TCS Daily

Doth Protest Too Much?

By Kevin Hassett - September 13, 2003 12:00 AM

CANCUN, Mexico -- As an academic who has attended countless pointy-headed conferences, I feel quite at home at the WTO meeting.  There is no official head count, but I would wager that social scientists outnumber journalists and politicians at this conference.  And each day is filled with boring seminars and the annoying dissonant chatter of nerds. It's my kind of place. 


Which makes the impression that has formed amongst observers in the U.S. all the stranger.  When I call back home to check in with my family, the first question I get each day is whether the violence and chaos created by the protestors affected me in any way.  The answer each day is a resounding "no."   The activities of the protestors are so far away from where the real action is that television viewers back in the states know more about the protestors than we participants in the conference do. 


Which raises an important question.  Why does the news media feel compelled to give air time to the protestors who, aside from forcing conference organizers to erect fences, have had absolutely no effect on the goings on?  While there has been death and violence in the streets, there has been more death and violence in the streets of New York presumably, and with equal effect on world trade.


Perhaps the best answer is that the media feels compelled by a desire for "balance" to "present all sides." Balance apparently means that a journalist should report on the activities of people who think the WTO is a good idea and also on the activities of those who think it is part of an alien plot to destroy the world. The alien plot characterization of the views of these folks is only a slight exaggeration.  The protestors at the barricades are so downright weird that Mexican farmers who showed up to protest with them have been leaving in droves, purportedly because they are so creeped out by the violence. 


This scenario vividly captures how destructive media choices can be.  The problem in this case being that a few groups of professional rabble rousers with no material things to say get more media play than legitimate organizations such as the AFL-CIO that appear at these meetings with strong dissenting opinions.  The coverage choice denies the audience back home of any legitimate information about the debate, and makes life easier on reporters.  One might have to work hard to understand the issues if one wanted to present the opposing views voiced by reasonable people in the conference halls.  A suicide at the barricades, on the other hand, is easy copy.


The media choice also gives a false glow of legitimacy to the protestors.  Sure they might be on television for a moment, but they have no impact on the negotiations because they have no arguments to offer.  Worse, the brief visual that makes the news glorifies the activities of the protestors, perhaps encouraging others to join them in the future. Conversations with those who have melted into the masses on the other side of the barricades suggest a vastly different (and horrid) picture. 


If you are planning on attending the protests at the next WTO meeting, here is what you can expect. You will be isolated in an encampment with very little sanitation miles away from the real action.  Most of the time you will be sitting around with nothing to do, browsing the displays of hawkers selling Das Kapital and Mao-wear.  Media ready events will flare up once a day or so, the rest of the time you might as well read Camus.  The village will smell of overworked porta-potties, three day old chicken salad, and unwashed jeans. Some of the individuals around you will be harmless and entertaining refugees from the 1960s, but others will be violent radicals intent on creating a conflict with police.  One colleague mentioned that his contact overheard protestors plotting to storm the barricades so aggressively that the police would be forced to open fire.  Multiple casualties were considered by these plotters a specific goal.


If that description is giving you second thoughts about protesting at the next meeting, you might consider the attraction of the flip side.  There is still a lot that we do not understand about the impact of trade on economies.  There are ample empirical questions that have not been adequately addressed.  If you believe that economic development might harm endangered species, gather data and explore the question.  A careful empirical study that makes the case convincingly might well change minds among the important folks gathered in the conference rooms at the WTO meeting, and even affect policy.


But it will not make the evening news.


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