Converging on the nation's capital in mid-April, thousands of protesters
set out to do more than simply disrupt high-level meetings of the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Demonstrators were eager to help
build a movement for economic justice that can prevail over those powerful
institutions. But America's mainstream news outlets were ill-positioned to
shed much light on the underlying issues.
The standard media lexicon is filled with buzzwords that snap together as
neatly as Leggo plastic blocks. Terms like "economic reform," "free
markets" and "eliminating trade barriers" appear with such frequency and
assurance that they seem to be noting the only rational economic path for
less-developed countries. In reporting on the World Bank and the IMF, as
well as the kindred World Trade Organization, familiar media jargon has
long depicted the wisdom of their "reform" edicts as a no-brainer.
What's implicit in a lot of news coverage often becomes explicit in
punditry. For example, when the nation's two biggest news weeklies reported
on the demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle a few months ago, the
magazines only published fervent pro-WTO commentaries to put it all in
perspective. Newsweek's sole opinion piece on the subject came from Fareed
Zakaria, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, who decried "a disparate and
motley crew of protesters" while bemoaning "the carnival tactics of a small
but effective minority."
Meanwhile, both of Time's commentaries lauded the WTO and belittled the
protesters. Under the headline "Return of the Luddites," Charles
Krauthammer mocked what he called the "kooky crowd" protesting in Seattle
-- "one-world paranoids"; "apolitical Luddites, who refuse to accept that
growth, prosperity and upward living standards always entail some
dislocation"; and "the leftover left." Krauthammer's essay was typeset
around a photo of union activists protesting the WTO. The caption repeated
one of his epithets: "Kooky Crowd."
That sort of media invective was in the cards for the demonstrations in
Washington. On April 11, as a warm-up, the Wall Street Journal began its
lead editorial with the declaration that protesters "will be bringing their
bibs and bottles to the nation's capital this week to have a run at the
annual spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank." In the next sentence the
newspaper labeled the array of expected protesters "a smorgasbord of
save-the-turtles activists, anarchists, egalitarians, Luddites and Marxists."
The editorial went on to describe the D.C. demonstrations as "an
anti-trade festival." It's a distortion that commonly makes its way into
news stories. But protesters against the IMF and World Bank have not taken
to the streets in opposition to "trade" any more than those who fought to
outlaw slavery were against work.
"We are not against trade," says former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, "we are not against free trade, but our fear is that the global
market intends to annihilate our markets. We will be pushed to the cities,
to eat food grown on factory farms in distant countries, food whose price
depends on the daily numbers game" of the global marketplace.
In a new book, "Eyes of the Heart," Aristide explains that the austerity
programs championed by the IMF and World Bank offer "a choice between death
and death" in poor countries. For instance: "Haiti, under intense pressure
from the international lending institutions, stopped protecting its
domestic agriculture while subsidies to the U.S. rice industry increased. A
hungry nation became hungrier."
On a planet with half of the population -- 3 billion people -- living on
less than two dollars a day, Aristide writes, "the statistics that describe
the accumulation of wealth in the world are mind-boggling. ... Behind this
crisis of dollars there is a human crisis: among the poor, immeasurable
human suffering; among the others, the powerful, the policy makers, a
poverty of spirit which has made a religion of the market and its invisible
hand. A crisis of imagination so profound that the only measure of value is
profit, the only measure of human progress is economic growth."
Often, major U.S. media and foes of corporate globalization seem to be
speaking entirely different languages. Journalists and their usual sources
like to talk about "economic growth" and "opportunity." But the protesters
gathered in Washington to demand "global justice."
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."