On 'Fast-Track' Reporting And Voices From Just The Victors

President Obama signs the Defending Public Safety Employees' Retirement Act, which includes fast track trade promotion authority that allows Obama to negotiate trade treaties, including the Trans Pacific Partnership. (AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama signs the Defending Public Safety Employees' Retirement Act, which includes fast track trade promotion authority that allows Obama to negotiate trade treaties, including the Trans Pacific Partnership. (AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, the left-of-center "media watch group" known as FAIR, for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, sent out an "Action Alert" with the headline "NPR Celebrates Fast-Track Victory With an All-Corporate Lobbyist Segment." The alert generated a number of emails to my office (many from people who clearly had not listened to or read the report in question.)

The alert targeted a June 25 Morning Edition report by business correspondent Yuki Noguchi, which followed Congress' approval of legislation granting President Barack Obama fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements.

FAIR complained that the report quoted only three "corporate lobbyists" who were in favor of the fast-track deal, adding: "What of the literally thousands of labor, environmental and other public interest groups that strenuously opposed giving Obama fast-track authority? They were relegated to a one-line summary from Noguchi: 'Labor and environmental groups criticized the fast-track deal, calling it worse than the North American Free Trade Agreement passed two decades ago.'"

FAIR asked why "NPR News talked only with corporate lobbyists to cover the victory of fast track."

I asked Noguchi's editor, Neal Carruth, supervising senior editor on the business desk, about the report. He told me:

Yuki's assignment was to report on a significant victory for the business community, which had been working in concert with the Obama administration. The idea behind the story was to explain how the business lobby had turned an apparent defeat into a win for its side. In many ways, her story was a counterpoint to an earlier report by Jason Margolis on organized labor's success in temporarily derailing the administration's trade agenda.

With a subject as complex and multifaceted as global trade, no single story can tell the entire tale. In the aggregate, of course, our coverage should reflect the many competing views on the president's trade negotiating authority and the trade deals under negotiation.

And we work very hard to make sure it does that.

In the item at hand, Yuki cited the objections of labor and environmental groups to Trade Promotion Authority, even though the focus was on the business community. She also noted that US manufacturing employment declined after an 'initial bump' following the passage of NAFTA. Yuki's piece was just over two minutes long, short by NPR standards. With more time, we certainly could have devoted more space to the opposition's views regarding the business community's win. But the piece did not ignore the opposition. Alternatively, we could have directed listeners to earlier coverage NPR has done on those who are opposed to Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Carruth was referring to this report by Margolis from June 16, which indeed devoted extensive time to labor union opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that is being negotiated by the administration in secret—as are all trade negotiations—now under fast-track authority.

My take? Even before I heard from FAIR I heard from passionate listeners about NPR's TPP and fast-track coverage, with complaints that NPR had failed to cover the secrecy with which the TPP was being negotiated and that NPR had not reported on non-labor concerns about the deal. Of course, not every listener can hear and read every NPR report, but, in fact, NPR has covered those aspects of the issue; see reports here, here, here and here.

It's also important to note that Morning Edition host Renee Montagne introduced Noguchi's report this way: "The business community won a big victory yesterday. Congress gave the president authority to more easily negotiate a trade deal with countries that encircle the Pacific Ocean. It's known as fast-track authority. Labor unions and environmental groups opposed giving Obama that authority. They argued that a deal would allow companies to shift jobs overseas and also get around regulations. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on the arguments that businesses say won a long and complicated fight."

Much of the report, as Carruth said and Montagne's introduction promised, revolved around the strategies used to get the legislation passed, a topic potentially of interest to those on both sides of the issue. However, the report might have seemed less like a victory lap had one of the three voices been an outside observer, perhaps an academic or someone from a think tank, commenting on the winners' tactics.

As for the opponents to the deal: Yes, the report would have been stronger and more complete if it had included a voice representing the opponents. One of the strengths of radio is hearing directly from a participant in a fierce debate rather than hearing words quoted by a reporter. But the time allotted was short and this report did summarize the views of opponents—not just once, but in three places—so it was not nearly as one-sided as FAIR claims (FAIR did acknowledge the summary of the opponents' views but said it was not enough.)

Meanwhile, a follow-up report on how the opponents are regrouping would be logical, and indeed, I would expect to see such a report once the TPP is finalized and heads to Congress for a vote.

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