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,