After months of talk, the American public was still unprepared for General Motor’s entrance into bankruptcy on June 1, 2009. Although the company had filed for bankruptcy in April and requested a bailout from the U.S. Congress, Americans were in disbelief. According to The New American, the GM bankruptcy, the largest ever for an industrial manufacturer, required billions in federal bailouts, and months later the company remained colossally in debt.
While the news might have seemed most pertinent to American citizens, in reality GM’s bankruptcy and bailout had far-reaching global repercussions as well. The impact of a giant automaker failing and subsequently being bailed out, meant American taxpayers had less money to spend on imported goods in already difficult economic times. The GM bankruptcy then became not just a matter faced by Americans, but by communities around the world. The global significance of GM created polarized depictions of the situation that, for all intents and purposes, meant that media did not serve as unbiased platforms from which to gain information.
U.S. coverage of the financial meltdown tended to either minimize the effects or blow them out of proportion. As played out in the American media, the bailout became a battle of politics, with Democrats, including President Obama, primarily supporting the bailout, and Republicans being skeptical at best. Essentially, that is why news coverage of the GM issue was so polarized. Many liberal U.S. media outlets insisted that rebuilding GM would save the economy in the long run and alleviate economic suffering. Other, more conservative media outlets, emphasized the further damage a GM bailout would create for the American economy. Shortly after June 1, the conservative The New American published an article calling the “once-mighty General Motors...the flagship corporation of American automobile manufacturing and one of the most potent symbols worldwide of American industrial might." GM employee Dee Allen from Flint, Michigan stated the general consensus after the fact, “If you didn’t work for GM, someone in your family did. Everybody- everybody- will feel the impact.” The article then went on to call the bankruptcy “the final, sad marker of an epic American failure.”
But many mainstream news stations also portrayed the fall of GM as a sign of America’s economic struggles and its fall from power. On The Online News Hour, Moody’s Economy.com’s chief economist Mark Zhandi stated, “For every lost job at an auto assembler like GM and Chrysler, you lose as many as 10 other jobs in the rest of the economy.”
Other news outlets pointed out that the effects would ripple beyond US borders. In an article written from Detroit, U.S.A. Today’s aptly titled story “Plan to save automakers has risks for the economy” mentioned problems not only for the U.S. should GM fail after the bailout, but also for automakers such as Toyota, Honda, and Ford because of supplier shutdowns. It was the impact of the bankruptcy beyond the United States that mattered most to global news outlets. Media in China and Japan, two of the world's leading auto-producing nations, paid special attention to the crisis.
Chinese journalists continuously reassured their audiences that China and Chinese businesses were not financially at risk. The China Daily issued a report just a day after the bankruptcy in which auto analyst Zhong Shi stated, “GM’s entry into the bankruptcy protection process will definitely shake the U.S. and European automobile market, but will almost certainly not impact its China business.” On July 20, 2009, the paper published another article asking Chinese automakers to think twice before buying any stake in the troubled US car industry. As illustrated by the China Daily's article, China's economic leaders were choosing to protect the country from GM’s bankruptcy - to do so they were assuring the public that China's economy would be relatively untouched by GM’s struggles.
The Japanese media, meanwhile, emphasized the opportunities resulting from the bankruptcy--the title of a Kyodo News podcast said it all –“Japan braces for aftermath of GM bankruptcy, but eyes chances ahead.” Business Week Online similarly reported that “the market reaction in Asia was anything but gloomy.”
Politics played a clear hand in the U.S. media's coverage of the bankruptcy and bailout--and so too did economics. It is likely no coincidence that many TV programs were relatively kind to GM --it was the “TV world’s fourth-largest spender on network TV,” according to Business Week Online. And politics and economics also played a role in the international coverage: Chinese journalists chose to reinforce the invulnerability of China to the collapse of GM, at times reporting the story as though nothing could touch their growing infrastructure. And in Japan, Kyodo News focused on the advantages for their own automakers that could come from fewer competitors.
The story of GM's bankruptcy dramatically raises two questions--What is newsworthy and Why? The answers to these questions for this and other stories differ depending on who is doing the asking.