SOLOMON: The Porto Alegre Media Blackout
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- The question, from a participant here at the World Social Forum, was polite and understated: "Sometimes, one wonders if the poor political consciousness and the lack of information about the world of the standard American is not one of the problems of the world today. Do you think we all could help in some way to get Americans more aware of the rest of the world?"
The question -- directed at me because I'd just given a speech -- hung in the air while my brain fumbled for a fitting response. Programming decisions by U.S. media executives loom large at home and abroad. A hundred years ago, when Queen Victoria died, the sun never set on the British empire. Today, around the world, the market shares are shimmering for AOL Time Warner, the Walt Disney Co. and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
When I tuned into CNN International in this city on Brazil's southern coast, a report about fashion was explaining that "today's revolutionary woman" prefers to wear chiffon. More Spanish-speaking people on the planet get their news from one website -- CNNenEspanol.com -- than from anywhere else on the Web. Editors in Atlanta and Washington, employed by a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner, are deciding what news and views will reach huge numbers of readers online.
Corporate media globalization is part of what's come to be known as "neo-liberalism" -- worldwide policies giving top priority to corporations and their quest for maximum profits. As part of the movement to challenge neo-liberalism, about 4,700 delegates and 10,000 other people from 122 countries participated in the first-ever World Social Forum to share information and develop strategies.
Key concerns of the global South -- where extreme poverty and rampant inequities are ever-present -- came through loud and clear here in Porto Alegre. The men and women crowding into overflow sessions included 1,700 journalists. But in the United States, even the most avid news consumers didn't learn much about this auspicious convergence.
Don't blame the wire services. For a week, some of the world's biggest -- including the Associated Press -- produced a steady stream of informative news reports from Porto Alegre. But the day after the World Social Forum adjourned, when I did a search of the comprehensive Nexis database, it was clear that the event didn't make the U.S. media cut.
The Washington Post did better than most American outlets, but it wasn't much -- a single news story on Jan. 27. The Los Angeles Times didn't mention the World Social Forum at all. Neither did USA Today.
During the week, the country's "paper of record" -- the New York Times -- published only one paragraph on the subject, rendered in McPaper roundup style. "BRAZIL: ORDERED OUT -- The French farm workers' leader Jose Bove, best known for vandalizing McDonald's restaurants to protest globalization, has been detained by the federal police and ordered to leave Brazil. The action came after Mr. Bove, at a forum in Porto Alegre held to counter a world leaders' meeting in Davos, Switzerland, joined Brazilian farmers in attacking a farm owned by the Monsanto Corporation, which grows genetically modified soybeans."
Readily available AP stories had offered much more context for the Bove incident. For instance: "Bove and about 1,300 farmers destroyed five acres of soybeans at the Monsanto farm near Porto Alegre last Friday, saying the beans were genetically engineered. At the Forum's closing rally, Bove urged the Landless Workers' Movement to reoccupy the farm and turn it into an environmentally friendly operation." At that rally, thousands of people chanted: "Bove is my friend, touch him and you touch me."
Landless workers of Brazil and a leader of French farmers joined together to fight for redistribution of land, social justice and environmental protection. It was a dramatic alliance -- just one of many that flowered at a highly disciplined and creative international conference of activists from all over the world. There were hundreds of other highly significant stories to be told from the World Social Forum. Most U.S. news outlets didn't tell even one.
National Public Radio did send a correspondent to Porto Alegre, and a pair of his reports aired. On "Morning Edition," NPR correspondent Martin Kaste provided a rather upbeat definition of "neo-liberalism," describing it as "the American-inspired philosophy that smaller government is better."
NPR's final report from Porto Alegre mentioned a proposed policy step toward reducing the world's extreme economic disparities. But in that "All Things Considered" piece, the subject came up not to be explored but to serve as a setup for a cutesy -- and disparaging -- tag line.
"One of the most talked-about plans is a worldwide tax on international financial transactions, something that defenders say could raise money for developing countries while at the same time making it harder to move funds across borders," the news report said. "Even this concept, however, is not embraced by everyone. At the start of the conference, an anti-globalization delegate from Holland was seen loudly cursing the Brazilian cash machines for not accepting her Dutch ATM card. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Porto Alegre, Brazil."
From North America, it's difficult to get a clear look at the global South -- and at the pro-democracy movement against corporate rule -- with nose pointed high in the air.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."