Lost in space: the World Social Forum and the media

Vince Medeiros
19 January 2005

It’s now five years since the World Social Forum (WSF) rolled on to the global civil society scene, offering a radical alternative to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the annual masters-of-the-universe meeting held in Davos, Switzerland. But a comparison between how these events are reported in American and British media is instructive and revealing. In online and dissenting media, there is strong reportage and passionate debate about forums and the movements they represent. But in the “mainstream” print media, the forum – including its partners in Asia and Europe – seem near-invisible, while the WEF is awarded thorough and respectful coverage.

In search of evidence about the true state of media coverage of these two kinds of global event – taking place at the same time each year – I assess the record of leading United States and British newspapers and talk to some of the editors responsible.

Two tribes

During its brief life, the World Social Forum has become a unique, colourful gathering bringing together groups and individuals from all corners of the world and focusing both on broad and single-issue agendas. On any given day, the casual attendee might rub shoulders with Brazilian landless peasants, Colombian trade unionists, Indian Dalit (formerly “untouchables”), African debt-relief campaigners – and even thinkers of cult fame like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy.

openDemocracy’s reports, blogs, arguments and interviews from the World Social Forums, World Economic Forums, and European Social Forums are collected in our “DIY World” debate.

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The massively-attended World Social Forum took place in Mumbai from 16-21 January 2004; the World Economic Forum in Davos from 21-25 January. A survey of the performance during this period of two respected newspapers with a claim to a serious, international sweep is revealing. The Financial Times ran a grand total of one story on the World Social Forum; even the left-leaning Guardian published only two. The FT’s story (on 17 January) was in fact a mere photo and caption; the same day, the Guardian published a half-page article on the WSF alongside three photos, under a mocking headline: “Place in the sun for everyone – except George Bush, Coke and Windows”. This was the more prominent of the two pieces the newspaper published from the entire six-day event.

The editors clearly felt that the World Economic Forum was far more worthy of their time and column inches. The FT printed thirteen stories during the five-day summit, the Guardian four.

The then assistant editor of the Financial Times, Hugh Carnegy, told me that the newspaper’s business orientation helps explain this imbalance: “The WEF still attracts a very considerable attendance by top business, economic and political decision-makers who are of direct interest and relevance to our readership.”

Carnegy also insists that his paper’s WSF coverage has increased over the years: “It is true that we only had one substantial piece from the World Social Forum 2004 meeting in Mumbai, but we ran a considerable number of articles from previous meetings in Porto Alegre”.

“Over the past several years”, he continues, the FT’s reporting of the WEF “has included a significant amount of coverage of the protests made by the anti-globalisation movement at Davos (and New York in 2002) – and the response of the WEF to the kind of pressure put on it by the protesters and the WSF. The whole issue is one of real significance for our readers”.

Chris Elliott, managing editor at the Guardian, stresses that the paper does recognise the event’s relevance, not only by reporting on the WSF, but also by covering its regional edition in Europe: “The Guardian actually sponsored the European Social Forum and ran several articles as a result, therefore I think we can honestly say that we gave the ideas of those who attended quite a substantial space in the paper”.

Elliott adds that the World Economic Forum’s high-profile attendance explains the paper’s decision to generously cover the event. “As a newspaper, the Guardian has to recognise that the World Economic Forum, for better or worse, is the place where those who have power meet and discuss the economic future of the world”, he says. “We have a responsibility to our readers, who will be affected by the decisions of these people, to tell them what is said.”

In the pages of two leading American newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the World Social Forum in Mumbai didn’t fare much better. The NYT showed some interest, dedicating two stories to the event; but they focused largely on divisions within the forum and failed to quote a single political or intellectual figure present.

The spectacular turnout in Mumbai of around 100,000 people from more than 100 countries, as well as the presence of heavyweight political and academic figures, was for the conservative WSJ not newsworthy enough even for an acknowledgement of the event’s existence.

By contrast, Davos coverage was plentiful: the WSJ reported on the World Economic Forum three times, while The New York Times ran six stories on the summit.

No engagement

The number of articles published about Mumbai, however, is only half the story; equally important is the way WSF participants are construed. Most print media refer to them as “anti-globalisation activists”, members of an “anti-globalisation movement”, attending an “anti-globalisation forum”.

Such branding is colossally misleading, for forum activists – as well as many of those protesting at Davos – are mostly for globalisation, understood as a potentially progressive force that allows people from around the world to unite in the name of common causes and interests.

In other words, the WSF is (as Noam Chomsky puts it) a “constructive illustration of globalisation”, engaged in an attempt to understand and transform the phenomenon as it is defined by most western governments and media today.

One of the 2004 WEF stories run in the Guardian on 22 January 2004 illustrates the point. It focuses on Bill Clinton’s opening speech and on police efforts to keep demonstrators away from the summit, and is accompanied by a photo of a protester being dragged away from a sit-down on the road connecting Zurich to Davos. The headline reads: “Clinton Doctrine: No way back on globalisation, ex-president tells Davos”. The combination of text, headline and photo confirms the authoritative nature of the speaker and the apparent futility of all cries against global capitalism, while (in its emphasis on the £5 million security operation to defend an event “faced with the threats of a terrorist attack and anti-capitalist protests”) implying that the protesters are a “threat” to the event – and that their very presence in Davos is harmful and even illegitimate.

The story wraps with Clinton again being quoted: “I think a lot of [the protesters’] criticisms are valid, but they want to take us back to a time that never was, on a journey that cannot be effective.” No demonstrator, nor anyone critical of global capitalism, is heard in the piece.

A different framework

In today’s establishment media, global capitalism is often presented as “common sense”, in the Gramscian sense of the term, while dissident discourses and versions of history – parallel, intermingling and overlapping – are given minimal if any attention.

It may then be no surprise that the WEF offers the media an uncountable number of “legitimate” sources whose decisions and ideas have a real and direct effect in policymaking around the world. By contrast, the WSF lacks a coherent narrative theme; with its myriad single-issue groups and smaller number of “legitimate” world leaders, it is far harder to cover within the traditional structure of professional news coverage, and is covered as no more than a marginal event.

The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, and the World Economic Forum, in Davos, will take place from 26-30 January 2005. Check out openDemocracy for discussion of both events.

But even within the limitations of traditional newspaper reporting, coverage in 2004 could have been far more balanced. The large number of single-issue groups at the WSF might have provided a wealth of qualified sources for quoting material, and its guest speakers offered a powerful counterpoint to the WEF. In the event, no such quotes appeared in the newspapers surveyed above.

This diminished treatment of the WSF, by curtailing the expression and circulation in public discourse of ideas about vital issues discussed there, weakens the global public sphere.

Will it be different in 2005? Sergio Haddad, director of foreign relations at the Brazilian Association of NGOs, says that 150,000 people are expected to attend the Porto Alegre event. The presidents of Venezuela and Brazil, Hugo Chavez and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, have already booked their tickets; intellectual icons Manuel Castells and Jose Saramago are also scheduled to attend. They will be joined by thousands of activists representing a rainbow of causes and issues, high-profile and little-known. But if editors choose to give it minimal attention, even when the news story is served to them on a plate in the form of a gigantic global event, can we ever realistically expect excluded voices to make it into our newspapers?

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