SOLOMON: Press Flails as Lawmakers Make Mess of House
Bad Congress! Bad Congress!Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have gotten quite a media scolding lately. You'd think they were dogs that refused to be "Housebroken." From coast to coast, the angry sound of rolled-up newspapers was unmistakable.The New York Times held its nose in disgust all the way through an editorial that thrashed "vengeful" Democrats in the House of Representatives for failing to grant the president fast- track power over trade agreements. The newspaper concluded that "narrow political interest has carried the day." Meanwhile, a Washington Post editorial was fuming that Congress "caved in to the special pleaders." The editorial made an odd claim: "Trade liberalization benefits most people, but it also invariably hurts a few. ... In the political process, the losers and potential losers naturally lobby vociferously; the winners, a larger but more diffuse group, don't." The Post didn't mention that trade-deal "winners" had been able to lobby vociferously in its own pages. During the six months leading up to fast track's demise in the House, the Post's op-ed page ran 12 articles in favor of fast track -- and just four against it.When Congress declined to give fast track a green light, many pundits with big megaphones expressed anger. None were more contemptuous than Washington Post columnist James K. Glassman, who described the House of Representatives as "the Washington chapter of the Flat Earth Society." He proclaimed: "It's hard to find a respectable economist who opposes free trade, the value of which is glaringly obvious."As a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the nation's most influential think tanks, Glassman doesn't let the readers of his widely syndicated column know who is paying the piper for his tunes. But a report by Public Citizen documented that between 1992 and 1995, the Institute received more than $1.7 million from pharmaceutical, medical device, biotechnology and tobacco firms and their foundations -- only some of the donors eager for "free trade" pacts that curb government regulation. This month, Glassman -- who described Democrats in Congress as "the disingenuous stewards of unions that are desperately trying to maintain their cartels" -- was among numerous commentators who blasted organized labor for going toe to toe with big business.A Los Angeles Times opinion piece that appeared Nov. 12 was typical: Political scientist Ross K. Baker denounced "labor's scare tactics" and contended that "congressional Democrats have consented to be bound, trussed and gagged by America's fading labor movement."In the wake of fast track's failure to get through the House, a Wall Street Journal editorial mournfully charged that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had "busted up a Democratic president's attempt to maintain American trade leadership in the emerging global economy."A lot of news and commentary echoed the sentiments of Commerce Secretary William Daley, who depicted citizens living outside the Beltway as ill-informed dummies: "Even though we all know the benefits of globalization, obviously the people out there don't know it."But, at a Boston-based group called United for a Fair Economy, researcher Chuck Collins observes that "the American people are not isolationist or stupid about the ups and downs of free trade." He points out: "Americans are suspicious of international trade policies that are written entirely to serve the interests of large multinational corporations." When those interests won a big victory with passage of NAFTA in 1993, news coverage tended to portray the win as a triumph for pro-trade rationality. But the big victory over fast-track legislation -- won by labor, environmentalists and human rights activists a few days ago -- was widely reported as a triumph for narrow special interests.Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, has an assessment that's very different from the usual fast-track postmortems in the news media. "Despite the incredible pressure of the president and the Cabinet, despite the offers of outrageous pork-barrel deals, despite the intense lobbying by most of the Fortune 500," she says, "Congress was able to represent the interests of their constituents." Whether the country's powerful media outlets like it or not, disobedient voices have transformed the national debate. Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."