The Media's Budget Approach: Spare the Facts, Ma'am
by L. Brent Bozell III
May 8, 1997
There are really two debates unfolding over the federal budget. One is political-Democrats versus Republicans, or the dealmakers in the "middle" versus the "extremes" on either end who oppose the deal.
The other debate is clarity versus confusion. In a new Joint Economic Committee report, economist Hayden Bryan notes that "the complexity, duplication, and drawn-out nature of the formulation of budget policy make the public's understanding of policy, and policy makers' accountability for decisions, less clear."
In a process now fraught with ambiguity and technical mumbo-jumbo about appropriations and authorizations, Bryan's watch words are "transparency," a clear budget process that can be watched and understood without a Ph.D. in public finance; and "accountability," since politicians who bury the public in debt (see the 1990 budget deal) have been strangely honored by the media as "deficit hawks."
Few politicians are bold enough to be for "transparency," for an honest debate over the proper functions of government. The Democrats would have trouble arguing their entitlement-hungry constituencies deserve doubled budgets every five years. The Republicans tried a more forthright approach to budgets, only to be clobbered by misleading - if not downright untrue - special-interest ads. Both sides now seek to make budget decisions out of the media spotlight. Watching the media's performance, you want to ask who would blame them?
No one seems more invested in budgetary confusion than the liberal media. Much like Hillary Clinton, they disdain dry facts in search of a gripping narrative with good guys and bad guys, and they quite like the whopper of a fairy tale they've got. You know, the one about how Democrats have fought the nasty Republicans over the drastic last 15 years of ruthless spending cuts against the poor. (Of course, when that fairy tale is exposed, they simply spin another one: how the government debt was neat and tiny until Ronald Reagan flooded us with deficits because he cut taxes. Most incredibly, this fable assumes that Democrats were all voted out of office in the early 1980s and had nothing to with increasing spending.)
In 1990, Tom Bethell discovered something revolutionary, and yet appallingly simple, about the media's budget coverage: it never includes the most basic of numbers. How much will the federal government spend this year? How much did it spend last year? And how much in 2002? Nobody will tell you. Why? One, because it might involve reading the budget instead of somebody's talking points; and two, because all the talk of "cuts" looks hilarious when the overall budget grows by $100 billion or so each year.
Go back to the TV coverage of the 1990 budget deal. None of the networks used this barest measure of the budget. Instead, they all relayed the rhetoric of the politicians that it "will reduce the deficit by $500 billion over five years." Instead, it it was followed by the largest deficits in American history.
Throughout the Reagan and Bush years-in 1982, 1984, 1987, and 1989 - bipartisan budget agreements passed, and reporters passed on politicians' claims that tax increases and spending cuts would reduce the deficit. But the overall budget number continued to grow. ABC's Ann Compton insisted in 1990: "Tonight both sides say that unlike budget deals of the past, these cuts are real." But they weren't.
So why would it be any different this year? Back at ABC, Peter Jennings was again championing the dealmakers: "The budget deal includes $135 billion in tax cuts, $350 billion in spending cuts." In the next breath, Jennings announced "the largest spending cuts will come from restraining the growth of Medicare." Will someone get Peter a dictionary and fold the corner of the page with the definition of "cut" on it?
Or take ABC's Karla Davis the next night, who tried to convince viewers that Clinton was more of a spending cutter than Ronald Reagan: "The plan calls for $115 billion in savings in Medicare. It's the biggest reduction in a social program ever endorsed by a President. Even President Reagan, painted by critics as the destroyer of the social safety net, didn't rein in Medicare spending. It grew from $45 billion to $90 billion during his two terms." It doesn't get more awful than that. How can Davis call something the "biggest reduction ever" when it will continue to increase?! Clinton's own budget declares that Medicare outlays will increase 54 percent without any changes. With his historical "reduction," it will increase instead a teeny weeny 46 percent.
Increasingly, in journalism as well as in politics, the budget discussion is not split between liberals and conservatives, but between clarity and confusion. The opposite of the current reporting paradigm is not conservative bias. It's full disclosure. If the media cannot provide the public with the most elementary budget basics, it's not about liberal bias. It's about denying the public the tools to make informed political decisions for themselves.