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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Volume 8, Number 23

"Economic Freedom" Is Overlooked Concept At Broadcast Networks

Shortly before Americans trekked to the polls this month, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal released the 2001 edition of their "Index of Economic Freedom," a ranking of 155 countries produced every year since 1994. Economic freedom is closely correlated with both the wealth of a nation and the ability of its people to enjoy satisfying livelihoods. The annual index measures the progress of various countries as they pursue economic freedom for their citizens, spotlights any backsliding that’s taking place, and tries to act as a reminder that an individual’s prosperity and well-being is, above all else, a function of their liberty.

Important though this is, none of the three broadcast networks reported the findings of this year’s survey, released on November 1. More troubling, the concept of economic freedom has been virtually excluded from the networks’ news agendas this year, even as their heavy coverage of the presidential campaign spotlighted tax and regulatory proposals which would affect Americans’ economic freedom.

The Heritage/WSJ index is built from 50 variables and looks at a wide range of societal factors, all of which affect the ability of an individual to freely pursue their own economic goals. Among them: trade barriers, tax rates, regulatory burdens, and corruption. The variables are weighted and countries are ranked as "free," "mostly free," "mostly unfree," and "repressed." In the latest ranking, Hong Kong and Singapore topped the list as most economically free, while Libya and North Korea were the most economically repressed countries.

The United States, which ranked seventh overall, was given high marks for our respect for property rights, monetary policy and banking and finance rules, but we received poor grades for the relatively heavy fiscal burden of government — the only measure where Castro-controlled Cuba (which ranked 152nd overall) was rated as less repressive than the U.S.

According to Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, "The overall lesson is both simple and profound: To enjoy the benefits of economic freedom, a country must embrace a fundamental commitment to that aim. A nation cannot undertake economic reform piecemeal and expect economic freedom to flourish."

"Nations such as Hong Kong and Singapore thrive only because of their continuing dedication to open markets and sound economic policy. Other nations are in danger of losing their economic freedom either through deliberate policy change (as in Ireland and New Zealand) or gradual erosion due to complacency (as in the United States and the United Kingdom)," Feulner added.

A manifestation of the complacency that Feulner warned about is the general lack of news media interest in the broader issue of economic freedom. During this election year, the presidential candidates offered a wide number of specific proposals involving taxes, government spending and regulations. Yet while most media coverage focused on whether or not a proposal would yield its promised results in the specific policy area it targeted, network reporters never focused on the accumulated effect of increased taxes, spending and regulations on individuals and the overall economy.

That omission by the networks created a contextual vacuum in which few voters could be expected to consider the aggregated effects of the candidates’ proposals on the economic freedom we enjoy.

Indeed, a Nexis search reveals only two instances in which a network audiences could have heard the phrase "economic freedom" this year. One was actually a re-broadcast of a news special that first aired in 1999 by ABC’s John Stossel, "Is American Number One?" Stossel told viewers that "economic freedom has allowed millions of poor people [in Hong Kong] to become middle class. In fact, the average income here now is almost equal to that in the United States, and it’s higher than that in many of the world’s richest countries." He also showed how a relative lack of economic freedom — namely bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles to business creation — contribute to poverty in India.

The other reference came on June 19, when CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather reported that "human rights and economic freedom may also have been the driving forces behind a human smuggling scheme in Britain, a bid by 60 desperate people to enter the country illegally." Correspondent Mark Phillips relayed the account of how 58 out of 60 Chinese died from intense heat when they stowed inside a cargo ship, seeking liberty.

In spite of its importance, many in the media taught wrong lessons this year on whether economic freedom is a desirable goal for a society. According to the Heritage/WSJ ranking, Cuba is the most economically repressed nation in the Western hemisphere, and the fourth-most repressed on Earth, yet some U.S. journalists offered domestic audiences a romanticized version of life on the Communist-controlled island during the Elian Gonzalez case.

Two Newsweek writers, for example, equated poverty with purity and scorned the introduction of U.S. dollars as a corruption of the Communist Eden: "Elian might expect a nurturing life in Cuba, sheltered from the crime and social breakdown that would be part of his upbringing in Miami," Brook Larmer and John Leland wrote in the magazine’s April 17 issue. "The boy will nestle again in a more peaceable society that treasures its children. But his life will oscillate to the contrary rhythms of this central Cuban paradox. As a shining symbol of the communist state, he will have access to the corrupting fruits of the new economy. He’ll enjoy the best Cuba has to offer, the things only dollars can buy."

"To be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than being a poor child in Miami, and I’m not going to condemn their lifestyle so gratitutiously," declared Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift on the April 8 broadcast of the McLaughlin Group. Criticized, Clift amended her comments. "I can understand why a rational, loving father can believe that his child will be protected in a state where he doesn’t have to worry about going to school and being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has access to free medical care and where the literacy rate, I believe, is higher than this country’s," she stated on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor on May Day.

The notion that countries such as Cuba — where the government throttles the inherent right of an individual to pursue their own livelihood — offer a "nurturing life" is an absurdity that is belied by the data on economic freedom. Statism has consigned the people of Cuba to live in the darkness of poverty for decades. When journalists ignore that fact, they mislead their audiences both about the harm caused by repression and the benefits of liberty.

In the preface to this year’s report, Feulner wrote that prosperous and free nations such as ours can still be at risk if they lose sight of the freedom on which their well-being is based. "Accustomed to enjoying the benefits of economic freedom, they all too often begin to undermine it, either through inattention or because they believe that it is less important than new ‘protections.’ What these nations fail to realize is that undermining the foundations of one’s own prosperity risks bringing about the end of that prosperity."

In spite of Feulner’s warning, economic freedom remains a concept that receives little or no coverage from the broadcast networks that are still the main source of news for tens of millions of citizens.

Rich Noyes


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