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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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October 1996


Issue Analysis: Deficit in Trade Reporting
Global Economy As a News Story, 1991-1992 vs. 1995-1996

International trade has almost ceased to be an issue to report on for the network news media. This is in stark contrast to 1991 and 1992, when the media reported heavily on trade as an electionyear issue. As a result, the trade deficit though large is not nearly the negative story (except in KnightRidder papers, see page one) for President Clinton that it was for President Bush. Media Research Center (MRC) analysts reviewed all of the stories about foreign trade on ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News between July 1, 1991 and June 30, 1992. There were 134 trade stories during this period. MRC analysts also reviewed all of the stories about foreign trade on the same shows between July 1, 1995 and June 30, 1996. There were only 39 trade stories during this period.

There was also a large difference in the tone of the stories. During the 1991-1992 study period, many stories focused on how trade, especially with Japan, was harming America. Trade was like war. According to NBC's Garrick Utley, on the January 12, 1992 Nightly News, there is a "new superpower rivalry. We, of course, won the old one with the Soviet Union. The outcome of the new one with Japan is much less certain." Stories focused on union demands for tariffs and the views of protectionist economists.

Reporters adopted a different attitude during the 1995-1996 study period. Spurred by Pat Buchanan's criticism of free trade, the networks began pointing out the benefits of a global economy. Before the South Carolina primary, NBC's Mike Boettcher contrasted the "new South, flush with foreign investment and hightech jobs" with "the old South, shuttered textile mills, unemployment, and pleas for protection from foreign competitors." ABC's Aaron Brown reported that "while Buchanan says you can protect industries with high tariffs without driving out foreign companies here, economists say that is nonsense."

There was also a dramatic change in the amount of coverage given to the trade deficit. In a 1988 study for the Media Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University's Ted J. Smith III found that as the American economy improved during the 1980s, reporting on the economy decreased in volume and became more negative in tone. In particular, he found that the media became more interested in one statistic the trade deficit when it widened and less interested in other indicators as they improved.

The trend in trade reporting that Professor Smith found during the 1980s was present during the 1991-1992 study period, when the U.S. economy was coming out of recession. There were 21 reports about the trade deficit, about the same number he found when the economy was coming out of recession from 1982-1983. But during the 1995-1996 study period, when the economy was fully out of recession and the trade deficit was expanding, there were only eight such reports. During the Reagan era, when the economy was fully out of recession, trade deficit reporting increased dramatically.

During 1991-1992, even decreases in the trade deficit were treated skeptically. "Some mixed signs on the U.S. economy today," reported ABC's Forest Sawyer, on the March 19, 1992 World News Tonight. "The U.S. trade deficit grew smaller in January, down $5.8 billion. Still, many economists say they are concerned that American exports were also down."

Trade deficits, though, have not been big news more recently. In two instances, only CBS mentioned reports of widening trade gaps. On July 18, 1995, Dan Rather announced: "The United States has taken another beating in world trade, posting a recordhigh deficit in May." Nearly two months later, on September 12, 1995, Rather used almost identical language: "The U.S. took a beating in the world markets for the second quarter of the year, posting the biggest quarterly trade deficit ever." ABC and NBC ignored the news.

Trade deficits may not be such bad news. Many economists point out that prosperous countries often run trade deficits because they have a lot of money to spend, and that imports constitute a great benefit to an economy. So perhaps ABC and NBC were correct to play down the trade numbers. Still, this was a new standard not applied to GOP presidents.

And trade in general could be a bigger news issue in this election year than it has been. Will Bill Clinton, if reelected, again defy union backers and work to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement? Reporters, who seem to have lost interest in trade, aren't asking.


Rich Noyes


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