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How Journalists Use Experts to Fool Readers on ‘Free Trade’

The Washington Post and Reuters earlier this month reported on the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement and consulted two of the mainstream media’s favorite think tanks on trade — the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

What they didn’t mention in their articles was that both organizations take large amounts of money from foreign governments and from big companies that benefit from trade.

“We have to recognize the massive public relations and spinning of facts that these think tanks have been pushing for decades,” said Alan Tonelson, an economic policy analyst who called out the public policy organizations on his blog, RealityChek.

The Wilson Center, a public-private partnership established by the Smithsonian Institution, gets money both from U.S. taxpayers and corporate and foreign sources. Tonelson noted that the think tank’s Mexico Institute gets funding from six big Mexican companies. Walmart — which supports NAFTA — and the American pharmaceutical industry, which uses Mexico as a manufacturing base for export to the United States, also contribute.

The Wilson Center’s Canada Institute gets funding from the Canadian government.

The Peterson Institute, meanwhile, reports on its website that pro-free trade Toyota Motor Co. and the GE Foundation gave between $100,000 and $999,999 in 2016. Caterpillar Inc. and the IBM Foundation contributed between $75,000 and $99,999. Ford Motor Co. and Deere & Co. chipped in between $50,000 and $74,999, while Samsung Technologies, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble gave $25,000 to $49,999 each.

Mitsubishi International Corporation gave up to $49,999.

In addition, the Peterson Institute acknowledges contributions from three foreign government entities that assist their countries’ export industries — the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, the Korea Development Institute, and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

Tonelson said neither the ideological bent of the Peterson Institute and the Wilson Center nor of their contributors means their views and information are invalid. And he said he does not expect every story to include an exhaustive list of donors to public policy organizations that journalists quote. But he said well-respected news sources ought to at least give readers a sense of the financial interests that fund the groups.

“How many words does that take up?” he asked.

Rich Noyes, director of research at the Media Research Center — which tracks left-wing bias — told LifeZette that media bias in source selection and presentation goes far beyond the issue of global trade.

“We’ve done studies for years about big broadcast networks and the big newspapers showing how they favor experts that favor a mostly liberal agenda,” he said. “The same people show up over and over again.”

Noyes attributed part of the phenomenon to a “certain amount of laziness” on the part of journalists. Reporters often find comfort in calling the same sources repeatedly, he said.

Part of the explanation is rooted in ideological bias, said Noyes. He noted, for instance, that major newspapers and national broadcast networks are quick to report on funding by oil companies behind any environmental research.

“It just doesn’t work across the board for all issues and all stories,” he said.

Tonelson agreed there are multiple explanations for imbalanced reporting on trade.

“One can never go wrong focusing on the laziness of most reporters,” he said, before adding, “At the same time, there’s also a breakdown, it seems, of what would seem to be one of the most important qualities that should be on display on a nonstop basis — and that’s skepticism.”

The result does not just slant news reports, Noyes said; it does a disservice to readers and viewers.

“Having a set orthodoxy on trade is one reason why the media elite missed the Trump phenomenon,” he said.

Tonelson said trade poses special difficulties for reporters seeking balance because it transcends the typical left-right divide that marks most other policy debates. There are far more think tanks and policy interest groups that support globalization than oppose it, he said.

That has grown more true even though there are few signs regular Americans are buying in, Tonelson said.

“It’s fair to say that there is a Washington, D.C., and related elite consensus on trade policy, on trade liberalization, that is not remotely matched by public opinion,” he said.

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Giving the caustic partisanship of current politics, Tonelson said, reporters “tend to assume, quite naturally, that that consensus really does represent the country.”

Tonelson said that while reporters should be more skeptical, public policy groups engage in what he calls “information laundering.” Advocates advance political positions through organizations dressed up to resemble universities engaged in a neutral pursuit of the truth.

“They’re both guilty,” he said. “These organizations are trying to pass themselves off as something that they’re not.”