Implication isn’t foreign to politics. After all, diplomacy involves, at least in part, the art of saying something without actually saying it. But what happens when the media takes the liberty of spelling out what one party seemingly “says” to another as if it were fact? That’s precisely the question The Knife encountered with the coverage of the EU-Mexico trade agreement announcement.
European and Mexican officials released the terms of the agreement and made statements about it, some of which included opinion. In particular, there was this statement from the EU’s trade commissioner:
In less than two years the EU and Mexico have delivered a deal fit for the economic and political challenges of the 21st century. We now open a new chapter in our long and fruitful relationship, boosting trade and creating jobs. Today's agreement also sends a strong message to other partners that it is possible to modernise existing trade relations when both partners share a clear belief in the merits of openness, and of free and fair trade.
That “strong message,” which is vague to begin with, became this in The New York Times:
And [the EU-Mexico agreement] sends a message to Mr. Trump that some of America’s closest trading partners are moving ahead with deals of their own — potentially leaving American exporters on the losing end in foreign markets.
And it seems Politico turned it into this:
Accord with Brussels comes as Washington squeezes Latin American country in NAFTA talks.
Mexico delivered a defiant political riposte to U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday by agreeing (sic) a trade deal with the EU.
Trump’s push to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement helped catalyze Mexico’s talks with Brussels over the past year, as the Latin American country sought to diversify away from dependence on an increasingly hostile U.S.
What’s marked above is the spin — the sensational, subjective language the outlets used that slanted the information away from the pact itself and towards President Trump. Politico’s article distorted the information the most, which earned it a 31 percent integrity rating (the Times came in second with 47 percent). Comparing these two headlines provides a snapshot of the distortion:
EU and Mexico reach new agreement on trade (European Commission Press Release)
Mexico’s EU trade deal lands a punch on Trump (Politico)
The Associated Press’ headline was similar to the European Commission’s, in that both were data-based: “Mexico, EU reach deal to update trade agreement.” Comparing the two, one might think AP’s and Politico’s were two completely different stories.
Was it really about Trump?
Was the agreement intended to teach Trump a lesson? And does the new agreement put the U.S. economy at a disadvantage?
Maybe, but then let’s look at the data. The agreement is a revamp of a deal the EU and Mexico struck in 2000. Negotiations for this version of the pact initiated in May 2016, months before Trump assumed office. The European Commission’s press release on the matter doesn’t mention Trump or NAFTA, much less potential effects of the new deal on the U.S. economy. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Jochen Köckler, the head of the German trade fair, have made statements about NAFTA during the past week, but not directly related to the EU-Mexico agreement.
Did negotiators intend to send Trump a message by moving forward on the agreement? Or were they pursuing previously established avenues? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but if so the Times and Politico’s spun statements don’t reflect any such nuance.
This of course isn’t to say the U.S.’ position on NAFTA under Trump had no bearing in the negotiations. It likely did, especially considering the U.S. is Mexico’s largest export market, followed by the EU, and Mexican officials have made many statements opposing Trump’s position on NAFTA. But if it did, it’s important to be precise about exactly how Mexico took the U.S. and NAFTA into consideration when negotiating with the EU. Otherwise, it’s easy to speculate, exaggerate or distort without being grounded in fact.
Other than opinion, there’s no data in the articles The Knife analyzed that indicates Trump/NAFTA “helped catalyze” talks between the EU and Mexico, as Politico wrote. The articles also didn’t provide any evidence that shows the U.S. economy or U.S.-Mexico trade will suffer as an effect of the new pact. Should readers take the outlets’ word for granted?
What’s the problem with the media’s “all Trump, all the time” approach?
It’s no secret there’s a slight media obsession with Trump. But spinning the news that way can distract from other issues and from other distortions. If readers get caught up in the Trump drama, would they know to question whether the new pact is mutually beneficial or has any pitfalls?
For instance, if you look at the European Commission’s press release, it’s slanted in two ways. First, it mostly talks about what’s in it for the EU, with little regard for Mexico. Second, it’s positively slanted; meaning, it doesn’t detail any adverse effects that may come from the new agreement, and how those may disadvantage specific states, industries or exporters.
Moreover, the Trump drama signals that the agreement is bad for the U.S. and that it puts Trump in a disadvantageous position, except the implications aren’t backed up with data. What then may ensue is a type of bias or prejudice regarding the agreement. But that’s the media telling you what to think, with little to back it up.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media