Reading articles about Hillary Clinton attacking NAFTA can lead you to believe The Onion has taken over America's news bureaus.
Clinton spent the last 10 years repeatedly praising the trade deal in speeches, most recently calling the job-killing accord "good for New York and America." Yet, journalists barely mention that record as they transcribe her assertions that, "I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning."
This week, such media negligence went from pathetic to absurd, as a CNN headline blared, "Clinton hammers Obama on NAFTA." Political scribes breathlessly recounted how the New York senator criticized her opponent — a longtime NAFTA critic — over a thinly sourced television report claiming his adviser, economist Austan Goolsbee, told Canadian officials to not take the campaign's anti-NAFTA platform seriously. Clinton said the uncorroborated allegations, seeded by Canada's right-wing government, showed "the difference between talk and action." Most journalists regurgitated her charges without noting the difference between Clinton's new fair-trade talk and her decade-long pro-NAFTA actions (nor did they note that the same report said Clinton advisers also did what Goolsbee was accused of).
Of course, Bill Clinton signed NAFTA after pledging to oppose expanded cross-border trade until Mexican wages rose. So Hillary Clinton's dishonesty, which sealed her Ohio primary win, is nothing new in politics.
What is new is the fact-free coverage. Whereas diligent reporting marked the original NAFTA debate, today's media reduce trade discussions to vapid cartoons — ones so inane that a leading NAFTA booster is rewarded with glowing headlines for pretending she never supported the accord.
An agenda is obviously at work. Reporters, pundits and lobbyists are insulated from the job and wage cuts that rigged policies like NAFTA encourage. To them, the profit-making status quo is swell, and so the news they manufacture avoids upsetting those who did the rigging. Consequently, the trade debate is portrayed as a battle between Saint Commerce and evil "protectionists" — a fallacious depiction burying significant questions.
For instance, America became an economic force in the early 20th century thanks, in part, to tariffs sheltering our industries. Considering that, why are all tariffs now billed as inherently bad for the economy and "free" trade billed as inherently good?
Speaking of that word "free" — why does it describe protectionism for corporate profits? "Free" trade deals wrapped in the rhetoric of Sally Struthers ads include no human rights protections. But they include patent protections that inflate pharmaceutical prices. Why does "free" trade refer only to pacts being free of protections for people?
Similarly, why have Washington's "free" traders passed laws blocking Americans from importing lower-priced, FDA-approved prescription drugs from other countries? What is "free" about letting corporations import lead-slathered toys, but barring citizens from importing life-saving medicine?
Trade fundamentalists like Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria say "struggling farmers" abroad want more NAFTA-style agreements. Why then are Mexican and Peruvian farmers now staging mass protests against our "free" trade deals? Could they know our trade policy promotes market-skewing subsidies helping corporate agribusiness put "struggling farmers" out of business?
Finally, what is "free" about trade rules letting international tribunals invalidate domestic laws? As the watchdog group Public Citizen discovered, Democrats' climate and health care proposals could face such challenges at the World Trade Organization. What happened to the concept of sovereignty?
Before being embroiled in controversy this week, Goolsbee was the only remaining presidential adviser openly pondering some of these questions. He publicly confesses that before the campaign, he never closely analyzed trade agreements, but now that he has, he says he sees the corruption and is appalled. The admission, while muted, is encouraging at a moment when substance is so brazenly ignored.
This epoch of globalization has become an era of media-driven insouciance — one allowing a journalist like Thomas Friedman to retain his "expert" label while bragging that he "didn't even know what was in" a trade deal he championed. This is a time when the biggest economic deliberations are dominated by commentators berating Democrats for mentioning trade and then falling silent when Republicans praise pacts that eliminate jobs.
In the face of such insanity, it is promising that even one presidential adviser — however clumsy — acknowledges our trade policy's underlying depravity. If there could be love in the time of cholera, there may yet be hope in the time of NAFTA.
David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," will be released in June of 2008. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at www.credoaction.com/sirota.