ElectionWatch: Networks Downplay Earmarks, Despite Millions Spent by Clinton and Obama

     No one could ever accuse the federal government of efficiently spending taxpayer dollars.


     So when a new study was released February 13 showing how much the Congress had earmarked last year – including the millions of dollars spent by top presidential candidates – you would think it would have made headlines.


     It did in The Washington Post and even on CNN, but garnered only 1 minute and 10 seconds of network broadcast time. The New York Times ran a lengthy story on earmarks, but only used 51 words to include the candidates’ cash.


     “Bringing home the bacon: one of these candidates [photo on screen showed Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee and John McCain] spent a lot of your money on pet projects; the other didn’t spend a dime. The answers in a new report coming up,” teased CNN’s Kiran Chetry on “American Morning” February 14.


     In fiscal year 2008, Congress inserted $18.3 billion worth of earmarks to pay for pet projects, according to a report from Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS). TCS found presidential candidates Clinton and Obama earmarked $340 million and $91 million respectively.


    TCS vice president Steve Ellis called earmarks “a bipartisan affliction” in a December 2007 story in The Washington Post. “It would take leadership in both parties – and a lot more shame – to ever rein them in.”


     The Washington Post covered the study on its February 14 front page saying, “Working with her New York colleagues in nearly every case, Clinton supported almost four times as much spending on earmarked projects as her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), whose $91 million total placed him in the bottom quarter of senators who seek earmarks.”


     The Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has long criticized the spending practice, “was one of five senators to reject earmarks entirely” according to the Post.


     A press release from TCS included a comment from its president, Ms. Ryan Alexander, who said, “Earmarks are down, but not out. Promises to cut earmarks in half fell short with too many lawmakers continuing to feather their own nest.”


Pork Stories in Print, Not Much on Networks


     In addition to the Post’s coverage of the report, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times also reported it. But the LA Times focused solely on House earmarks, ignoring the Senate altogether, so there was no mention of the millions spent by presidential candidates Clinton and Obama.


     The New York Times included a mere 51 words about Clinton and Obama’s earmarks in its 1,002-word story on February 14.


     But all three newspapers still beat out the networks, which downplayed or ignored the report. The only mention of its findings on ABC and NBC came when McCain used it as ammunition against his opponents. CBS, which had covered earmarks extensively in 2007, did not report the results of the TCS study.


     “In Rhode Island today, John McCain peppered his standard campaign speech with new jabs at Barack Obama,” said NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell on the February 14 “Nightly News.” O’Donnell’s report was more thorough than ABC’s, because it highlighted the findings of the study McCain cited with onscreen graphics.


     According to O’Donnell, “McCain has long railed against taxpayer-funded pet projects known as earmarks that lawmakers tack onto unrelated legislation. McCain trumpets that he requested zero earmarks, while Hillary Clinton secured $342 million for her state.”


      Similarly, ABC “World News with Charles Gibson” also quoted McCain mentioning Clinton and Obama’s earmark dollars on February 14. The mention took a brief 26 seconds.


     But since TCS released its study on February 13, not one of the three networks has done a story that was focused solely on the presidential candidates’ earmark spending or included responses from Clinton and Obama.


     CNN, however, did announce the findings on the February 14 “American Morning.”


     “If you want to know how some potential presidents are spending your money, there is a new report out. It’s about pork, or you know, the so-called earmarks,” said “American Morning” co-anchor Kiran Chetry.


     According to the Post, “Clinton stands behind her earmarked projects as a sign of her work for constituents.”


     The Post quoted Clinton’s spokesman Philippe Reines who said, “Senator Clinton is very proud to heave helped New York-based projects that train nurses, improve our hospitals, help those suffering from 9/11-related health ailments, bolster our national and homeland security, and provide our brave men and women in uniform with the resources they need to achieve their mission, while keeping them safe.”

Earmarks: A Largely Ignored Story


     The issue of earmarks hasn’t gotten much attention from ABC and NBC since Jan. 1, 2007, although there was a flurry of news stories around the 2007 and 2008 State of the Union addresses because President George W. Bush condemned the practice in both speeches.


     In his 2008 speech Bush declared, “The people’s trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks, special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute without discussion or debate.” The president also threatened to veto appropriations bills that do not cut the cost of earmarks in half.


     ABC’s Martha Raddatz called that challenge a “dramatic crackdown” on Jan. 28, 2008.


     Other than stories related to Bush’s speech, mentions of earmarks on ABC and NBC were mere conversation pieces in candidate interviews – many with McCain.


     McCain brought up the issue of earmarks and “pork-barrel” spending by Congress several times including in a Feb. 5, 2008, interview with “Today.”


     Co-anchor Matt Lauer was asking McCain about his reputation as having a hot temper. McCain defended himself in part saying, “Should I get angry when I see this pork-barrel spending that goes on? Should I get angry on behalf of my constituents when I see [a] $6 billion rip-off on an airplane? Of course.”


     CBS was the network exception. While NBC and ABC mostly ignored the topic, in a series called “Follow the Money,” CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson looked at about $2.5 billion in earmark spending, exposing various legislators’ pet projects in 2007 and 2008.


     But in a Nov. 30, 2007, segment, Attkisson reported that only 12 senators had not requested earmarks. By the end of the fiscal year, TCS found that only five senators [McCaskill, Coburn, Feingold, McCain and DeMint] retained that distinction. There was no mention of Clinton or Obama’s earmarks requests on “Evening News” that night despite the fact that both were running for president.


     Though she has done many stories on wasteful earmarks, Attkisson had not examined earmarks by candidates Clinton or Obama on CBS between Jan. 1, 2007, and Feb. 19, 2008.

Hard Questions about Earmarks, But Only for One Candidate


     The networks haven’t beaten up on Clinton or Obama for their millions of dollars in earmarks. Since Jan. 1, 2007, no network journalist has questioned them on earmarks, but Tim Russert did rough up one presidential candidate about them on “Meet the Press.”


     That candidate was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whom Russert interviewed on Dec. 23, 2007. He took a hard line while questioning the congressman.


     Citing articles from the Houston Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal, Russert said, “65 earmark-targeted projects, $400 million that you have put into congressional bills for your district, which leads us to the Congressional Quarterly. ‘The Earmark Dossier or ‘Dr. No.’”


Russert: “Why, why would you load up …”

Paul: “You got it completely wrong. I’ve never voted for an earmark in my life.”

Russert: “No, but you put them in the bill.”

Paul: “I put it in because I represent people who are asking for some of their money back. But it doesn’t cut any spending to vote against an earmark. And the Congress has the responsibility to spend the money. Why leave the money in the executive branch and let them spend the money?”

Russert: “Well, that’s like saying you voted for it before you voted against it.” 


     Russert continued the line of attack saying, “If you were true to your philosophy, you would say ‘No pork spending in my district.’” A few moments later he echoed the remark, “Well, when you stop taking earmarks or putting earmarks in the, in the spending bills, then I think you’ll be consistent.”


     Neither Clinton or Obama were asked hard questions about earmarks or pork-barrel spending on the networks – though they both stand a better chance of being the next president than congressman Paul does.

Grape Research, ‘Fake’ Prisons and Campaign Donations


     There was one reporter who seemed to make it her mission to expose wasteful earmarks and uncover potential spending corruption throughout 2007 and into 2008.


     Sharyl Attkisson of CBS tackled the wasteful spending of Congress in roughly 20 stories since Jan. 1, 2007.


     Unlike many reporters, Attkisson made it clear that the government was spending “your” money.


      “Earmarks are grants of your tax dollars without the normal public review, often given to pet projects by members of Congress in near secrecy. They add up to billions of dollars, and critics say are ripe for fraud and abuse by some,” said Attkisson on Feb. 1, 2008.


     On the Dec. 28, 2007, “Evening News,” Attkisson said, “In 2007, we examined $2.5 billion in earmarks, on top of $21 billion in other spending and waste. It’s a good thing Congress is out on holiday. They must be tired after spending so much of your money.”


     Attkisson’s “Follow the Money” reports unearthed some crazy examples: an Alaskan congressman’s earmark for a Florida interchange; one to build a Center for Grape Research in New York’s Finger Lakes region; and another earmark to build a prison museum in Kansas.


     “You’d basically have to go to jail to see the prison museum in Kansas. It will be built here on the grounds of the Lansing Correctional Facility,” said Attkisson on the Sept. 28, 2007, “Evening News. “And thanks to Congresswoman Nancy Boyda of Kansas, your tax dollars are helping fund it. She recently earmarked $100,000 for the prison museum.”


     $11 million went to construct the Center for Grape Research, mostly thanks to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) according to an Oct. 26, 2007, segment.


     Attkisson also found connections between earmarks and campaign donations, including Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.) “mutually beneficial relationship” with Randy Best a businessman and founder of a reading program called “Voyager.” Attkisson reported that in 2001 Landrieu secured a $2 million earmark to use the program in D.C. schools. Best later held fundraisers for Landrieu, according to the CBS report.


     Even more tax dollars were later earmarked by Landrieu to put the Voyager reading program in New Orleans schools.


     “Do you have any idea how much in total contributions you’ve gotten from people connected to Voyager?” Attkisson asked Landrieu. “Does $80,000 sound right?”