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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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October 1996


Reporters Say American Dream Stolen
Ten-Part Series Bashes International Trade, Foreign Workers

"America: Who Stole the Dream?" was the provocative title of a recent tenpart Philadelphia Inquirer series, published nationally in KnightRidder newspapers, by PulitzerPrize winning journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Their answer to the series' title question: freemarket proponents and foreigners. But in their lengthy series they didn't mention some important facts that critics have since pointed out.

Free trade was one of Barlett and Steele's main villains. Instead of creating jobs in export industries, low American tariffs have "wiped out jobs and driven down wages." Barlett and Steele lamented that in 1996, "the United States will record its 21st consecutive merchandise trade deficit a record unmatched by any other developed country." America's other big economic problem, according to Barlett and Steele, is immigration to the U.S. "No other industrial country has allowed in so many workers in so short a time, depressing wages and living standards."

While these policies are good for big business in the short term, the two reporters suggest that American workers may be on the verge of starting a revolution. They quoted a Kansas factory worker as saying: "Are we just going to keep lowering our standard of living? When that happens, nobody is going to have money to put food on the table. Then you are going to see a revolution, because people are not going to be able to feed their families." A Pennsylvania factory worker told the duo that "there's going to be bloodshed before we get out of this." These workers, Barlett and Steele informed readers, "reflect a largely silent but growing sentiment" in the U.S. Profiles of people with such sentiments dominated the series. The two reporters proposed restricting immigration and hiking tariffs.

The reaction to the series was quick and severe. Economics columnist Robert Samuelson called it "junk journalism" in a September 18 Washington Post column. "What [the series] doesn't say is that the trade balance and employment are hardly connected," he wrote. Samuelson pointed out that the trade surpluses of Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden which Barlett and Steele envy haven't kept those countries from having far higher unemployment rates than the United States. According to Samuelson, Barlett and Steele reported such matters "so select ively...that ordinary readers are misled."

The reporters' selective use of anecdotes and statistics bothered George Washington University's Steve Suranovic. In a September 25 letter to the Inquirer, Suranovic wrote that it is easy for reporters "to choose individuals whose stories confirm their conclusions." He argued that Barlett and Steele could have "found workers with new jobs in export industries earning higherthanaverage wages" and "profiled a couple of millionaires with middleclass backgrounds who created export industries employing thousands of workers. Bill Gates springs to mind."

The Cato Institute's Stuart Anderson argued that Barlett and Steele misled readers about the economic effects of immigration. In an October 14 Investor's Business Daily editorial, Anderson pointed out that having more people in the U.S. does not lead to more unemployment. The reason: "While immigrants do increase the supply of labor, they also increase the demand for labor." His proof: As immigration and trade deficits have increased over the past 20 years, and total employment has increased 59 percent, "the unemployment rate has dropped from 7.7 percent to 5.2 percent." According to Anderson, "Even the total number of unemployed people in the country has dropped."

The views of Samuelson, Suranovic, and Anderson are held by enough economists that they should be discussed in any major, tenpart economic series that purports to be serious journalism.


Rich Noyes


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