A Summer of Skewed News
Table of Contents:
- Executive Summary
- Regulations: Four out of Five Networks Agree
- Network Reporters: Deficit Hawks but Spending Doves
- Pushing a Tax Cut Rollback
- One ABC Reporter Exposed Ridiculous Spending, Another Embraced It
- Conclusion: Recommendations For Improved Coverage
Network Reporters: Deficit Hawks but Spending Doves
Network reporters presented the federal budget deficit as a development with negative economic implications. On the August 27 World News Tonight, after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued new ten-year predictions about the federal budget, ABC’s Betsy Stark decried the deficits. “There is going to be a fairly serious impact if it persists,” she prophesied. “It is already possible to count the costs of a vanished surplus. Seniors may well have to wait for a prescription drug benefit, and what many saw as the nation’s best opportunity to shore up Social Security is gone.”
That same night on the CBS Evening News, John Roberts made it seem as if the CBO had issued policy recommendations alongside its projections: “The Budget Office says federal coffers will not substantially get back into the black unless President Bush’s tax cut is allowed to expire as scheduled in the year 2010.” Of course, the CBO statisticians did not argue for a return to the Clinton-era tax code, nor did they rule out other mechanisms such as spending restraint as ways to return to balanced budgets. Roberts’s artful formulation implied that the “non-partisan” CBO — he made a point of labeling them as such — agreed with liberals that the main problem was the tax cut, not constantly growing spending.
Yet network correspondents’ concerns about the expanding deficit evaporated when it came to the debate about expanding the amount of money taxpayers would pay to subsidize the prescription drug costs of senior citizens no matter how affluent. On this issue, television focused on telling the stories of cash-strapped individual seniors with sky-high drug bills, not detailing the overall costs of the program or the probability that another entitlement program modeled after Medicare or Medicaid would lead to higher deficits (see box).
NBC’s Lisa Myers was typical, beginning her July 31 Nightly News piece with an anecdotal victim: “Rosemary Cola takes 19 pills a day for serious chronic conditions, including diabetes. Her husband Jim takes 11. They had hoped that after years of political promises they’d finally get help soon with drug costs of almost $1,000 a month. So today after the Senate rejected a last-ditch compromise and all but gave up for the year, the Colas were furious.”
On ABC’s World News Tonight the previous night, Linda Douglass used the exact same journalistic formula to elicit sympathy for the senior citizens whom the Senate had not aided: “As she watched the debate, Frieda Moss’s hopes for prescription drug coverage faded once again....Frieda spends $500 a month on medicine for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart trouble. The drug bills eat up her entire Social Security check. She has little money for anything else....Frieda and millions of others like her may just have to wait, as one proposal after another goes down to defeat in Congress.”
Such stories are designed to stoke emotions, not inform the public. How many senior citizens are in the same straits as Rosemary Cola and Frieda Moss? What percentage face such high drug costs, and what percentage of those need financial assistance? What are the free-market alternatives to a major expansion of a government program? The networks’ decision to organize their coverage of the prescription drug debate around a relative handful of sympathetic seniors seems calculated to push taxpayers toward embracing a new federal burden. That’s necessary context, of course, but journalists should also have skeptically challenged the advocates of such a big-government expansion to prove their case.