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Spin and Violence in Quebec City

By Ben Fritz
May 7, 2001
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News coverage of the recent summit in Quebec City on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) predictably focused on street violence and politicians' spin. From a New York Times "news analysis" to a Reuters news article, the media seemed incapable of providing readers with basic information on the policy issues at stake. Articles feigned a rational discussion of the issues involved or comparisons between two contrasting points of view, but often devolved into irrational analyses of assumed political agendas and illogical comparisons between one side's rock throwing and another's views on global democracy.

For assumed agendas, take a "news analysis" from the New York Times on April 23 entitled: "News Analysis: Biggest Obstacle to Selling Trade Pact Is Sovereignty". Sounds like an article about the important issue of sovereignty as it relates to the FTAA, right?

It takes fifteen paragraphs, however, until the issue is brought up. Instead, readers get an in-depth discussion of the "three dimensional chess game of trade," meaning, of course, the political calculations, from a divided Congress to the amount of "political capital" President Bush has to devote to the issue (I would guess approximately three units of political capital) to Bush's use of arguments first made by President Clinton. Protestors' concerns about economic unfairness are brought up as well, but then dismissed because unnamed "serious critics of free trade accords" are more concerned about sovereignty. Readers may be glad the topic mentioned in the title is finally being mentioned, but perhaps a bit confused as to how one knows that protestors are not "serious critics," except, of course, that the Times says so.

The Times then presents a statement by President Bush that he will publish the conference's agreement in order "to answer charges that such accords are written in secret." Of course, transparency and sovereignty are two entirely separate issues. But the Times is setting them up as one and the same, because that is the type of quote Bush offered and the Times didn't bother to parse it. Essentially, Bush delivers and the media covers, regardless of whether the statement has a rational place in the article.

The only examples we ever do get of specific sovereignty issues come from Canada and Brazil. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is also mentioned as having "[taken] exception to several clauses," but since we don't know what those clauses are, it's hard to say what the relevance of this fact is. And once these examples are mentioned, the article shifts back to a discussion of political calculation, both for Latin American leaders who have to "[sell] this at home" and for President Bush.

An article about sovereignty that barely touches on the subject is more than just a case of bad reporting. It demonstrates how political leaders who prefer not to talk about a subject can lead a newspaper, even one with the intentions of delving into the policy realm with a "news analysis," to gloss over it and fall into covering how politicians will "sell" an issue. A media used to focusing on spin from politicians is ill-equipped to present a policy question about which politicians are making few public pronouncements. Thus an attempt to inform the public about an important issue becomes an illogical mishmash because the media cannot escape its spin cycle.

Then again, maybe the Times should be praised for even using a substantive word like "sovereignty" in its title. That's a lot better than we got in many other media reports. A Reuters story entitled "Clash Erupts Hours Before Americas Summit" spends its first 17 paragraphs discussing the violence of some protestors, mentioning only that they believe free trade "favors the rich and exploits the poor." If that was in fact a news report focused only on violence in the streets, then that might be fine. However, in the final seven paragraphs of the story, Reuters provides a response to the violence from Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President Bush, who make vague statements about supporting "human and democratic rights" and building a "hemisphere of liberty."

Once again, an article supposedly about one thing (violent clashes in Quebec) is illogically connected to a separate issue: politicians' position on free trade and democracy. Jean Chretien and George Bush's position on human rights and liberty have nothing to do with street violence itself, nor are they even logical retorts to the brief mention Reuters makes of protestors' economic concerns. The end result, however, is that pro-free trade politicians' spin gives them the distinct advantage of being for democracy as opposed to, well, those who break stuff and get arrested.

All this spin leads to an ill-informed public, which is a danger in a democracy. Partisans harden their resolve, having been given no arguments that might contradict their thinking. And the majority of people without a firm opinion still have no understanding of the opposition to the FTAA and little information on reasons to support it. From the media's coverage, in fact, all they would know is that it purportedly supports democracy and is the opposite of street violence. Of course, it's not possible that politicians prefer an ill-informed public, is it?

-Sanger, David E. "News Analysis: Biggest Obstacle to Selling Trade Pact Is Sovereignty." The New York Times, April 23, 2001.
-MacSwan, Angus. "Clash Erupts Hours Before Americas Summit." Reuters, April 20, 2001. http://webcrawler-news.excite.com/news/r/010420/16/news-americas-summit-dc

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