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MediaWatch: April 1995

Vol. Nine No. 4

Religion on TV News: Still Scarce

In mid-November, President Clinton and the GOP Congress disagreed over federal spending levels, causing a brief partial shutdown of the federal government. Clinton objected to what he called GOP cuts in education and Medicare and a hike in Medicare premiums. Republicans countered that they were actually increasing spending and the premium in their plan was merely $11 per month higher than Clinton's.

Did the networks give equal weight to both sides? MediaWatch analysts reviewed all of the stories on evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's World News, NBC Nightly News) about the budget impasse from the day before the government shutdown (November 13) through the day after its end (November 20). Of the 104 stories during the study period, not a single one mentioned the actual levels of spending in either the President's plan or the Republican plan. Not a single story questioned the President's rhetoric about "destroying" Medicare, when Republicans were proposing Medicare increases.

The study also found that reporters promoted the Democratic spin on the impact of the shutdown on federal workers and the public.

Spending. Not one of the 104 stories pointed out that Republicans were proposing to spend $2.6 trillion more over the next seven years than had been spent over the last seven, going from $9.5 trillion to $12.1 trillion. None reported that under the GOP plan, the annual budget in 2002 would be $267 billion higher than in 1996.

No story pointed out that on Medicare alone, Republicans would spend $86 billion more in 2002 than in 1995, allowing the program to grow more than 6 percent annually. None reported that spending per Medicare recipient would soar from $4,800 to $7,100. Only one story mentioned that the difference between the two parties on Medicare premiums -- the reason Clinton gave for his veto -- was only $11 per month.

Instead viewers heard about "cuts." Dan Rather reported on the 16th: "Republicans were still pumping out a stopgap budget certain to draw another presidential veto, a bill containing what President Clinton called tonight, quote, critical cuts in Medicare and other programs."

The next day, Tom Brokaw announced: "The House today did pass a bill to balance the budget in seven years with major cutbacks in big government programs and a tax cut of $245 billion." On the same show, Lisa Myers said "the President has promised to veto the bill because of what he calls extreme cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment."

Federal Workers. There was near-universal sympathy for furloughed federal workers. In all, there were 29 soundbites from laid-off federal workers. CBS's Bob McNamara asserted: "There is frustration, too, for the people who get paid to solve these kinds of problems, the federal workers sent home to cool their heels while Congress and the President bicker over the budget."

According to NBC's John Palmer on November 18, "To Tony Chapello and his pregnant wife Kelly, both furloughed by the Social Security office in Kansas City, the shutdown is more than an inconvenience." She told viewers: "I worry about the medical bills, and I want to do the baby's room." Unlike the private sector, laid-off government employees are later paid. Only CNN's Brooks Jackson, on November 13, accurately described the time off: "In effect a paid vacation."

Services. There were 24 stories about the effect of the shutdown on public parks and public services. All but one of them highlighted inconveniences to the public. None explored whether bureaucrats, in deciding what services to shut down, had pursued a "Washington Monument strategy" of stopping high-profile public services to increase public outrage.

Most reporters simply assumed the shutdown was a problem for the public. CNN anchor Kathleen Kennedy, the night before the shutdown, warned that "the echoes of a government shutdown would be felt from coast to coast. The gates of Lady Liberty at New York would be closed. The same will happen at many other tourist attractions, including the Washington Monument, Bunker Hill, and many national parks. A lot of tourist plans will have to be changed if a shutdown occurs."

On November 17 ABC's Peter Jennings opined that "as is evident to a lot of you, a lot of people around the country are already paying deeply for this budget impasse." According to Brokaw on November 17: "While the shutdown of the federal government goes on, it is beginning to have a major ripple effect well beyond Washington....Around the country a lot of people were feeling the pain that even a partial shutdown is bringing."

Over at CBS, Linda Douglass, in addition to national parks, found a unique angle: killer toys. "Imported Christmas toys, which could be unsafe, are not being examined by safety inspectors," she fretted on the 16th. Bob McNamara insisted that "for Americans inside and outside the federal bureaucracy, this week has been a hard lesson on what happens when big government goes away." Other reporters, such as ABC's John Martin and NBC's Lisa Myers, focused on passport offices being closed. Martin complained on November 13: "Journalists won't be able to ask questions at a State Department briefing, which will be cancelled without electricians to light the room."

No story explored why it was that these high-profile services came to be deemed non-essential. Why were passport offices and the State Department's press office deemed non-essential when, according to The Washington Post, about 70 percent of State's employees were considered essential and ordered to work? Or why were some parks not closed until the third or fourth day of the shutdown? Could it be for visuals of angry tourists?

The networks were also one-sided in selecting the "people on the street" they aired about the shutdown. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, reported November 15 that 51 percent considered the shutdown either a crisis (11 percent) or a major problem (40 percent). Forty-seven percent of the public considered the shutdown either a minor problem (33 percent) or not a problem at all (14 percent). So about half of the citizens interviewed would not consider the shutdown a problem, right? Wrong. Of the 74 "people on the street" interviewed, 67 considered the shutdown to be a problem. Only seven didn't consider the shutdown a problem.

Only on network newscasts would spending increases be called cuts, would people paid to take the day off be portrayed as victims, and would half the public's opinion be ignored during a government shutdown.