The Disappearing WTO


One year ago in late November 1999, 50,000 protesters converged on Seattle in an attempt to direct public attention to the World Trade Organization. Until that point the WTO had received almost no US media coverage, despite the fact that this extra-national organization had already forced the weakening of US laws protecting clean air and endangered species.

As a result of the protests many people now know of the existence of the WTO, and what the three letters stand for. However, most people still have almost no knowledge of its operations and effects. With the nation's interest piqued, it was hoped by the protesters that Seattle would be a starting point for the education of the public. However, the WTO has disappeared from the media like the Cheshire cat, leaving only its smile.

This writer conducted a study of newspaper coverage of the WTO to determine in what contexts the WTO has and has not been mentioned. The study was conducted for publications from Jan. 1 to Nov. 1, 2000, using a full-text search of the ProQuest8 database of 27 major US daily newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner. The study shows that mentions of the WTO were virtually nonexistent in articles covering issues related to attacks by the WTO on domestic environmental and human rights laws, ie., those issues most likely to turn public opinion against the WTO.

In contrast, in articles covering other types of trade news, the WTO was mentioned frequently and made headlines numerous times.

One of the major WTO-related stories of the year was an April 11 federal court ruling that thwarted the implementation of a weakened "dolphin-safe" labeling for tuna. The Federal Court ruled that the Commerce Department was attempting to prematurely implement the new labeling law without having even met the requirements of the weakened, 1997 version of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The dolphin protections in the initial, 1990 version of the MMPA were twice ruled trade-illegal under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the parent treaty to the WTO. To avoid the embarrassment of having a foreign authority force the revision of a domestic environmental law, Congress weakened the dolphin protections and the tuna labeling requirements of the MMPA in 1997.

In marked contrast with the fanfare that the MMPA received upon its inception, the delay of the implementation of the eviscerated "dolphin-safe" labeling was only covered in four major US dailies: San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Even more striking was the fact that the seven articles published in those papers did not contain a single mention of GATT or the WTO.

Portions of the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) protecting endangered sea turtles have also been under attack by the WTO, as protesters dressed in sea turtle costumes tried to publicize in Seattle. On Oct. 23, Malaysia continued the aggressions against the ESA by filing a complaint with the WTO charging that the US has not yet lifted its ban on shrimp caught in a manner that kills sea turtles, as required by a previous WTO ruling. That news was covered in only a single article in one major US daily, the New York Times.

Furthermore, a June 1 study published in the scientific journal Nature predicted that leatherback sea turtles will be extinct within ten years unless fishing methods are substantially altered. Only four major US dailies (San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, USA Today, and Christian Science Monitor) covered the story, and none of the four articles mentioned the role the WTO has had in hampering the implementation of the Endangered Species Act. Another dozen articles in the major dailies addressed issues relating to endangered sea turtles during the period of the study, and, again, none of the articles mentioned the WTO.

Curiously, in a San Francisco Chronicle article about the Nature study, the headline on the continuation page read, "International Trade Agreements Slow Protection of Sea Turtles," even though there was no mention of international trade agreements anywhere in the article. When queried by this writer, the reporter said a discussion of the relationship to trade agreements had been in the story. It was edited out by an editor -- the headline accidentally slipped through.

Another recent WTO-related development this year was the Supreme Court's consideration of Massachusetts's selective purchasing law, which prevented the state government from contracting with corporations doing business with the brutal totalitarian regime of Burma. Had the Supreme Court not decided against Massachusetts, the attack on the Massachusetts law would have escalated by resuming a pending WTO challenge mounted by Japan and the European Union. Of the 48 articles and commentaries which covered the story, 43 contained no mention of the role of the WTO. Coyly, nine of the 43 articles mentioned pressures from foreign countries without mention of the WTO. The Los Angeles Times went so far as to state cryptically that "In a sense, the Supreme Court case contains echoes of December's demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle." But the New York Times deserves the award for coyness for writing that the European Community had "lodged an official protest," and defenders of the Massachusetts law had "tapped into some of the populist anger ... recently directed against the World Trade Organization," without actually mentioning that the official protest was a WTO challenge.

The WTO did, however, make numerous US headlines this year -- for an export subsidies dispute between the US and Europe, and for the grant of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status to China. Neither issue involved a direct attack by the WTO on domestic environmental or human rights laws.

The export subsidies dispute with Europe was covered in 17 articles in the major dailies, and the WTO appeared in eight of the headlines. PNTR for China was covered in at least 1,063 articles and commentaries. China's application for membership in the WTO was mentioned in 292 of the articles and commentaries, and referred to in 31 headlines. (Although the articles often suggested a direct link between the grant of PNTR for China and China's admittance into the WTO, such was not the case. The relevance of the WTO is somewhat less direct and therefore less deserving of such frequent mention: Had the US not granted PNTR to China, and if China does attain membership in the WTO, then, if the US were to ever apply trade sanctions against China, China could retaliate via the WTO.)

In summary, of the articles covering developments in the Marine Mammal Protection Act, none of them mentioned the WTO; none of the articles covering news related to endangered sea turtles mentioned the WTO; only a single article nationwide mentioned Malaysia's resumption of aggressions against the Endangered Species Act via the WTO; and about 10% of the articles about the Massachusetts-Burma law mentioned the WTO. In contrast, nearly 30% of the articles covering PNTR for China discussed the WTO; and, with regards to the export subsidies dispute with Europe, the WTO was mentioned in all the articles, and appeared in nearly half the headlines. Furthermore, disregarding whether the WTO was mentioned or not, the 72 articles covering issues related to WTO attacks on US environmental and human rights laws was substantially outnumbered by 1080 articles covering other types of WTO-related news.

There has indeed been a Cheshire cat-like disappearance of the WTO from the major US daily newspapers. Only the smiling teeth of news which do not involve WTO attacks on US environmental and human rights laws remain visible.

Larry Shaw is the author and performer of "Sold Down the River," the anti-WTO song played from the Steelworkers' billboard truck in Seattle. See

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