), many get to cash in on the action too.
One result is that products themselves have become the news, the epicenter of what’s fit to print. The news today often reads like a kind of Commodities on Parade. Release of a new Microsoft Windows upgrade gets the kind of coverage once reserved for a revolution in China. News weeklies tout products as front-page stories. “Wireless Wonders” screamed the cover of US News on December 13th, under a banner that read, “The Best of Shop Till You Drop.” (The next week’s cover was “The Price of Prosperity: Working Harder than Ever,” but the editors apparently didn’t see the connection.)
National Public Radio, which is supposed to be an alternative to the corporate media, is becoming a case study of how ads and news have morphed into one another. The Sunday after the WTO meetings, the following sequence ran on the network’s “Weekend Edition.” First was a report from Seattle that described the protestors as bent on “revolution.” There was little inquiry into what they actually thought.
Then came an account of the battle between Toys ‘R Us and Wal-Mart for supremacy in the toy market. The reporter offered nothing on the implications for kids and families when two giant corporations fight to cajole little kids to nag their parents for expensive toys. The only question was which company would win the prize, which by implication was worthy and good. Finally there was a “commentary” that was really a sales pitch for high tech gifts. It started with a $4,000 item from Sony. I was so stunned – at the price, and that NPR would run such a piece – that I forgot what the thing was.
This is the prevailing script. Commodities are progress are light – and so the schlepping of commodities across the globe is this era’s Charge of the Light Brigade. When people raise questions about the global economy, and insist on considering the implications to the environment, communities, cultures, and the like that aren’t in the math, they are challenging the story line of the entire opinion establishment.
It’s little wonder that the media felt a collective need to hoot the protests down. One NPR reporter actually called the advocates for the environment and human rights in Seattle “special interests.” This would make polluters and violators of human rights “humanitarian public interests.”
Among the few who got the point was Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post. Pearlstein observed that the days are over when national leaders and opinionators can simply recite the “economist’s mantra” about free trade. People care about things economists don’t, such as “the loss of the corner bookstore and the wholesomeness of their food,” Pearlstein said. And they think “giant corporations have gone too far in gaining control over their lives and defining the values of their culture.” One had the feeling Pearlstein was talking to his colleagues in the media as much as to the general public. As our friends on the Right like to remind us, actions have consequences, and that applies to economic actions as much as any other. As long as the opinion establishment in the US has its head in the sand on the consequences of the global economy, protests like Seattle will be necessary – and they will continue.
Jonathan Rowe is the coauthor of Time Dollars, “If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down,” and a YES! contributing editor.