Trade Secrets: Executive Summary

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Critics have complained that CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” is a seamless rant against big business and free trade. The network in turn has promoted a premier news and business program as “news, debate and opinion.” But it doesn’t explain that Dobbs mixes the three into something that isn’t news and economists and critics say isn’t even always accurate.

     As a result, viewers of “the Dan Rather of financial journalism,” as one conservative critic called Dobbs, are missing the real story behind the American economic engine – free trade. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, 94 percent of the show’s stories about trade over a four-month period blamed free trade for horrors ranging from “destroying” the U.S. middle class to leaving a “legacy of environmental degradation, lost jobs, and increased illegal immigration.” A defense of free trade never received a fair hearing. The Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute studied 69 news reports from all 86 broadcasts of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” between March 1 and June 30, 2005. The stories chosen for the study focused on free trade and job relocation. The findings include:

    Trade Pact Passed Congress, But Not Dobbs: The recently-passed Central American Free Trade Agreement never received even neutral consideration on “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” Seventeen separate free-trade stories were devoted to hammering CAFTA relentlessly. None of them took a positive or even neutral view of the treaty.

    ‘So-Called’ News: Dobbs openly flaunted his feelings on the subject, using the phrase “so-called free trade” at least 34 times. In a recent broadcast, Dobbs corrected himself when he mentioned “free trade” without labeling it “so-called.” The man his network says “helped CNN become the leader in television business journalism” does one-sided news on a regular basis.

    Breaking China: The July 22, 2005, Wall Street Journal noted that “China-bashing has become a favorite sport in Washington…” The same can be said for “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” The program devoted 33 stories to China during the four-month time period. Of those, 89 percent (29 stories) criticized American trade with China, a top trading partner, and hammered China for everything from destroying the American textile industry to currency manipulation. None of the stories gave the other side of the China question.

    The Outsourcing Source: Lou Dobbs continues to be one of the leading voices against outsourcing American jobs. He’s even written a book about companies that are “Exporting America,” but he only told half the story. He left out the 5.4 million insourced jobs that pay, on average, more than the typical American job. Of the 69 stories studied, 43 percent (30 stories) focused on the “perils” of outsourcing. Of those 30 stories, only one mentioned insourced jobs – and that twisted the facts to criticize U.S. trade policy. What's more, Dobbs has a newsletter, the Lou Dobbs Money Letter, that promoted eight of the companies he criticized on his Web site.

    United He Stands: Instead of a business show, “Lou Dobbs Tonight” often sounded like a meeting at a union hall. Stories bashed news and business executives and relied on the unions' protectionist view of trade. Of 51 trade-related stories, 43 percent (22 stories) solicited input from one of 11 different union groups. In 2004, Dobbs received The Man of the Year Award from a “worker advocacy group demanding that U.S. jobs be preserved first and foremost for American citizens.”

    Unbalanced Trade Account: Dobbs blamed the trade deficit for “literally choking economic growth” but the numbers don’t bear that out. According to the Cato Institute, GDP actually grows more quickly when the trade deficit is “worsening.” That’s because imports raise the standard of living for American workers and provide cheap products for industry and consumers. This foreign capital feeds our growing economy.

     The report also includes five recommendations for improved business coverage. Those recommendations include: Give free trade a fair hearing; Separate news from commentary; Don’t be selective with facts; Stop harping on the trade deficit; and Find and utilize free market experts.