When the World Trade Organization summit collapsed in Seattle, major American news outlets seemed to go into shock. The failure to launch a new round of global trade talks stunned many journalists who were accustomed to covering the WTO with great reverence. In the wake of the crucial meeting, the mainstream media plunged into stages of grief:


            Misled by its own reporting and punditry, the media establishment was unprepared for the strength and effectiveness of worldwide anti-WTO efforts that came to fruition at the summit.

            According to conventional media wisdom, the United States can prevail over Third World countries by brandishing various carrots and sticks at trade negotiations. That mindset did not prepare the press corps for what happened in Seattle, where delegates from poor nations refused to knuckle under.

            The usual haunts of reporters covering politics and economics -- Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street -- have insulated them from the growing anger against corporate globalization at the grassroots. For years, community-based activists have been making headway in organizing against the WTO as a threat to the environment, labor, economic justice and human rights.

            The protests in the streets of Seattle had massive resonance because they expressed opinions now widespread across the nation -- especially among Americans who are not affluent. A Pew Research Center survey last spring found that "among Americans in families earning $75,000 or more, 63 percent see globalization as positive." In sharp contrast, "among the half of American adults in families earning less than $50,000, the positive view of globalism is held by just 37 percent."

            If influential journalists and their bosses weren't in high income brackets, they'd probably be more in touch with how the other half lives. And thinks.


            Despite the volume of coverage, few news accounts have illuminated the fact that the World Trade Organization is profoundly anti-democratic. Unelected WTO officials hand down edicts against "trade barriers" -- laws enacted by governments for purposes such as protecting the environment and labor rights.

            Near the top of its Dec. 13 cover story, Newsweek flatly described the WTO as "the small, Geneva-based bureaucracy that the United States and 134 other nations set up five years ago to referee global commerce." Days earlier, New York Times syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: "The more countries trade with one another, the more they need an institution to set the basic rules of trade, and that is all the WTO does."

            No, that is not all the WTO does. Not by a long shot. Reporters and pundits continue to lose credibility when they insist on denying what has become apparent to so many people: The WTO is a global institution that serves the interests of multinational corporations, placing profits above all else.


            Rather than giving WTO foes an adequate chance to state their case, the biggest media have devoted huge amounts of ink and air time to caricaturing -- and often vilifying -- the demonstrators.

            While the WTO summit was coming unraveled, Friedman devoted a column to lashing out at "these anti-WTO protesters" -- who, he claimed, are "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix." A week later, in a postmortem piece, Friedman could hardly hold back his tears of rage. "The biggest negative fallout from Seattle," he sputtered, "is the way it smeared free trade."


            Countless news stories and commentaries have been grieving because events in Seattle blocked the WTO's next leap forward. Selected experts are wringing their hands in public. The diverse protests raised key issues about democracy and corporate power. But it's still tough for strong critics of the WTO to find much of a platform in big media outlets.

            Working within the limits of corporate-owned media, some journalists sounded wistful as they looked back on unconstrained media efforts during the Seattle summit. On "World News Tonight," ABC correspondent Brian Rooney reported: "The meeting of the World Trade Organization was a turning point for the so-called independent media -- small, partisan news organizations and individual reporters with political opinions they could never express in the mainstream media."

        But why are there widely held "political opinions" that American reporters "could never express in the mainstream media"? The ABC News report didn't explain. But it did mention that independent journalists "got out a worldwide message about the working poor, endangered species and the power of the World Trade Organization."

Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News.