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MediaWatch: October 1995

Vol. Nine No. 10

The Media's More-Spending Bias

The media play an important role in what political scientist James Payne calls "the culture of spending." Like many other Washington players, reporters have a bias in favor of more activism by the federal government, with an emphasis on more spending. This leads to a very distorted difference in the way Republican and Democratic spending proposals are reported.

In 1993, when President Clinton proposed a "$500 billion deficit reduction package," reporters promoted a vision of serious deficit reduction without mentioning a planned dramatic expansion of entitlement spending -- the Clinton health plan, which the public was told would require very little in new taxes or spending. With this year's Republican budget proposals, they provided hostile word-pictures of "slashing" and "bloodletting," even as spending is projected to grow well beyond the rate of inflation.

In the Bush years alone, Medicare grew 72 percent, and Medicaid jumped 132 percent. Republicans have proposed to reduce the growth of federal spending on Medicare from over 10 percent a year to about 7 percent. Spending per recipient is projected to increase from $4,800 per recipient to $6,700. For Medicaid, the Republicans plan to send the program's administration back to the states, but also plan a 39 percent increase over seven years, from this year's $89.2 billion to $124.3 billion.

But reporters have sounded the alarm in frightful tones. "March madness has begun on Capitol Hill, and almost as predictable as a B horror film, the slashing has begun," warned CNN's Judy Woodruff on March 16. When the Republicans sought to pass an overall budget, CNN's Bob Franken announced on May 9: "The House Republican budget bloodletting will infuriate lots of people. Besides the Medicare cuts, Medicaid, the government health plan for the poor, loses $184 billion."

In September, the formal introduction of a Medicare reform plan drew more of the same. Bryant Gumbel charged on Today September 15: "Republicans in Congress are beginning to detail how they intend to cut $270 billion from the Medicare budget." Five days later, Dan Rather declared on the CBS Evening News: "There's no doubt that Medicare spending will be cut. The question is how much and for how many." The next day, Rather announced for effect: "Republicans in Congress today unveiled their long-awaited and potentially most explosive proposal of all -- to cut Medicare spending increases by more than a quarter trillion dollars."

CBS This Morning co-host Paula Zahn warned on September 29 that "The Republican plan to slash $270 billion from Medicare cleared its first hurdle in a Senate committee last night." On PBS, anchor Robert MacNeil reported October 2 that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle proposed a Medicare plan that "would cut $89 billion over seven years, a third of what the Republicans have proposed to slash."

But when Clinton introduced a budget plan in April 1993 which included no estimates of how much his proposed health plan would cost in the coming five years, media reaction was not hostile. Most reporters touted the fiscal solidity of a budget with a massive magic asterisk in the middle, with no estimate of the increased costs of adding 37 million Americans to a nationalized health program.

NBC's Lisa Myers declared on the April 30 Today: "The President deserves great credit for having the courage to come up with a deficit reduction plan and we shouldn't lose sight of that." On May 28, CBS This Morning's Paula Zahn asked Ross Perot: "Do you acknowledge that this is at all better than anything the Republicans attempted over the last 12 years?" This is the same person who accused the Republicans of "slashing" Medicare. Reporters also claimed inaccurately that the new budget (which completely excluded new spending on health care for the uninsured) would actually lower overall spending. The Clinton budget clearly stated the budget would grow from $1.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion by 1998.

"Three months after Mr. Clinton outlined his plan to lower the deficit, by a combination of lower spending and higher taxes, the tax portion has passed its first important test on Capitol Hill," announced Peter Jennings on the May 13, 1993 World News Tonight. Declared CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer on May 23: "It is a plan which raises taxes and reduces government spending to bring the deficit into line."

When the initial numbers of the health plan were introduced in September 1993, reporters continued to present the White House line that health reform would require no massive tax increases. ABC's Jim Angle touted savings on World News Tonight September 2. "Though many analysts are skeptical of the administration's numbers, they say universal care will save the government money....In all, some $31 billion a year could be saved by shifting insurance costs for the working poor and elderly from the government to their employers."

On the September 15, 1993 CBS This Morning, Linda Douglass explained: "They have a very elaborate plan to pay for this revolution in health care. It doesn't provide for much new in the way of taxes, just a sin tax, cigarette tax. They claim the money's going to come from savings in spending."

Time Washington Bureau Chief Dan Goodgame announced in the September 20, 1993 issue: "The Clinton plan is surprisingly persuasive in supporting the longtime claim of the Clintons, and their top health care strategist, Ira Magaziner, that reform can be almost entirely from savings, without broad-based new taxes and with enough left over to reduce the federal budget deficit." Not every reporter found the fantasy alluring. In the September 20, 1993 issue, Newsweek economics correspondent Rich Thomas charged: "It is the biggest exercise in wishful thinking since President Reagan promised to cut taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget."

The Congressional Budget Office eventually calculated the Clinton plan as costing $1 trillion a year by 1998. Since Clinton had no balanced budget deadline, reporters never reported that as a "seven-trillion-dollar health plan over the next seven years." The public relies on the national media for accurate information about the federal budget, but it often doesn't get it. Will next year's budget really spend less than last year? Will Medicare spending actually go down? Reporters know that the pollsters have found that the word "cuts" helps the Democrats, but "slowing the growth" does not. They seem more interested in curbing Republican budget balancing plans than providing the most basic statistical information, finding numerical calculation less necessary than political calculation.