Media Darken Americans’ Perceptions of Trade

Today’s Wall Street Journal headline screams: “Americans Sour on Trade.” And why shouldn’t they? After all, the public is routinely bombarded with misleading or simplistic trade coverage that too often relies on cliché, innuendo, and regurgitated conventional wisdom: it’s Team America versus the world. Without the war metaphor, trade is just a peaceful, mutually-enriching endeavor between consenting parties. BO-RING!

Dan Griswold attributes the declining sentiment to the business cycle and goes on to suggest that this “collective attitude is more reflective of the complaints people hear in the media than of any hard reality on the ground.” Let me continue with that theme because I’ve made no secret of my concern about media’s inclination to eschew context and fact to pitch a particular narrative about trade.  The polling data at the heart of today’s WSJ article bears out that concern. A nation that has strong misgivings about trade is less likely to stop a conspiracy of politicians and special interests from taking away their right to do so.

The problem is not just limited to one or two newspapers; the problem is endemic. Here are just a few examples of faulty trade reporting that my colleagues and I have criticized over the past year or so (Exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, …). And here’s a more recent example from the editorial board of USA Today on Friday, October 1:

“From 2000 to 2009, America’s trade deficit with China surged nearly 300%. During that same time, 5.4 million American jobs in manufacturing were eliminated. It’s tough for U.S. manufacturers to compete against China’s lower wages, looser regulations and cheaper currency.”

Yes, the facts about the trade deficit and the American manufacturing jobs are correct. But the point is to imply that trade is responsible for the destruction of U.S. manufacturing. Nowhere does it mention that U.S. manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 (well before trade with China was more than a statistical rounding error in our total trade figures) and has been trending downward ever since. Nowhere does it mention that China has lost many millions more manufacturing jobs than we have in the United States because of the same phenomenon: productivity growth. Nowhere in the editorial does it mention that U.S. manufacturing has been breaking records year after year during the decade (with the exceptions of recession years 2002 and 2009) with respect to output, value-added, revenues, profits, return on investment, and exports. Nowhere does it mention that U.S. manufactures are the world’s most prolific, accounting for the largest share of global manufacturing value added. Nowhere does it mention that China has been America’s fastest growing export market for a decade and that U.S. goods exports to China are up 36 percent compared to the same period last year, which is a 50 percent faster growth rate than U.S. exports to the rest of the world.  Obviously, that fact would undermine the assertion that “it’s tough for U.S. manufacturers to compete against China’s lower wages, looser regulations and cheaper currency.” Nowhere does it caution that the use of statistics from 2009, the nadir of the recession, might be a bit misleading. Nowhere does it mention that as U.S. manufacturing jobs declined by 3.8 million between 2000 and 2008, a total of 8.8 million new jobs were created in the U.S. economy, for a net gain of 5 million jobs.

Americans have soured on trade largely because of the way media conveys its stories about trade.  There is no alternative explanation for a majority of Americans harboring ill-will toward trade. Most Americans enjoy the fruits of international trade and globalization every day and in countless ways, and less than 3% of U.S. jobs loss is attributable to import competition or outsourcing.  It is simply implausible that the degree of antipathy toward trade reflected in opinion polls is driven by past personal experiences or realistic fears about the future.

Rather than focus so much on shaping public opinion, media should rid itself of the curse of group think and get back to the basics of objectively reporting the facts, challenging the conventional wisdom, and citing multiples sources. The kind of lazy acceptance of unsubstantiated theories of cause and effect that are evident in international trade reporting these days is reminiscent of the media’s passive role in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq.