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CyberAlert -- 08/28/2001 -- "Surplus Vanishes Into Thin Air"

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"Surplus Vanishes Into Thin Air"; Condit a "Very Conservative Democrat"; Jennings Admitted Reporters Like to Impact Policy

1) "The fat federal surplus vanishes into thin air," CBS's John Roberts misleadingly claimed as ABC, CBS and NBC all led Monday night by hyping fears over new CBO numbers which show spending will "dip" into the imaginary Social Security "Trust Fund." For years the money was always spent, but ABC's Charles Gibson acted as if it were a new concept while NBC's Campbell Brown blamed not only Bush's tax cut, but "his spending proposals."

2) Time relayed fiscal expertise from an Arkansan golfer while it warned of dire consequences for the average person: "To avoid cutting into the Social Security trust fund, Congress may have to slash farm subsidies, tax credits for the working poor and other social programs."

3) Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom" provided a down arrow for Bush: "Adios, surplus. When retired boomers dine on dog food, will they say thanks for that $600?" And the magazine was pleased to see Helms go: "'Sen. No' finally earns an Up -- by leaving."

4) Sound familiar? Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday: "The question is whether or not you think the American people associate Gary Condit with the Democratic Party. So far, I don't think that's the case. In fact, the news media was reluctant initially to even say this is a Democratic Congressman."

5) In highlighting on NBC's Today how Gary Condit claimed he is "close" to the Bush White House staff, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff declared: "He's a conservative Democrat." Monday night, CNN's Larry King labeled Condit a "very conservative Democrat."

6) Admission of the year: "There's nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy," ABC's Peter Jennings proclaimed during a CBS News special on Friday night. When his reporting changes a policy, "it's just a glorious feeling."

7) An ABC Sports reporter on George W. Bush: "He is the first acting President to ever make a trip to the Little League World Series."

8) Letterman's best question to Connie Chung and why is Star Trek's "Scotty" suing Gary Condit?


Correction. A wrong date. The August 22 CyberAlert included the text of the August 20 Notable Quotables which featured, under the heading "'Centrist' -- Like Barbara Boxer," a quote from a Washington Post profile of Senator John Edwards. It was incorrectly dated August 14. The story actually appeared in the Washington Post the previous Tuesday, August 7, -- as the August 13 CyberAlert correctly reported.

1

NBC Nightly News anchor Stone Phillips demanded Monday night: "They promised to protect Social Security, but news tonight they may have to take $9 billion from the trust fund to pay the bills. What happened to all the money?" NBC and CBS referred to the need to "dip into Social Security" as all three broadcast networks led by hyping fears over, as CBS's John Roberts put it, how "the fat federal surplus vanishes into thin air." Roberts preposterously maintained of the surplus: "It's gone."

All three networks concluded their lead stories, on new numbers from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which say federal spending in 2001 will go $9 billion beyond non-Social Security revenue, by emphasizing how Social Security payments are unaffected by the new numbers, but that didn't prevent them from some scare-mongering based on the assumption the Social Security "trust fund" really exists and that the government will run a deficit this year because Social Security revenue cannot be counted.

Only CBS's Bill Plante played a clip of a new GOP ad as he relayed the Republican point that "Democrats have spent the Social Security surplus for years." (CNN viewers heard the same point and saw the same ad on Inside Politics.)

ABC anchor Charles Gibson acted as if Social Security revenues had never been spent on other programs when, in fact, they routinely were until three years ago. Gibson intoned: "Democrats and Republicans alike have always sworn on a stack of Bibles that Social Security was absolutely, totally, completely off limits."

ABC's John Yang soon personalized the issue, zeroing in on Bush: "This could end up being a big political problem for the President. All through the campaign, he vowed to keep hands off Social Security money except in the most dire of circumstances."

But NBC's Campbell Brown topped Yang as she also exclusively blamed Bush's spending proposals: "CBO says the President will have to take to take $9 billion from the Social Security Trust Fund to cover his spending proposals this year and use $18 billion from the trust fund in two years to cover his tax cut."

In contrast, up front FNC's Brit Hume put the new CBO numbers in perspective as he noted at the top of Monday's Special Report with Brit Hume: "CBO numbers could spell some political trouble for the administration because the so-called Social Security lock box is a sacred cow to lawmakers even though diverting the funds has virtually no direct effect on the Social Security program."

None of the stories on ABC, CBS or NBC questioned the rationale of running a huge $150 billion-plus surplus during an economic downturn, though FNC's Hume raised that very policy question with White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

More details about the ABC, CBS and NBC evening show stories of August 27:

-- ABC's World News Tonight. Anchor Charles Gibson opened the broadcast by warning: "Good evening. We lead our broadcast tonight with the subject of Social Security. Politicians call Social Security the third rail of politics: Touch it, fool with it, and you can get a terrible shock. Well, today the non-partisan congressional office that crunches the budget numbers projected the government will have to use $9 billion in Social Security funds this year just to pay for the programs it already has in place. Democrats and Republicans alike have always sworn on a stack of Bibles that Social Security was absolutely, totally, completely off limits. ABC's John Yang is in Crawford, Texas tonight with the President. John?"

Yang began, as transcribed by MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth: "Charlie, this could end up being a big political problem for the President. All through the campaign, he vowed to keep hands off Social Security money except in the most dire of circumstances, and it's a promise he's been repeating as President. The President's most recent promise came last week."
George W. Bush: "Well, I've said that the only reason we should use Social Security funds is in case of an economic recession or war."
Yang: "Today Democrats, who made similar promises, quickly seized on the Congressional Budget Office numbers, sensing a political opportunity."
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt: "It is a failure of the President's budget, and what we're asking today again is that the President submit a new budget to the Congress."
Yang outlined the CBO numbers: "Congressional analysts say in order for the government to fund itself, it will have to use $9 billion of the Social Security surplus this year. In 2003, it will potentially need as much as $18 billion. Just last week, the White House projected a sunnier forecast. They claim no Social Security money will be needed in any of those years. Republicans say the slowing economy is to blame for the shrinking surplus and that President Bush's tax cut is the solution. Democrats say the tax cut is the problem."
Senator Kent Conrad, (D-ND): "The fundamental problem here is that this administration came up with an overall plan that didn't add up in order to make their tax cut look more affordable."
Yang: "White House officials said that in a $3 trillion federal budget, the differences between the two forecasts are relatively minor."
Mitchell Daniels, Director of Office of Management and Budget: "The numbers are very close together, fraction of one percent apart, and I think it underscores that these are only estimates. We have to make them very cautiously."
Yang concluded: "Now ultimately, spending this Social Security money will not have any immediate impact on the program. It will, however, slow the government's ability to pay down the $3 trillion national debt."

-- CBS Evening News. Anchor John Roberts teased: "The fat federal surplus vanishes into thin air. Congressional accountants say the President will have to use Social Security money to keep the government running."

Roberts then began the show, as taken down by MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth: "It's gone. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says the federal budget surplus for this year has been eaten up by President Bush's tax cut and dwindling tax revenues from the slowing economy. The report says the President will now have to do what he said only war or recession would force him to do: tap into Social Security to keep the government running."

Revised GDP numbers on Wednesday could very well show negative growth, putting the U.S. on its way to an official recession.

Bill Plante began the subsequent piece: "The $1 billion budget surplus over and above Social Security predicted last week by the White House, shows up as a $9 billion deficit in the forecast due tomorrow from Congress. The Congressional Budget Office says that to make ends meet, the government will be forced to dip into Social Security. The CBO estimates the surplus at $153 billion, not far from the White House's $158 billion, but Congress says that after the money promised to Social Security, the government will still be $9 billion in the hole this year, $2 billion in the black next year, but back in the red in 2003 and '04. The Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee accuses Republicans of fiscal mismanagement and charges the President with violating his campaign promise not to dip into Social Security."
Kent Conrad, Senate Budget Committee Chairman (D-ND): "The budget was in very good shape before he got to town. It's been his budget and tax plan that have blown a huge hole in the budget and taken us back to deficit, taken us back to raiding the trust funds of Social Security and Medicare, and that's a serious mistake."
Plante: "The White House budget director shrugged off the difference in the estimates as insignificant, a tiny fraction of the $2 trillion budget."
Mitchell Daniels, White House Budget Director: "I think the lesson here is that these are good faith estimates, both of them, and nobody is so precise over numbers this big and time frames this long to know for sure."
Plante uniquely relayed: "What is sure, said the Republican National Chairman, is that Democrats have spent the Social Security surplus for years. He launched a TV ad blasting Democrats in Congress for hypocrisy."
Clip of ad: "But Democrats who for years supported budgets that spent all Social Security money and left no surplus, are now launching partisan, misleading attacks on President Bush."
Plante concluded: "As a practical matter, spending the Social Security portion of the surplus today has no effect on retirement benefits in the future, and it is true that both parties used to spend that money routinely, but now they've promised they won't, and this is the beginning of a major fight over how to spend what's left."

-- NBC Nightly News. Anchor Stone Phillips teased before the musical introduction: "High stakes. They promised to protect Social Security, but news tonight they may have to take $9 billion from the trust fund to pay the bills. What happened to all the money?"

Phillips opened the program: "Only in times of war or recession. That's what President Bush said last week. But a new report out tonight from the bi-partisan Congressional Budget Office says the government will have to do what it promised not to: Dip into Social Security funds sooner than expected to cover an estimated $9 billion shortfall in this year's budget. And that's just the beginning."

From Crawford, Campbell Brown checked in with an ominous assessment about the lack of money available to be spent:
"Tonight an even gloomier view of the government's finances, new numbers suggesting the situation is only going to get worse. The shrinking pot of government money, today projected to be even smaller. What's gobbling up the surplus? The President's tax cut and the sluggish economy. And now the non-partisan CBO says the President will have to take to take $9 billion from the Social Security Trust Fund to cover his spending proposals this year and use $18 billion from the trust fund in two years to cover his tax cut. New ammunition for Democrats who charged the President is breaking a promise to keep Social Security Funds in a so-called lock box."

After a soundbite from Dick Gephardt, Brown asserted: "The new CBO numbers are at odds with White House projections that show the President won't have to tap Social Security funds and will even have a billion dollars left for new spending. Today the White House downplays the accounting difference."

NBC viewers then saw a clip of Mitch Daniels noting how his and the CBO numbers are within less than one percent, before Brown concluded by conceding the vacuousness of her ominous tone: "Now this will have no effect on Social Security benefits, but it does set the stage for a huge battle between the White and Congress over whether both sides can keep a promise to keep Social Security funds untouched."

2

Expert fiscal analysis from an Arkansas golfer. That's what this week's Time magazine provided, MRC analyst Ken Shepherd noticed.

In a story in the September 3 Time headlined, "Who Swiped The Surplus?", Adam Cohen warned of dire consequences for the average person as he adopted the phoney language about a "trust fund" for Social Security: "The dwindling surplus will have a real impact on ordinary Americans. To avoid cutting into the Social Security trust fund, Congress may have to slash farm subsidies, tax credits for the working poor and other social programs. A lack of surplus dollars to pay down the national debt helps keep mortgage and credit-card rates higher than they should be. And all those great-sounding programs Bush and Al Gore argued about last year -- giving a drug benefit to seniors, letting people invest Social Security money in the stock market -- just got pushed further into the future.
"On the most basic level, the surplus matters because anyone who has ever tried to run a household or a small business understands the core issue: being disciplined enough to keep spending in line with income. 'I run a business on a budget,' says Jay Fox, 42, executive director of the Arkansas State Golf Association. 'If our surplus was disappearing, it would be of concern to me.'"

Of course, federal fiscal policy isn't like a home budget and it's irrational during a downturn for the government to take more out of the economy than it needs to operate. The U.S. had many boom years during the 1980s and 1990s while running large deficits, so a surplus isn't necessary for a growing economy.

To read the entire Time story, go to: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101010903-172550,00.html

3

Two items in Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom" section in the September 3 issue, caught by the MRC's Ken Shepherd:

-- Bush (Down arrow): "Adios, surplus. When retired boomers dine on dog food, will they say thanks for that $600?"

-- Helms (Up arrow): "After 30 obstructionist years, 'Sen. No' finally earns an Up -- by leaving."

4

Sooner or later, even some liberals in the media catch up with the MRC which, in this case, long ago observed how journalists have been reluctant to identify Gary Condit as a Democrat. For the latest examples and a link to our study on the subject, refer back to the August 27 CyberAlert: http://www.mrc.org/cyberalert/2001/cyb20010827.asp#5

During the panel segment on the August 26 Fox News Sunday, Juan Williams, a former Washington Post reporter who just lost his position as host of NPR's Talk of the Nation, offered his take on the impact of the scandal on the Democratic Party:
"The question is whether or not you think the American people associate Gary Condit with the Democratic Party. So far, I don't think that's the case. In fact, the news media was reluctant initially to even say this is a Democratic Congressman. I think that message has gotten through now. But for most people, this is about Gary Condit. It's not about Republicans versus Democrats in the way that you think of the Clinton thing where you had Republicans attacking the President in terms of his private behavior."

5

When members of the media identify Gary Condit as a Democrat they often seem compelled to falsely describe him as "conservative." On Monday's Today, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff declared: "He's a conservative Democrat." Monday night, CNN's Larry King went further during his interview with Gary Condit's just as aloof son, Chad, tagging the elder Condit as a "very conservative Democrat."

Those formulations followed Connie Chung's description of him, during her Primetime Thursday interview on ABC, as "a little-known six-term conservative Democrat." As the August 24 CyberAlert countered: From 1989 through 2000 Condit has a career 52 percent average rating from the liberal Americans with Democratic Action (ADA) and a 48 percent career rating from the American Conservative Union (ACU). So he's hardly a flaming liberal, but he's significantly more liberal than several House Democrats from the South and West and many Republicans. "Moderate Democrat" would be a more accurate description.

Indeed, if Chung, Isikoff, King and the rest of the media were consistent they would label Republican Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut as liberal, not with the usual "moderate Republican" tag. Just compare the career ratings for Condit and Shays: Condit earned a 48 percent rating from the ACU; Shays a slightly lower 45 percent. The ADA gave Condit a 52 percent rating; Shays pleased the liberal group a bit more as he voted the way it wanted 57 percent of the time.

For all the ratings numbers you could want, check these pages: For the ACU: http://www.conservative.org/ratings2000.htm
For the ADA: http://adaction.org/voting.html

Oh, almost forgot, as MRC analyst Geoffrey Dickens observed, Isikoff's label came in the midst of highlighting how Condit extolled his closeness to the White House. Isikoff announced on the August 27 Today: "You know, interesting, what was interesting there. He did make a point of talking about how close he is with the Bush White House and how he has access to the President and Vice President Dick Cheney. And can get them on the phone and people in the Bush White House on the phone at any time. After all he's a conservative Democrat. They had in the past looked to him as an important ally for the Bush agenda in the House among Democrats."

6

The agenda unmasked. "There's nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy," ABC's Peter Jennings proclaimed during a CBS News special on Friday night. He admitted that while "we may tell you...that our principal aim in life is to communicate and...inform...our audience...if you see injustice and you can get people to do something about it, ahh, it's just a glorious feeling."

The admission from Jennings that he and other journalists are not impartial observers but are really interested parties wishing to bring about particular political policies, occurred during a two-hour CBS News special, Breaking the News. Aired on August 24, Mel Gibson narrated the program produced by the Museum of Television and Radio.

The 8-10pm EDT/PDT, 7-9pm CDT/MDT show presented clips from interviews with high-profile network correspondents recounting their experiences covering big stories, illustrated with archival footage of the events.

Former MRCer Tim Graham alerted me to these comments from Jennings. Just after an ad break about half way through the show, viewers heard this concession: "We may tell you all the time that our principal aim in life is to communicate and assist, inform, whatever the fancy words are, our audience. But if you see injustice and you can get people to do something about it, ahh, it's just a glorious feeling."

Jennings proceeded to recall his February 1994 trip to Sarajevo where he witnessed the carnage from the bombing of a marketplace. After lamenting how U.S. planes were circling but did nothing, Jennings affirmed: "I think the fact that we were there at the time, I think had a lot to do with changing American policy. And there's nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy."

Gibson then explained how four days later President Clinton gave an ultimatum to the Serbians that unless they pulled back NATO would bomb them.

Remember Jennings' admissions as you watch him cover politics day-to-day: "There's nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy" and if he can get an "injustice" corrected, "it's just a glorious feeling."

7

Did it have something to do with how one team was from Florida? Just before the Little League World Series game between teams from Japan and Florida began, a game at which George W. Bush threw out the first pitch, ABC aired a pre-taped interview with the President, or did they? The sports reporter seemed unsure of Bush's exact job title.

As Leslie Gudel, of ABC Sports, and Bush stood in a dugout, she set up her opening question: "He is the first acting President to ever make a trip to the Little League World Series and he has also been enshrined today in the Little League Hall of Excellence. Mr. President, congratulations."

Bush seemed unfazed by being called the "acting President" as he proceeded to answer her first question without mentioning her description.

In fact, from watching it I don't think she meant any slight and got her thoughts jumbled about how Bush is the first Little Leaguer to "actually" become President. Or, maybe some of the hostility toward Bush inside ABC News has crept into ABC Sports.

8

Final notes. David Letterman's best question to Connie Chung on Monday's Late Show in a discussion about her interview with Gary Condit: "Did he ask you out?" Chung just shook her head and whispered "oh, David," to show her revulsion at the inquiry.

And a question for anyone who saw the Monday press conference with the lawyers for Anne Marie Smith: Why is "Scotty" from Star Trek demanding Gary Condit be indicted? On screen he was identified as Sterling Norris of Judicial Watch, but I wasn't fooled. I know it was really actor James Doohan in a new role.

-- Brent Baker


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