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MediaWatch August 1993

Vol. Seven No. 8

Janet Cooke Award: CBS Street Stories Touts France's Socialist Day Care System, Downplays the Costs

All Things French and "Free"

American liberals have a love affair with Europe. America's failure to emulate Europe's all-inclusive social programs regularly earns the network put-down that the U.S. is "the only industrialized nation except South Africa not to have" subsidized day care, paid family leave, or socialized medicine. On the CBS magazine show Street Stories July 2, correspondent Harold Dow promoted France's "free" child care. For one-sided promotion of a socialist system, Dow earned the August Janet Cooke Award.

The host of Street Stories, Ed Bradley, began: "Harold Dow found a place where dependable, affordable child care is available to everyone. You won't find it in the Yellow Pages, but you will find it on the map. Head east and you could be heading in the next direction in American child care."

Dow told a tale of two mothers, the anxious, cost-ridden Tracy Scheinoha of Milwaukee and Nancy Bragard: "She never worries about day care. She doesn't have to. That's because Nancy doesn't live in the United States anymore, she lives in Paris, France." Proclaimed Nancy: "Thank God for French day care. It's more than I would have asked for, for any of my kids."

Dow made his pitch: "Here in France they have created a child care system that would amaze most Americans. Every child in this country, from the richest family down to the poorest, gets a chance at the same high standard of day care, preschool, and health care. Not only is it free, or at low cost to everyone, but the quality is better than what most youngsters get in the United States." Dow also reported: "What you pay is based on your income. So, while the Bragards pay nearly three thousand dollars a year for the Creche [nursery], some families pay slightly more -- but some pay much less -- as little as a few hundred dollars a year."

Dow never told viewers that the top tax rate in France is 56.8 percent. On top of that, employers pay an additional annual premium to the government for the child care system. Why no details on taxes? The story's producer, Tom Berman, told MediaWatch: "The French government wouldn't give us a breakdown of costs. They just don't do it that way. We had our Paris bureau chief, who's been there for 20 years, try to get some numbers, and even he couldn't get them."

So how can CBS claim the system's "free or at low cost to everyone"? Dr. James T. Bennett, an economist at George Mason University and the co-author of the new book Official Lies, recognizes the tactic: "Socialism sells itself with the thought that you never see a bill. It just materializes out of nowhere. As long as the government is paying, the government can just sort of conjure it up. But remember to take a look at your paycheck when the work week's done."

Nonetheless, Dow returned to the notion of a "free" system repeatedly. "Next fall, Benjamin will be old enough to leave the Creche for the next stage of the French government's child care system, the Ecole-Maternelle, or preschool, which is totally free." Dow also interviewed pleased American mother Victoria Aubert, whose daughter also attends a government preschool, and explained: "There's one in virtually every neighborhood in the country, and almost every single three- to five-year-old French child goes -- all day -- all for free."

Dow then promoted the French system to the Scheinohas in Milwaukee: "What if I told you about the French system? A system that provides total care for your children. They have beautiful buildings, they've got trained professionals, doctors that come in. What would you say?"

"Sounds too good to be true," Tracy replied. In the story's sole incidence of skepticism, the Scheinohas turn out to be critical of government. Dow asked: "One of the ways they do it is higher taxes. The French people pay more than Americans do, and French businesses pay much more than U.S. businesses. Would you be willing to pay 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, and even up to 50 percent more by way of taxes, to have that system? Would you be willing to pay that?"

Answered Tracy: "No. I'd have to draw the line somewhere. I'm not getting very much for what I pay now, and I pay a lot in taxes." Her husband, Andy, added: "You can't just take away the money, promise the services, and not deliver, which is what I'd be afraid would happen....I'd like to think that they could, but their track record isn't too good."

Dow may have asked a vague question about taxes, but he didn't report any details of the French system's total costs. American University Professor Barbara Bergmann, a supporter of the French model, suggests a similar system would cost more than $200 billion a year to implement fully in the United States. Dow never factored in the burdens of the subsidized day care system on the French economy. France has had almost no job growth -- civilian employment went from 21.3 million in 1980 to 21.5 million in 1989, while at the same time the United States grew from 99.3 to 117.3 million jobs. Unemployed people are more common under Dow's model system in France, where the unemployment rate is now 11.5 percent.

Why didn't CBS use these numbers? Berman told MediaWatch "We only had ten minutes to tell the whole story. We had enough to do a whole hour on the subject. Is it harder for employers to employ people in France? Absolutely. But the Americans in France think they have a better standard of living than their brothers and sisters in America."

Dow also presented the system as completely uncriticized, bringing Gail Richardson of the French-American Foundation on to fondly remember Hillary Clinton's trip to France in 1989: "Hillary was tremendously impressed by what she saw in France, and she was most of all impressed by the consensus. She looked for some expression of opposition to the programs that she saw, many of which enjoy considerable public support, didn't find it."

But the Socialists just suffered an enormous loss at the polls, losing in 484 of 577 districts. Wouldn't that suggest recent dissatisfaction? Berman responded that "It's not a complaint about the day care system. There are all kinds of debates about the school system after day care and other issues, but no one's complaining about these programs for small children."

A balanced story comparing European-style social programs with the United States would present the negative consequences as well as the positive, and deal frankly with the issue of how much programs cost, both directly and indirectly. But TV news stories often sound more like ten-minute ads for statism than a balanced examinations of the pluses and minuses.