Free Trade on Television: The Triumph of Business Rhetoric

Stephen Block (Concordia University)

Abstract: This paper attempts to unravel the very complex issue of balance first by addressing its historical and theoretical contexts. Then the coverage of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is used as a case study.

Résumé: Dans cet article l'auteur s'applique à décortiquer la complexité de la controverse notion de "balance" dans la couverture médiatique. Il la place d'abord dans son contexte historique et théorique. Il s'appuie, ensuite, comme exemple, sur le suivi que les médias ont fait autour des pourparlers et de l'entente du libre-échange entre le Canada et les États-Unis.

The FTA: Economy and Society

Much of the public discussion surrounding the FTA had at its base a fight between the irrefutability of scientific economy, as allegedly practised by various groups and individuals who supported the deal, and an entirely different logic, perhaps one might call it an ethical one, concerning the public "good," the public or national interest and questions of corporate social responsibility, as taken up by its opponents. This itself would have made it difficult to balance one set of ideas with the other, as Alasdair MacIntyre predicted would be the case in such instances, because such an enterprise involves "the adducing of a number of rival and incompatible considerations." Consequently, according to MacIntyre,

"a balancing of considerations" is often and appositely used; only there are no scalesand so the metaphor of balancing, is a misleading and disguising fiction. (1984, p. 511)

The coverage of the FTA, I will argue, is an excellent illustration of where the highly abstract and irrefutable logic of positivist economics often met the equally socially removed applied ethics of "objective" journalism. The tenacity of those who embrace positive (laissez-faire) economy's contention and pretensions of being scientific, also extends, however, to their desire to affecting a counter-revolution in politics, epistemology and the theory and practice of public policy. My task here is to show how routine journalistic practices assisted business in these quests (in specific instances) during what some have called "the great free trade debate" (Lipsey, 1989).

MacIntyre had sardonically suggested that ethicists may find gainful employment in economic hard times. In public affairs we could suspect they would find such employment as "spin doctors;" their talents creatively put to work conceiving of new ways of re-examining enduring principles, so as to make their employers appear like saints rather than villains. This is commonly called "issues management." And business theorists, such as William T. Stanbury, claim it is justifiable. For if the creation of wealth (as pro-FTA economists claimed the FTA was primarily about) is an intrinsic good, wealth creators (entrepreneurs) ought to be recognized for their generosity, not persecuted for their success.

The FTA is an important business story as well as an important public policy story. As such there are at least two ways of reading it as a news story, of performing "a balancing of considerations." The issue of balance itself, is, however, subject to ethical whipsawing. But this primarily occurs between corporate public affairs consultants, "experts" or "analysts," whose profession it is to manage issues, and journalists, whose job includes interviewing such people and covering such issues, or so I will argue.

As the laissez-faire perspective was the cornerstone logic of the FTA, it is of interest to note the relationship between the corporate view of public affairs and the coverage of the FTA. The business position I describe below, it might be noted, however, would be considered unreasonable even by some business theorists (because of its antipathy toward social responsibility). Its extremity, nevertheless, has not diminished its influence.

Balance and Objectivity: Life in the Post-Positivist Beaker

The question of balance, it must first be said, is an ethical one premised on other principles such as fairness, equity, disinterest and non-partisanship. Providing balanced information is itself also a matter of social responsibility. This is perhaps why writing on MacIntyre's work in the field of ethics, Edmund Lambeth notes its eminent applicability to the study of mass communication. Lambeth suggested moral "goods" by which journalists ideally might abide: telling "the whole story, not just part of it," and "reporting that serves the public interest; gathering, writing and editing the news with fairness...and conducting journalism in a way that will preserve [constitutional] rights to free expression" (1990, p. 98).

MacIntyre's chief concern, on the other hand, was to alert the non-philosopher to the tragedy of the times. "Imagine," he says, beginning his famous (1981) work, "that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed...on...scientists." This is followed by widespread riots, laboratory burnings, physicists being lynched and books and instruments being destroyed. Finally, "a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching." Elsewhere MacIntyre seems to suggest this is the actual state of affairs in the field of ethics which now suffers the effects of the hegemonic triumph of (logical) positivism. The study of enduring principles in the past, he says, has become the practice of a "simulacra of moral principles" in the present.(1984, p. 511)

His critique, he may have noticed, applies as well to economics, especially since the virtual abolition of the Keynesian viewpoint, a moral one premised on the regulation of the free-market. Today most of economy's most prominent theorists practixe what is known variously as liberal, laissez-faire, neo-Classical or positive economics. Hollis and Nell have argued that positive economics shares many features with analytic (logical positivist) philosophy. Two of those features are the fact/value distinction and the analytic/synthetic distinction. The latter distinction asserted that certain statements were synthetic, and therefore empirically verifiable or falsifiable, whereas analytic statements, being true by definition, were not.

But as Hollis and Nell argue, part of positivism's charm, ironically, is its being premised on analytic (unfalsifiable) premises. This should disqualify them as scientific axioms, but instead they become part of positivism's seductive elegance. "[T]he chemist," Hollis and Nell point out, "when his model fails to match reality, blames the model;...the economist, when reality fails to match his model, has the option of blaming reality" (1975, p. 41). Positive economy's cheek, I will argue, ideally suits it for the action-packed world of public affairs journalism.

In part this is because the model appears to have uncanny capacities to predict: "[w]hatever fits a model, behaves as the model predicts." This itself is a tautology, as Hollis and Nell point out, but not one lacking in persuasive force. For in the end "positivism [being] a fighting philosophy...offers...the neo-Classical picture a defence against some inviting (and, we argue later, largely correct) criticisms" (ibid., p. 24). It "demands a say in the councils of the world....It makes a difference to all enquiry." But it makes "the wrong difference," in both its theoretical and public policy venues (ibid., p. 22).

Journalism has itself hardly been spared in this regard. (Nor has mainstream content analysis.) Journalistic "objectivity," it has been noted, is "the strongest remaining bastion of logical positivism in America" (Gans, 1979). And Tuchman has referred to objectivity as a fall back position, a "strategic ritual" used to protect professional journalists from criticisms from both within and outside of their profession (1971/1972). MacIntyre has suggested that something quite similar takes place in all professions where there is "this kind of task of showing that it is morally credible" (1984, p. 512). This would explain my view here that the business (laissez-faire) economistic view is itself a convincing or comfortable one for journalists.

The Deregulation School, Corporate Public Affairs and Fair Representation

According to some business theorists, on the other hand, it is ethical imperatives such as the public interest which do great mischief to a beleaguered and undervalued cause: that of successful, profitable enterprising. The "perceived moral inferiority of private interests" in relation to the notion of the public interest (Stanbury, 1986, p. 117), is a key reason why public affairs today is taken so seriously by corporations and why corporate public affairs is now so well funded (Gollner, 1984).

But it was Milton Friedman's proclamation that the "business of business is business" which spawned an entire generation of "pro-active" corporate public affairs practitioners. Many large corporations in fact went on the offensive in the 1970s and 1980s to challenge the inroads non-business advocates from the labour, anti-poverty, civil rights, environmental and women's movements had made into business's monopoly in pressure group politics.

This was a disturbing turn from the business lobby's perspective, for whom social equity is, in the language of economics, a zero-sum game. For if social issues were "crowded in," more important (sic) economic and business considerations would be "crowded out." This puts into some context the views of two of Canada's most influential business think-tanks and lobby organizations, the Fraser and C.D. Howe Institutes, that the coverage of the FTA did not sufficiently represent the professional economist point of view. The Fraser Institute claimed in its publication On Balance (OB) that "very few economists or business representativespeople who generally support the agreementwere interviewed by the national media." The consequence: that "very few external sources were sought to corroborate the government's policy" (OB, I, p. 1, October 1988, p. 3).

Richard Lipsey, the C.D. Howe's influential economist (see Lipsey, 1989 for a complete list of his relevant publications on the FTA), member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Fraser Institute and frequent interlocutor on both the CBC and CTV during the FTA debate, proclaimed afterward that the CBC and the Toronto Star had acted as such strong advocates against the deal that

[l]isteners and readers of these media could be forgiven for thinking that supporters were isolated eccentrics at best and subversives at worst. (ibid., p. 4)

Lipsey attributed antipathy toward the FTA to "well-established Canadian fears" and the anti-side's underestimation of the free trade association (ibid.). But Lipsey's view suggests that the FTA debate (aside from its allegedly negative coverage) was an ideological battle between two relatively equivalent forces; a characterization, I will argue, which in fact formed part of the basis of journalists' understanding of their role in "balancing" the coverage.

Another source [Frizzell, et al., 1988] also reported finding that the coverage of the FTA was negative. It should be pointed out, however, that this latter study was in part premised (as was the Fraser Institute's) on the counting of statements made by leaders of parliamentary parties for the purposes of content analysis. But in a parliamentary democracy, if equal coverage were to be given to all three leaders, one might expect negative statements against a major policy of the government of the day to outnumber those supporting the policy; roughly two-to-one as the Fraser Institute reported finding (OB, I, p. 1, October 1988, p. 2). It is not clear, therefore, what such studies prove aside from that journalists ensured, in MacIntyres words, that they were "morally credible."

Immanence as Fair Representation

The question of how to best approach the ideas of others is, however, hardly a setting for the exact routinized "objective" procedures science is commonly believed to be about. By a "balanced" approach, in the world of ideas, we often mean that ideas we hold ought to be considered according to our own criteria of accuracy and fairness. To ensure the fair analysis of the ideas of others Peter Winch has suggested that ideas be interpreted in a manner "internally" compatible and "logically" consistent with the holder's thoughts, not in a manner "external" to those thoughts. And "immanent analysis" has been suggested (in theology, for example) as a means of providing a thematic or ideational overview of a person, era or subject's true or essential thoughts, intentions and meaning.

On the other hand, Adorno suggested immanent critique as an antidote to the non-critical analysis he took (Husserl's) immanence procedure to be. Immanent critique, the "[d]ialectic's very procedure...exacts the truth from [Husserl's phenomenological procedure] through the confession of its own untruth." And by extracting the truth, when it is not forthcoming from its holder, immanent critique is therefore, he would argue, also a kind of fair representation. In fact Adorno regarded the claim that he had not fairly represented Husserl's view as a crude attempt to immunize that view from criticism. Immanent critique

does not so much oppose [Husserl's immanence model] with a "model" external and alien to [it], as it pushes the...model, with the latter's own force, to where the latter cannot afford to go. (1983, p. 5)

Many of these questions of method, analysis, interpretation and representation can and ought to be raised in relation to journalistic practice. But it is laissez-faire economist and deregulation theorist F.A. Hayek who has suggested a method which in my view closest resembles Canadian journalistic practice during the FTA debate. Hayek (who with Milton Friedman has published with the Fraser Institute [Friedman, 1977; Block, 1981]) has suggested "immanent criticism."

John Gray captures the essence of Hayek's view of immanent criticism when he says that "[t]he proper attitude to our inheritance of social rules," for Hayek, is "one of Burkean reverence and not of reformist hubris." And so "[c]riticism of our inheritance [which includes individual liberty, private property and the market system] as is possible and desirable is always," accordingly, "immanent criticism."

[I]t is a criticism in which one aspect of the whole corpus of practices we have inherited is invoked to illuminate and correct the rest.

Criticism, such as then would be possible, "always in the end consists in the detection and removal of incoherences" (Gray, 1986, p. 42). It should be noted, therefore, that for Hayek (social democratic or Keynesian) reformist values are not part of "our" heritage. In that respect immanent criticism becomes a method to "correct the rest" (non-market ideas), and detect and remove "incoherences" or "distortions" caused by reformist (regulatory) policies or ideas. Here Hayeks view is made plain: any argument founded on the premise that social justice is either good or necessary is external to the logic he wishes to propose. Hayek speaks of the "atavism of social justice" (1978, pp. 57-68) and the "mirage of social justice" (1976). He describes the term "social" as a "weasel" word (1988, p. 114) which he says is especially seductive when conjoined with other terms (ibid., p. 115-116), as in the phrase "social responsibility."

Hayek's principle of immanent criticism, the principle by which ideas are to be evaluated faithfully, thereby itself "methodologically" excludes any views of economy and society which reflect what Hayek calls the "fatal conceit" (1988), or hubris, of presuming to know how to regulate or reform the naturally evolving market order better than the market can. So while criticisms of the market must be "internal"--sympathetic with the "logic" of the market--skepticism and negative evaluation is reserved for any "external" body of thought which might suggest that social and economic planning of any kind is possible, necessary, or positive. This would exclude, as governmental policy, the regulation of industry, foreign investment review, "progressive" taxation schemes, or, as it would be called, income "redistribution." Legislation enforcing stricter health, safety, work-place or environmental standards, promoting social equality among genders, races, cultures and regions or rent control, also all allegedly create non-economic "distortions" to the natural selection process. Given that the FTA was considered by many to be an omnibus policy putsch toward deregulation, Hayek and the deregulation school's views on economy and social policy therefore have considerable relevance here.

Hayek's version of immanent criticism described above of course then has positive benefits only for one side of a prospective political-economic debate. Being "fair" to Hayeks view, when logically extended into the contemporary business view of public affairs, means helping wage war on socialism, social democracy and or even Trudeau or American-style liberalism. The plea for balance in this context becomes little but an attempt to repress social activism while sympathetically analyzing, and "constructively" criticizing, the workings of the free-market.

Hayek's view now enjoys widespread influence and is argued on behalf of by business lobbyists who claim their own procedures to be "value-neutral." (See also the Fraser Institute's claims of objectivity, discussed by Hackett, Savage and Gilsdorf in this volume.) Such claims of objective procedures, made by respected business organizations, are often enough to convince viewers, and journalists, especially if a claim is alleged to be "verified" by the "supporting evidence" of another "non-partisan" organization (Tuchman, 1971/1972, p. 667). Journalistic practice routinely overlooks the strategic purpose behind such claims.

Neutrality, Self-Regulation and Uncommittedness

Hayek had otherwise contended that the same market laws applied to ideas as to firms. Those most deserving would survive. The demise of others, while unfortunate, is part of a cleansing process similar to bankruptcy. Journalists themselves argue that regulation of their profession would be counterproductive. For the "marketplace of ideas," it is made to seem, automatically ensures that those ideas which deserve to be fairly represented will be.

Journalism itself, therefore, has few formal mechanisms by which principles such as fairness, neutrality, equity or balance, as accepted by all parties, can be enforced. Industrial relations is perhaps the best example of where a practical mechanism exists to ensure equity, as much as that is realistically possible. There, an established tradition exists for resolving conflict. Various procedures exist for the conciliation, arbitration, mediation and enforcement of rules and agreements. The labour-management process must appear to be fair to both sides at every stage if a workable set of arrangements is to be maintained which will ensure that disruptions are kept to a minimum. Perhaps this is because, as Glasbeek (1982) has claimed, the collective agreement most resembles a contract for indentured service. As such special care is taken to make the process appear as fair as possible under the circumstances. Consequently, unlike in journalism, the myth of self-regulation is set aside.

Most crucial to the appearance of fairness in the labour-management process is the sense both sides have of the neutral or third party. If he or she is considered biased by either side, a replacement will have to be found if the process is to be one to which both parties voluntarily can consent. Hence the "neutral" party is accountable to both sides, not just in a formal, official or abstract sense, but in practice. Traditions both inside and outside this particular field dictate that the neutral must be as disinterested as possible in the final outcome, but not uninterested or generally lacking in human understanding. She or he must understand the terms of any particular dispute, including its history and the terms of any existing contract, as well as be aware of his or her role in resolving it.

A variation of this system I would think might work in public affairs journalism. But the picture of neutrality which emerges from within the press tradition is quite different. Even though neutrality and impartiality are claimed as objectives, no real enforcement mechanisms, short of the withdrawal of advertising revenue, or the threat thereof, seems to have any impact. The press is therefore not formally bound in its day-to-day practices to any party (but only to "market forces") and in that respect believes itself to be self-regulated. This alone allegedly assures its autonomy, and, to use Peter Winch's term, that it remains "uncommitted" (1958, p. 102).

Note, however, the very different way of seeing the role of the press implied in the title of Edward Lambeth's text Committed Journalism. Committed journalism, being thoughtful and investigative, cannot be satisfied only with what lies on the surface. In probing beneath the surface it might well question conventional wisdom, even suggesting reform (1986., pp. 9-10). Indeed, therefore, investigative or "committed" journalism would itself, in Hayek's way of thinking, suffer a form of hubris.

For Hayek investigations of social reality of necessity remain on the surface. Knowledge is "tacit," practical in nature, akin to "know-how" (Gray, 1986, pp. 14-16). Detailed analyses which go below the surface (as is implied by "investigative reporting") therefore are pointless. According to Gray, Hayek "gives a wholly new twist to the argument for liberty from ignorance" (Gray, 1986, p. 15). But if as Tuchman (1971/72) points out, the social scientist is a "thinker," and the journalist a "man of action," on this account Hayek's method would suit the temperament and inclination of the latter, not the former.

Conservative economy, in sum, has built into it a public affairs component. The job of the business lobbyist often is to "pro-actively" put negative (reformist), supposedly counter-productive or "pseudo" issues, to rest. In many cases where an advocate-lobbyist-spokesperson is interviewed on economy or business-related questions, he or she doubles as an expert. And the practical consequences of the advocacy of "uncommittedness" can be seen in the growing influence of the deregulation school has had over all. Arguing that the political state, its highest courts and its news media remain "uncommitted" (non-activist) in relation to the leading social policy issues of the day, proponents of deregulation have managed to roll back gains made by social movements during previous decades, including quieting down a potentially adversarial press.

Keeping this in mind, we can turn to the coverage of the FTA.

The Coverage of The FTA: A Poor "Balancing of Considerations"

Consistent with what I have argued above, faithful viewers of public affairs television in 1987 and 1988 would have been witness to a significant number of informal discussions between journalists and members or representatives of the business community on matters directly or peripherally related to the FTA. The vigilance one would have expected in such circumstances seemed curiously suspended as such occasions were rather made to appear as mere opportunities to "inform" Canadians on subjects not always obviously related to free trade. In doing so journalists displayed at best a great naiveté in their understanding of the purpose of the lobbyist's presence and at worst an abnegation of the journalist role as neutral facilitator of informed discussion.

Typical of the routinely relaxed demeanor so often present in the coverage of economic and trade side of the FTA discussion are the two pieces cited below from the business and public affairs segments of the CTV programme Canada AM. They, as all the examples I examine, have been selected quite deliberately to reflect part of an impression gained of the coverage of the FTA (based upon the careful viewing of 294 separate items) which I believe has not been sufficiently commented upon. My purpose here, therefore, is not to count statements of key political players but rather to take special note even of individual instances where violations of journalists' own principle of balance went unnoticed.

The first example features Tom D'Aquino of the Business Council on National Issues and John Bulloch of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business interviewed by Nancy Wilson of Canada AM as a combination "debate and consultation" on the 1988 (Michael) Wilson budget and the government's economic record.

Canadians are still spending, we should remember, $29 billion more than we are taking in and that is not good news. Now Mr. Wilson has made progress and will continue to make progress but Canadians must continue to be aware that our record in relation to our other trading partners is not particularly good....
If I were Mr. Wilson I'd take a minute to blow my own horn. We've had probably the best job creation and economic growth in the Western world in the last year and we have an incredible year coming up. I mean, the economy is just bubbling out there.... We should spread the good news.
Sounds like what you're looking for is just an economic statement; just a progress report on how the economy is doing and an update on some of the projections.
Well this is very important. We have to tell the country we're on target for deficit reductions. This will settle down the capital markets. We had a stock market crash. It's having no effect on the economy....We've got a new free trade agreement. Every single one of those tariff cuts is going to mean a new company formed. So we've got all kinds of excitement ahead and that's what we should be talking about. (Canada AM, 1/25/88)[emphasis in original]

Given business's support for the Conservative government and for the economic policies put forward by then Finance Minister Wilson, the results of the consultation are somewhat predictable. But this type of an interview, nevertheless, is strategically important to business lobbyists for several reasons. First because it treats a specific (laissez-faire) economic model as if it were uncontroversial thereby implicitly establishing a basis for developing notions of factuality and objectivity on matters of economy. D'Aquino himself does so, for example, by stating, matter-of-factly, that a $29 billion deficit is "not good news," a statement which carries enormous implications for those who understand the attack on the deficit to be a disguised attack on the public sector (Chorney, 1989).

Second, the view that the management of the economy is one area of strength for this government was also treated as uncontroversial, perpetuating the belief that fiscal conservatives are better managers of the economy and, specifically, that this Minister of Finance is a good one. Third, the interviewees were permitted to define for us the present state of economic affairs, which here is characterized as being a period of "probably the best job creation and economic growth in the Western world," at a point Canada was experiencing the highest level and longest run of unemployment since the 1930s (ibid.). Fourth, therefore, free trade is associated with job creation and economic growth.

Considered together they create an atmosphere within which the FTA could be immanently analyzed positively. Yet only one "statement" about free trade was uttered. (Hence the impact of the interview would hardly be reflected in conventional statement-counting content analysis.)

In addition, the interview was conducted among three individuals, two of whom had similar views on the economy and the FTA, and apparently considerable information on its prospective content. The third person, a journalist, was much less versed in the subject matter at hand and "uncommitted" about the FTA. (It should be noted, however, that Nancy Wilson's knowledge on these matters is not out of line with that of most of her peers. Most journalists, even of the business beat, often do not understand economic policy-making very well. A pleasant exception is Don McGillivray, of Southam Press.) No alternative voice was here present, nor was one question asked which went "outside" the parameters set by Bulloch and D'Aquino.

In another interview conducted shortly after the FTA was signed, trade analyst Murray G. Smith, co-author with Richard Lipsey of the (1985) C.D. Howe study on the FTA, is "consulted" for an explanation of the meaning of the FTA.

N. Wilson:
Murray Smith, let's start with the good news. What do we stand to gain?
A more competitive [not defined] manufacturing sector...not just in North America but offshore....
It's a little early to be number crunching but when you say better jobs, higher're talking about about more jobs as well and if so have you got any ball-park figures how many jobs might be created?
Research by a variety of organizations [all of which favour free trade] such as the Economic Council of Canada...perhaps in the order of three hundred to four hundred thousand...a combination of more jobs and higher wages. If we take it out in the form of higher wages then there would be far fewer jobs. (Canada AM, 10/5/87 "Trade Triumph")

Aside from the sheer invention of Smith's (unchallenged) figures, his (unquestioned) economic assumption that there was necessarily a dramatic trade-off between wages and jobs is a matter of economic opinion. It is interesting to note, in this context, Lipsey's complaint that "[f]allacious arguments for rejection [of the FTA] got wide publicity, while their refutations could not easily be publicized." He cites as an example "the media's handling of the Ontario government's paper alleging that 280,000 jobs were at risk" (1989, p. 5). This latter claim, at least on the surface, now appears more credible than Smith's even wilder positive claim. But then such matters are always open to debate as to which jobs are gained or lost, the cause of job loss and the long term prospects for job creation. Note also that by mentioning that research was conducted "by a variety of organizations," Smith validates his own views using journalistic fact-checking criteria!

Dependency and Co-dependency in Public Affairs

As neither the public nor journalists then had access to the content of the deal itself, business analysts, such as Smith, functioned here to tell the story about the deal. And in the process of "explaining" the significance of various economic issues and offering their "expert" opinion, such analysts obviously had created for themselves a platform for their views. Although this aspect of public affairs itself contravenes the rules and principles of disinterest, it is one routinely overlooked by journalists.

Journalistic dependency upon experts is always a crucial consideration. But it is particularly important here because of viewer dependency upon journalists for information about the FTA, especially if it can be shown that viewer dependency was enhanced and legitimated through the use of such experts and analysts. This would imply that a conflict of interest exists between the journalist's requirement to abide by the principle of balance, and a conflicting professional requirement of legitimating his or her role through the use of professional "experts." For the risk is always that the latter may override the former.

If it is added that few journalists have an adequate understanding of the implication the current economic vogue has for public policy or public affairs, or that credible alternatives exist from other economic points of view, this suggests that the coverage of economy can seldom be described as either informed or balanced. In fact, much of the confusion concerning economy is created by the coverage of economic issues reflexively ignoring perspectives which lie outside the narrow domain business people define as relevant and significant. This renders most reports on economy unduly complex, abstract, convoluted and anti-"social" (in the sense of distinguishing between economic "facts" and social "values").

The Realpolitik, Hard "Facts" and Sentimental "Opinions"

Beside missing an adequate understanding of either the intellectual side of the economic arguments or the dynamics of policy-making, what was also lacking in the coverage of the FTA was an exposé of the high level behind-the-scenes dealings, not just among politicians, but much more importantly between and among politicians and highly placed business lobbyists. The lack of coverage of such on-goings is particularly unforgivable, in this particular instance, given the very significant role business played from the very conception of the FTA.In a very early piece filed by Craig Oliver, Oliver states that:

I talked to a senior American official earlier this evening who seemed to be aware of the general outlines of what Mulroney was going to say. He said Americans would be watching and listening but responding very gingerly. Our trade is hot potato politics here as it is at home. (CTV News 10/27/86)

On another occasion Oliver files a report which begins: "Yeutter was sticking by the comments that caused the ire of Canadians." Then Yeutter is quoted on camera saying "[i]t seems to me every time you talk about that kind of an issue [referring to cultural subsidies] in Canada it gets twelve inch headlines." He goes on to say "whether cultural issues are economicis up to the government of Canada" (CTV News, 2/8/87). This would seem to indicate that Yeutter, the senior U.S. trade envoy, was the source in both pieces, being quoted once anonymously.

Being that close to the action, however, a journalist as professional and experienced as Oliver would have to have known considerably more than he was revealing of the Canadian and American business lobby machines' activities. Yet it is Yeutter's view, that the economic and the social must be kept separate, which frames the coverage. It does so by suggesting, once again, that not only are economic issues the real issues and social issues "emotional," but that it is possible and desirable to separate the economic from the social (the fact/value distinction). But this reflects the view of only one party to the debate. Therefore some comment would have been in order to balance this view.

By remaining silent here, is the journalist acting as a neutral party who does not betray confidences (thereby not potentially ruining his friendly relations with inside sources) or is he indeed acting as a shepherd for people who need protection for their weak theoretical and political flanks? For Yeutter's suggestion that Canada's autonomy (sic) extended to its defining cultural subsidies as "economic," Oliver may have noted, would hardly reassure those who feared the FTA for this very reason.

The "Nationalized" Coverage and the American Coverage: Of Candour and Lack of Candour

The debate over the FTA, especially on the CBC, on the other hand, was often framed as being one between Canadian "nationalists," whose primary preoccupation was with (and hence expertise only concerned) cultural matters, and business realists, whose concern was merely with the positive impact the FTA would have on the economy. Hence Mike Duffy begins a piece on the opposition to free trade in Canada with: "[t]hey dot the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Eastern Ontario. United Empire Loyalist towns. Visible symbols of the Loyalist determination not to become Americans" (CBC News, 8/24/87). Aside from suggesting a kind of historical dogged determination, borne largely out of a fear or rejection of change (much as Lipsey had suggested was the case), here the "change" the Tories campaigned they'd manage (Lee, 1989, p. 79), this framing freezes the "loyalists" out of the "objective," "factual," "hard news" side of the debatethe economics of the dealexactly as the business lobby's framing would have it.

On the other hand, one of the only truly informative pieces of television journalism on the free trade issue was in my view carried, tellingly, on the American public television network's programme The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour shortly after the deal was signed. On that occasion Michael Aho, an American trade specialist, laid out, in a clear, concise and straightforward manner, the position of the pro-side, which he correctly characterized as consisting of major business lobby groups on both sides of the border. Mr. Aho was openly candid about the terms of the deal, its impact on both Canada and the U.S., who most supported it and the need to sell the deal, especially in Canada. In response to a question as to what was in it for the United States, Mr. Aho stated that:

agreements in new areas, service areas and intellectual property rights, made the deal very attractive, as did changes to investment rules which had previously made it more difficult for corporations preparing for the global economy to plan.

Later he stated that

There are opportunities in the sense that tariffs are twice as high [in Canada], if they come down that would mean an expanded opportunity for many U.S. firms--new issue areas that we could demonstrate to the world that we could get new agreements on things. (McNeil/Lehrer News Hour, 10/5/87)

"That is why," Mr. Aho claimed, "leading proponents such as the service industries and multinational corporations have been watching this accord very carefully." Questioned about the difficulty of selling the deal in Canada, Mr. Aho stated that he thought Mulroney could sell the deal to the ten provincial Premiers, but that "it will depend upon consensus building and upon an active private sector that sees it in their interests to sell it to the politicians in the provinces or in Congress." As a pure description of the facts behind the deal, it was as clear a statement made on television concerning the question of who wanted the deal and why and how they were going to go about getting it ratified as was seen; far clearer than what we tended to hear on Canadian television. In the latter stages of the debate, however, the anti-side in Canada reiterated Aho's described scenario as a means of desperately clarifying their objections to the deal!

That Aho, an American analyst, would be more candid about background attempts to sell the deal than any of his Canadian counterparts is hardly surprising considering the two very different constituencies and sets of political institutions the deal faced on either side of the border. For it was well recognized that the American Congress would not likely stand in the way of the deal. Whereas in Canada it faced considerable opposition. (In spite of this, as we shall see, much of the Canadian coverage of the deal in 1987 suggested that the real threat to the deal came from south of the border!)

This explains why members of Canada's various business lobby associations and representatives of the Canadian government were unforthcoming on the specifics of the deal until the dying moments of the "debate." Only then did the business lobby launch a campaign, and only then to counter claims made by --onents (such as the one made by Peterson and referred to by Lipsey above). It is true that, in theory, the text was by then available to the public. But very few Canadians, apart from experts on both sides and lobbyists read any of it. And fewer still would have understood how to interpret some of the most pertinent clauses, such as those concerning the management of our medical services, had they gotten that far. For these clauses required the detailed study of cross-referencing tables to make any sense of them.

But only the passive, laissez-faire nature of Canada's press coverage could explain how the Tory strategy of obfuscation could be allowed to work or remain unexposed. For, on the other hand, considerable attention was given to the "nationalist" side of the debate, especially on CBC's The Journal. This may appear to suggest, as Lipsey and the Fraser Institute did, that the CBC was editorially against the deal. But within the context I have been outlining, airing the real sentiments only of one side, the nationalist side, and as "sentiments," and in effect holding them up for comparison to "factual" (economic) arguments, hardly favoured the anti-side in the long run, anymore than did failing to shed greater light on the pro-side's philosophy and strategy.

On Balancing "Our" Considerations and "Theirs"

The coverage of the attempt to sell the deal, in an ironic sort of way, did, however, seem to use balance as a criterion. For the attempts by the two sides to publicize their positions were treated, in good positivist style, as equivalent. This was the case, as previously mentioned, even though the anti-side had virtually no input into a process conducted largely in secret consultation with big business. It also must be noted that the anti-side was not nearly as well organized or funded as the business lobby; their resources and time generally having been donated, unpaid and voluntary! Portraying the two campaigns as equivalent was, therefore, to say the least misleading. Nevertheless a CTV item proclaimed:

Today marked the beginning of [the battle for] public opinion and neither side waited long....Selling the deal began in earnest when the Prime Minister spoke to the Canadian export association....Within hours, a multimillion dollar media machine [was in gear]

Here the clear advantage of the pro-side, which included both members of the export association and the government, could have been noted but was not. "[T]he Queen's Printer [also doing the government's business] worked over night making up glossy brochures." Tory MPs, having been briefed, "soon embarked on national speaking tours." Prominent businessmen, we were also told, "were invited to private briefings." Then it is noted with hardly a pause that, in a equivalent way,

[o]pponents were organizing too....The CLC sent telegrams to the Prime Minister and to the Opposition demanding that an election be called...and the Council of Canadians which had an unfriendly reception for Reagan...will launch its own campaign.

Then came the observation which perhaps best summarizes the press' view of the free trade debate:

This is a classic Canadian confrontation: big business and big government versus big labour and staunch nationalists. The success or failure of the free trade deal will depend in part upon how both sides will get their messages to the living-rooms of the nation. (CTV News, 10/5/87)

This truly is a positivist "balancing of considerations," however, in that the decision to negotiate an FTA hardly reflected a neutral or balanced situation. Tom D'Aquino acknowledged as much the Monday morning after the deal was signed. Appearing on Canada AM as a guest expert on the deal, D'Aquino stated that "[w]e've been working very hard in the background because it is a little bit dangerous to appear on Capitol Hill." This comment was made in response to a question posed by Nancy Wilson as to whether we were "going to see a lot of pro free-traders from Canada shuttle [to and from Washington]and do a very major lobbying effort." Here the very misleading assumption that the real lobbying effort will have to be made in the U.S. rather than in Canada is also gratuitously inserted. The query therefore to have been posed should have been to enquire as to what Mr. D'Aquino would be doing in Washington, and on whose behalf!

In this instance D'Aquino's secret role in the FTA process was given respect. In fact, he was treated as an expert precisely because of it. D'Aquino's other comments about a "sweeping deala vastly comprehensive dealwithout having seen the small print" (Canada AM, 10/5/87), reflects the reality of just how close the business lobby is to the scene when such major undertakings are in progress. So journalists certainly could not plead ignorance concerning the long-term involvement of the business lobby. Yet D'Aquino, along with CTV/Canada AM "economic editor" Diane Cohen, were reserved the right to be among the very first commentators on the deal after the journalists had their say on the process the day before.

It was eventually conceded that the FTA would sail through both houses in the U.S. with hardly enough opposition to threaten unanimity. But for a long while the constant refrain of protectionism served to heighten the sense of urgency concerning the need to pass the deal and the dire consequences should the Americans not wish to ratify it. For example, CBC's Terry Milewski reported:

On Capitol Hill, where the free trade agreement will live or die....First reaction [was] muted but there were warnings that the agreement would not get a free ride in Congress. (The National, 10/6/87)

And on the evening Mulroney gave a speech in Washington, in response to Lloyd Robertson's query "What's the mood tonight in Washington on the eve of the talks?", Craig Oliver reported:

The mood is, well, uh, uh, not on the part of the administration but on the part of the public which is the backdrop to this, very bad. It's a sour truculent mood just to judge from the legislation which came down out of the house; almost xenophobic at some times. And the kind of legislation we expect from the Senate will be the same sort of we're-not-going-to-take-it-anymore-from-you-foreigners attitude. (CTV News, 10/27/86)

Robertson then commented: "So it could indeed be long and difficult as the Prime Minister alluded." Oliver confirmed: "I think there could be far worse coming." The passage of the FTA, in this context, was made to appear crucial to Canada's long term interests. The agreement that was eventually passed was then promoted as a triumph especially because of the inclusion of a (non-binding) disputes settlement tribunal, touted as Canada's "bottom line." In this context it was reported, for example, that "[b]oth sides say that Canada won its major demand," suggesting that Canada came away from the talks victorious (Canada AM-CTV News, 10/5/87).

"Both sides" here, of course, refers to both the American and Canadian sides of the negotiations. American journalist Eleanor Clift, however, candidly proclaimed that the U.S. had made out like "bandits" (PBS, McLaughlin Group, 10/9/87). The protection of the Autopact, control over Canadian resources, foreign investment, cultural industries and medical services, considered significantly higher priorities by many who opposed the deal (than was the disputes settlement mechanism) were not mentioned in this report, except to confirm (sic) that the Autopact would not be touched.


In this context, the coverage of the economic side of the FTA, especially in the period prior to the 1988 election, did little other than follow or parallel the business lobby's effort to sell the deal, while opponents of the deal were dragged along for the ride. In describing the deal, journalists used rhetoric such as "historic," a "triumph," portraying it as a struggle to successfully complete and ratify it, an uphill battle, meeting various potential and actual impasses along the way, and as an event whose signing, at one point, was in jeopardy. (The term "historic," however, was also one most often chosen by Reagan and his various spokespersons to describe the deal. (See CTV News, 3/5/87, where Reagan's position is paraphrased; CTV News, 10/4/87 where Lloyd Robertson begins with "[i]n the wake of the historic agreement," as well as in the interview with Clayton Yeutter which follows on the same program; see also CBC's The National, 10/4/87, where Mike Duffy reports, "Officials at the U.S. Trade Office call the deal historic.")

Elsewhere David Halton mused that Mulroney "indicated that he won't be sidetracked by dissenting the same time he was careful not to get into a kind of slanging match." According to Halton, Mulroney did well on "two scores" because he "didn't oversell free trade" (CBC News, 11/23/87). But here only an "immanently" uncritical bird's eye view is given to Tory strategy. For later we were told that it was part of that strategy not to oversell the FTA; the advice given to Mulroney by Hugh Segal, a key PMO advisor was to "keep it simple, personalize it, don't oversell it" (The Journal, 1/7/88).

None of this advice, it must be stated, could have been acted upon without at least the tacit cooperation of journalists. It is not unfair, therefore, to note how the business lobby, led by the Business Council on National Issues, had its credibility greatly enhanced during this debate. In that respect their lobbying effort served a dual purpose. Since then the issues business raised during the debate have remained at the top or close to the top of the public affairs/public policy agenda. Issues such as the government "deficit," a subject of which very few journalists still have any understanding, and rhetoric about "international competitiveness," the "global economy," the "tax burden," government "bureaucracy" and "red tape," while often used consciously as slogans in corporate public affairs campaigns, are repeated time and again by journalists as if they were facts of life with no alternative interpretation.

Journalists performing the "idiom of `a balancing of considerations,' " as MacIntyre warned, was here truly indeed "a misleading and disguising fiction." The question for viewers of the coverage of the FTA concerned and therefore remains what was being disguised, by and for whom and toward what end. But most Canadians never began to sort out the answers to that question until long after the great free trade debate was over.


An earlier draft of this paper was prepared for a joint session of the Canadian Communication Association and the Association for the Study of Canadian Radio and Television held in Victoria in June of 1990. This paper also summarizes an argument made in Block 1991, especially in Chapters Three, Four and Six. Thanks to Ana Gomez for her help cataloguing the study, to Richard Nimijean and to Barri Cohen for her careful reading of the earlier draft and to the SSHRC who partially funded the study in 1988-89.


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