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Newspapers are increasingly out of step with readers.

THE MOST INTENSE American public policy debate of the last decade of the 20th century was the fall 1993 fight over congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement. No other policy fight engaged a broader cross-section of the American public; no other produced a more genuine outpouring of popular sentiment -- nor involved stakes high enough to lure the vice president of the United States into a prime time television debate on the issue.

Yet for the most part, newspaper editorial pages were vapid cheerleaders on one sideline of this epic battle. And there is every reason to believe that the dismal performance of editorial pages in the NAFTA debate provides the most valid -- and frightening -- precursor for the future of the craft.

Let's begin by recognizing that every American newspaper that maintains even a base-level respect for its readers -- i.e., those that still address national and international issues on a frequent basis -- editorialized regarding NAFTA. But most of what newspapers had to say about NAFTA was irrelevant, since the very nearly blanket endorsements of the Wall Street-sponsored trade initiative were so profoundly out of touch with public sentiment that they served only to confirm a growing cynicism about editorial writing in America.

Exceptions to the rule -- a handful of traditionally libertarian, newspapers that offered sincere arguments in favor of unrestricted markets, and a very few newspapers that placed a higher emphasis on sustainable development and democracy than on improving the bottom line of corporate advertisers -- were so rare as to essentially go unnoticed.

U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur, D.-Ohio, recognized by activists on both sides of the trade issue as Congress' closest watcher of these matters, notes that the overwhelming majority of newspapers in the United States enthusiastically endorsed NAFTA. Of the nation's 20 largest newspapers, all essentially supported the deal. Indeed, the largest-circulation newspaper in the country to actively and consistently oppose NAFTA, according to Kaptur, was her hometown daily, The Blade in Toledo.

At least Ohio had The Blade. Many states registered not a single newspaper editorial voice in opposition to NAFTA. Even in industrial states, where the threat NAFTA posed to the best-paying jobs was clear, and in farm states, where concerns about the deal were well-grounded, newspaper after newspaper piled onto the free-trade juggernaut.

Why should we care that so many of those of us who labor in the editorial vineyards apparently came to the conclusion that this particular trade agreement was a good bet?

It's simple really: While the economic elites strongly favored NAFTA, our readers did not. Polls leading up to the 1993 NAFTA vote showed that Americans were, at most, evenly split on whether the House and Senate should approve the agreement to create a free trade zone including the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Actually, when pollsters gave details of the pact to interviewees, opposition swelled.

Their voices were heard in Washington, D.C.; NAFTA passed the House and Senate by only a handful of votes -- exposing a weakness in support that a few years later would lead to the defeat of President Clinton's attempt to win "fast-track" authority to extend the deal.

Since the NAFTA debate, American editorial pages have generally continued to line up on the side of the economic elites. While we may differ on issues such as domestic partnership benefits, and while we may split along Democratic and Republican lines -- not a very big deal if you look at the ideological "divide" between the presidential frontrunners of the two parties -- we don't offer readers much sense that we read the same economic news that they do.

Why? Many of our readers believe it is because newspapers are owned by precisely the same conglomerates that drool over the prospect of a brave new world of deregulated economies, downsized governments, and free trade. They may well be right.

But even if the readers are wrong, what does it matter? The fact is that, on the lifeblood economic issues that determine the course of the lives of our readers, most of the editorials that appear in our newspapers fit the worst possible stereotype. Perhaps it is because, even if our publishers don't interfere, editorial writers know the unspoken boundaries of the discourse. Perhaps it is because, for the most part, those of us who write editorials are drawn from the same class of Americans as the nation's business elites -- by and large, we have far more in common with stock traders and executive vice presidents than we do with janitors and fry cooks. Perhaps it is because we are all so conscious of the upmarket, suburban demographic that newspaper consultants desire that we no longer see economic debates as do the great majority of Americans.

Whatever the cause, the perception is confirmed on a regular basis. Nowhere outside of multinational boardrooms and meetings of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the corporate line -- lower taxes, cut the deficit, deregulate, remove trade barriers -- more frequently trumpeted than on the editorial pages of America.

Yet most editorial page editors remain blissfully unaware that they are parading through their communities bereft of credible clothing. They continue to argue that they are impartial, that they weigh issues with an open mind, that they are something other than the pawns of an economic elite that has won so many debates that -- even in a time of "unprecedented economic growth" -- 60% of Americans are in worse financial shape today than they were 25 years ago.

There will be those who suggest that the greatest threat to newspaper editorializing in the next century is posed by the Internet's potential for replacing newspapers, by the apathy of a rising generation, or by the "culture of contentment" that has supposedly stilled the discourse to such an extent that most citizens no longer bother to participate in elections. There will even be those who suggest that editorial pages are too interested in national and international affairs, too ideological, too doctrinaire, "too opinionated."

Nice tries all. But the real threat to newspaper editorial pages in the new century is the legitimate assumption on the part of readers that, if the economic elites shout "Jump!" editorial writers will respond by saying, "How high?"

NCEW member John Nichols is editorial page editor for The Capital Times in Madison, Wis. His e-mail address is jnichols@captimes.madison.com
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 1999
Words:1058
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