In This Issue
Television's Budget Blunders; NewsBites: Sam in Swim Trunks; Revolving Door: Speaking for the Speaker; Reporters Tout Gantt's Liberal Campaign; Conservative Student Newspaper Under Attack; Bureacrat Bias; Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Number Juggling
Television's Budget Blunders
Network news correspondents often portray themselves as the watchdogs of government, but in covering the recent budget dealings, they served more as watchdogs for the government. If viewers wanted to know the daily details about what the White House and Congress were negotiating, the networks kept them informed. But in the midst of determining the winners and losers of the political maneuvering, the networks never reported that despite alleged "cuts," federal spending continues to soar.
To document trends in budget coverage, MediaWatch analysts watched every ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN Evening News and NBC Nightly News story from the emergence of the first budget bill September 24 to October 28, the day after a budget passed. In total, 231 news stories were reviewed to determine:
How many reported the actual size of next year's budget, compared to this year's budget? Zero. The federal budget for fiscal year 1990 was $1.26 trillion. The latest figures from the Office of Management and Budget project a 1991 budget of $1.36 trillion. That's an increase of $100 billion in one year or an 8 percent increase, hardly the model of penny-pinching austerity. But not one reporter managed to compare the overall budgets of 1990 and 1991. Instead, the reporters' emphasis on "getting a deal" accepted politicians' promises to reduce the deficit at face value. Reporters led viewers to assume the budget deal will reduce the deficit by $500 billion over five years, or whatever the two sides claimed as talks wound down to the finish. But bipartisan budget agreements were passed in 1982, 1984, 1987, and 1989. In each case, promises were made to curtail spending growth and politicians assured the people that the revenues from tax increases would be used to reduce the deficit, and instead, the spending went to new programs.
How many reported that many, if not all of the budget's "spending cuts" were not spending cuts at all, but cuts in projected increases? Zero. Reporters did a number of stories on the disastrous effects of spending cuts, particularly Medicare cuts, but not one reporter explained that the "cuts" they were referring to were not cuts, but reductions in spending increases. "Tonight both sides say that unlike budget deals of the past, these cuts are real," emphasized ABC's Ann Compton on September 30. Simply by reporting phony "spending cuts" as real, the media participated in misleading the American taxpayer. Since 1984, tax revenues have risen by an average of $78 billion a year. If spending had been held to the rate of inflation, we would have had a surplus years ago. Federal revenues are projected to rise $397.8 billion dollars over the next five years -- without the coming tax hikes.
Medicare is a perfect example. Every network told viewers Medicare would be "cut" $60 billion ad devoted at least one entire story to "profiles in suffering." All four networks ran stories on the fight against "cuts" featuring liberal lobbyists like Ron Pollack of Families United for Senior Action. Reporters didn't say that Medicare is the fastest growing program in the budget, and without "cuts," is scheduled to grow 12 to 13 percent a year. Over the five years of the new budget deal, Medicare spending is still projected to grow from $105 billion to $168 billion, a 60 percent increase.
How many reported the actual effect of a full one-year sequestration on next year's budget? Zero. Reporters also ignored the basic facts and figures on the sequester. A full one-year sequester would have cut spending by $85.4 billion. As a percentage of a $1.3 trillion budget, that's a 6.5 percent cut from previously scheduled increases. Even after the sequester, overall federal spending would increase $15 billion.
Instead of reporting the actual numbers, reporters bought the government line that the allowed spending increase required a shutdown, calling it a "disaster," a "train wreck" that "cripples the country," in which "everyone loses." NBC showed the least restraint , reporting "it appears we are going over the precipice," "an awful precipice," "the guillotine coming down," an "alternative too horrible to contemplate," and "a long nightmare with no morning." On October 6, ABC's Steve Shepard warned: "This coming Tuesday, with government workers not on the job, millions of Americans will experience frustration, and in some cases, pain."
How many reporters concentrated on the savings from cutting government waste? Zero. "Waste, fraud, and abuse" may sound like an empty catch phrase, but Charles Bowsher, head of the General Accounting Office, estimates there is $180 billion a year in waste, fraud, and mismanagement. The networks ignored the hundreds of GAO reports identifying waste, and even the $60 billion in annual savings identified by the Congressional Budget Office. Citizens Against Government Waste has issued a report calling for $305 billion in waste reduction over the next five years. All these arguments were totally ignored.
The networks knew the issue of waste was on the minds of taxpayers. "As for the public, an overnight ABC News poll shows that 65 percent of Americans don't like the agreement, mostly because they don't think it's necessary. They think the real problem is government waste," Peter Jennings reported on October 1. But ABC went on to do another story on the victims of Medicare "cuts" and never aired a story on waste.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell did point out on October 22 that legislators were including pet projects for their home districts in the budget negotiations. After the budget passed, the networks mentioned a few examples of pork-barrel spending. Most of these were first reported in newspapers, like the $500,000 to renovate Lawrence Welk's boyhood home. But no reporter devoted a story to the annual pork parade before the budget passed, and no one looked into how it could be stopped to reduce the deficit.
Just as the budget summit was an insular process, so was media coverage. Of 523 soundbites, 365 (or 70 percent) were of White House or congressional officials. When the networks went to outside analysts on the politics and economics of the budget, liberal analysts outnumbered conservatives 33 to 11. CBS did bring on conservative economists such as Arthur Laffer and Lawrence Kudlow, but they still preferred liberals 16-6, and often echoed their arguments. When Bob Schieffer put on Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities October 18, he presented only Greenstein's figures to show how the rich would win and the poor would lose under the proposed budget plan.
The Washington budget process looks increasingly unreal to the American people, and network budget coverage only added to the unreality, reporting on nonexistent spending cuts and their victims, and clucking abstractly about the deficit while ignoring the huge annual increase in spending.
Budget coverage in the last few months is merely the latest demonstration of how the national media don't bring the concerns of the American people to official Washington, they bring the concerns of official Washington to the American people. The network anchors and reporters who covered the budget process have no right to claim the mantle of government watchdog, since they reported the news exclusively in the language of the government establishment.
NewsBites: Sam in Swim Trunks
SAM IN SWIM TRUNKS. We don't normally praise Sam Donaldson. In fact, we never have. But on Prime Time Live October 25, Sam and his PTL producers, Sheila Hershow and Rick Nelson, gave viewers an educational behind-the-scenes look at a congressional junket in action. Posing as tourists with hand-held cameras, ABC filmed some House Ways and Means Committee members during a five-day April stay in Barbados to discuss Caribbean trade.
The PTL crew did plenty of digging to determine that the Barbados excursion cost at least $42,000, including $689 worth of booze and a $1,176 per diem allowance for food and lodging claimed by all the legislators, even though they received a number of free meals. Over five days, the lawmakers spent seven hours in meetings. Donaldson also showed how Rep. Tom Downey (D-NY) and Rep. Marty Russo (D-IL) sponsored bills favoring lobbyists who accompanied the delegation on the trip. This kind of reporting on Congress is far too rare.
DEN OF DEMOCRATS. Washington's City Paper recently investigated the voter registration records of top editors, columnists and reporters of The Washington Post. Only one was registered as a Republican: columnist Tony Kornheiser, who quickly explained that he and his wife split in party registration so they would get campaign literature from both sides. We knew the Post liked Democrats, but we didn't know they were Democrats.
City Paper identified 25 declared Democrats at the Post: "Reporters Charles Babcock, Patrice Gaines-Carter, Michael Isikoff, John Mintz, Eric Pianin, Walter Pincus, Eleanor Randolph, Michael Specter, Elsa Walsh, Michael Weisskopf, and Juan Williams; columnists Richard Cohen, Chuck Conconi, Dorothy Gilliam, Mary McGrory, William Raspberry, and Jonathan Yardley; [Executive Editor] Ben Bradlee, ["Metro" Editor] Milton Coleman, ["Style" Editor] Mary Hadar, and [Foreign Editor] David Ignatius; editor/reporters Hobart Rowen and Bob Woodward; and ombudman Richard Harwood."
POVERTY OF DIVERSITY. The Census Bureau announced that the percentage of families living in poverty fell from 13 percent in 1988 to 12.8 percent in 1989. The September 27 Washington Post headline? "Poverty Remains High Despite U.S. Expansion," followed by the subhead: "Recession Could Push Millions Below Line." Piling on the negative analysis, Post reporters Spencer Rich and Barbara Vobejda wrote, "Economists across the political spectrum said yesterday the current economic picture could mean an even greater rise in poverty." Next came quotes from Isabel Sawhill of the Urban Institute and Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution. That's what passes for "across the spectrum" at the Post: two liberal experts.
HOMELESS LIVING AT HOME. When is someone who lives in a home actually homeless? When CBS News economics correspondent Ray Brady needs a suitably dire topic for an Evening News story. On October 31, Brady profiled Sally Carlson, "manager of a successful leather repair store" who has "been forced to move in with her mother" and "keep her hope chest in her mother's garage." But Sally's not alone: "Thousands of other tax paying, hard working Americans of all ages must live with family or double up, unable to afford a home of their own. They're among America's hidden homeless."
Brady reported ominously: "To older Americans, this is disturbingly reminiscent. In the depression of the 1930s, Americans lived five, six and more to a room in a land of vacant houses and empty apartments." The ludicrous comparison caught the attention of Newsweek economics columnist Robert Samuelson, who labeled it "an especially misleading report" on people "who live, often comfortably, with relatives. Having invented a new category of homeless, he then compared today's situation with the 1930s (a decade when unemployment averaged 18 percent)."
PRAISING THE PRIZE WINNER. The decision to award Mikhail Gorbachev the Nobel Peace Prize prompted glowing reviews for all the wonderful changes he's supposedly caused. On October 16 Boston Globe reporter Paul Quinn-Judge called Gorbachev "a true believer in democratic socialism" who "replaced class conflict by 'common human values' that transcend class boundaries. And he emphasized the interdependent world where environmental and health problems could only be solved by all countries working together."
"Beginning with his withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Gorbachev did indeed change the world," oozed NBC's Bob Abernethy. By "barnstorming Europe," Abernethy reported on October 15, Gorbachev "became a folk hero."
CHANCELLOR CHANT. Voters rejected (or scared from running) Governors who had raised taxes, but NBC Nightly News commentator John Chancellor still found a mandate for higher taxes in the election results. "For ten years," Chancellor asserted the day after the election the American people have "been told by Reagan Republicans and conservative Democrats that the U.S. government can get along nicely with lower tax revenues." Failing to note that tax revenue grew faster than inflation during the 1980s, but spending soared even quicker, he declared: "It didn't work, of course. The federal debt went from $900 billion in 1980 to almost $2.5 trillion in 1990." As for cutting spending, "foreign aid is down to the bone" and "politicians won't cut Social Security or Medicare because the elderly would throw them out of office." So, "the fact is that most government spending cannot be cut." The solution? Raise taxes. Chancellor concluded: "There's encouraging news in the returns from yesterday's elections. Six states from Massachusetts to California rejected measures designed to limit taxation. Can it be that the great tax revolt of the 1980s is coming to an end? If true, maybe the country can get on with the business of balancing its books in a sensible and logical way."
POLL POLITICS. "Unprompted answers to a question about what it means to be a Republican showed the most frequent response is that Republicans are for the 'rich, powerful, monied interests.' Such descriptions were volunteered by 51 percent of those interviewed this year, compared to just 18 percent in 1987." So wrote David Broder in a September 19 Washington Post news story on a Times Mirror poll finding also highlighted by The New York Times the same day. An October 6 Post front page story cited the number as evidence of Democratic success in portraying Republicans "as interested in only one thing -- giving tax breaks to the rich."
So what's the problem? In mid-October, Times Mirror reported a computing error. Just 21 percent, not 51 percent, mentioned "rich, powerful, monied interests" when asked about Republicans. The Post noted the error in its "Corrections" box. The Times never corrected it.
FLORIO THE HERO I. Governor Jim Florio may be an ogre in New Jersey, but he is a hero to the networks. "Convinced that cutting services alone would not close the gap, Florio took the daring step of raising taxes, raising 11 separate sales and income taxes," lauded ABC's John McKenzie on the October 4 World News Tonight. A pollster then wondered: "Can someone talk rationally, logically, to the public about this issue and have them respond and be supportive?"
"In New Jersey, the answer so far is no," McKenzie answered. "Faced with the largest tax increase in New Jersey's history, residents here demonstrated through the summer and into the fall, close to a million petitioned the Governor to hold a referendum on taxes."
FLORIO THE HERO II. On the November 2 CBS This Morning, co-host Harry Smith refused to fault Florio: "Some of the blame for this 'have everything attitude' could easily be placed on the Reagan Administration and a compliant Congress....Face reality, like Governor Jim Florio has in New Jersey, and you've got a revolt on your hands. The recession has cut revenues there, so he's trying to raise taxes in order to still deliver the services the people in New Jersey say they want. hat, of course, is political heresy."
FLORIO THE HERO III "What happens when an elected leader says, 'This is what we have to do, this is what it will cost' and then he goes out and does it? Will the people support that kind of leadership?" asked NBC's Garrick Utley on the October 28 Sunday Today. "Example: New Jersey and its new Governor Jim Florio. He raised taxes and we can hear what happened." Utley conceded that Florio promised not to raise taxes, but his questions were less than challenging: "Why did you do it? Because you had to do it?"
"Decisions, hard decisions, and what Jim Florio is doing is making a big political calculation and gamble...He has four years, property taxes will go down, you hope, come four years the people will realize," marveled Utley as Mary Alice Williams chimed in, "And he'll look like a hero."
HUSSEIN HYPE. CBS doesn't know whether the Iraqis adore or abhor Saddam Hussein. On the Sept. 17 CBS Evening News, Bert Quint said: "In his speech, Mr. Bush tried to drive a wedge between Saddam and his people. But it may have backfired. When the broadcast was over, thousands were on the street denouncing the American President and praising Saddam. The fact that these rallies are staged does not mean Saddam lacks genuine support and by attacking him, President Bush could very well have strengthened the garrison mentality of a nation that takes pride in standing up against its enemy."
But on 60 Minutes October 7, Dr. Sahib Al-Hakim, an exiled opponent of Saddam, had a different story for Morley Safer: "All these things are prepared before his arrival. They order all the shop owners to close their shops and come to the streets. They push all the students outside the schools to demonstrate and they, the bodyguards, and the security forces men start the shouting, and preparing the banners."
PATRIOTS FOR PEACE? With support for the U.S. mission still strong, a handful of activists in several cities planned a rally on October 20 to protest American troops in the Middle East. ABC and NBC rushed to the scene. NBC anchor Garrick Utley wondered if they were "fringe groups which would protest any military involvement," but concluded they represented much more: "Clearly there is a major concern about war and you could hear that today." On Nightline October 19, ABC's Jackie Judd warned: "It would be easy to dismiss opponents of the build-up of oddball fringe elements. It's happened before. One bitter lesson of the Vietnam War is nobody paid attention to the critics until many thousands of lives had been lost. Today's dissenters say they hope they don't witness history repeat itself."
The "oddball fringe elements" neither reporter identified in the protest were the Spartacist League and the Workers World Party, a pair of Trotskyite-Marxist parties shown toting signs in NBC's video. According to the Associated Press, two other Trotskyite groups, the All People's Congress and the Socialist Workers Party, were also part of the protests.
DEREGULATION DISASTER. Oil and gas prices plummeted while thousands of new jobs were created in the private package delivery and long distance phone industries, all thanks to Reagan's deregulation policy. But Thomas Winship, Editor of The Boston Globe for two decades ending in the mid-'80s, put on his ideological blinders in reviewing the decade: "The press missed completely the full impact and significance of Reagan's overarching crusade to deregulate the federal government, and we all forget that Vice President Bush was assigned to develop and to carry out that policy by President Reagan. The book on the total cost of deregulation in lives and dollars has yet to be written."
In an address printed in the October 6 Editor & Publisher, Winship, now President of the Center for Foreign Journalists, complained Washington reporters took a "long winter's nap during the Reagan years when all those giant stories were missed or botched -- the S&L heist, the HUD scandals, Iran-Contra, and the pollution by radiation of 100 nuclear plants... and the biggest one of all, the monitoring of what Reagan's sweeping deregulation policy was doing to our distribution of wealth and to our fiscal solvency."
CALLING FOR QUOTAS. Reporters moaned when President Bush vetoed Ted Kennedy's "civil rights" bill, which would make employers guilty until proven innocent in cases of "unintentional discrimination." On October 17, NBC's John Cochran solemnly reported: "It started out as such a promising courtship: a new President reaching out to minorities, trying to show them that he is different from the old President. But now its all gone wrong with civil rights workers saying George Bush is as bad as Ronald Reagan."
When ABC's Nightline covered Bush's veto on October 22, reporter Jackie Judd proclaimed that "To hear veterans of the civil rights movement tell it, this was a day uncomfortably reminiscent of battles fought over 20 years ago." Rewriting history, Judd declared that "When George Bush came into office, he had fence- mending to do with black leaders, who were suspicious of him, principally because of the notorious Willie Horton ads." Like many other reporters, Judd could not accept that no ad featuring the name or picture of Willie Horton was ever produced by the Bush campaign. Judd concluded: "Killing a bill with support among important voting blocs, such as blacks and women, could hurt the GOP at the polls." Like in North Carolina, for instance?
A LONG WAY TO GO, BABY. Time's special Fall issue, "Women: the Road Ahead," contained much grousing about the lack of opportunity for women. Writer Janice Castro noted: "Twenty years after women entered the professional ranks in significant numbers, very few have broken through the middle ranks of management to the top jobs." Assuming that's true, Time brass should take note. Only 12 of its top 47 editorial positions are held by women. In fact, only three women currently hold a job higher than Associate Editor, the lowest position included in our count, and none of the top 17 positions are held by women.
Revolving Door: Speaking for the Speaker
Speaking for the Speaker. After four years as Los Angeles and San Francisco Bureau Chief for Newsweek magazine, Michael Reese jumped into the middle of California's political battles. In August he became Director of Communications for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a liberal Democrat who helped lead the unsuccessful battle against two term limitation referenda. Reese took over from Susan Jetton, a Charlotte Observer and San Diego Union reporter who left California last Spring to serve as Press Secretary for Harvey Gantt's losing Senate campaign. Before moving to Los Angeles in 1984, Reese spent several years in Newsweek's Chicago and Washington bureaus.
Morning Man. Is Rupert Murdoch's Fox television network planning to produce a national daily news program? The first sign: the July launch of the Fox Morning News, a two and a half hour news and interview show aired daily on Washington's WTTG-TV. Among the staff Fox has put together: Editorial Producer Charles (Chip) Reid, an off-air ABC News reporter in Washington in 1988 and 1989, who was General Counsel to the Joe Biden for President Committee in 1987. From 1982 to 1986, Reid served as Chief Investigator for the Senate Judiciary Committee's Democratic Senators.
Back to the Tube. Former Florida television reporter David Snepp, who came to Washington, D.C. in 1989 as Press Secretary to Congressman Alex McMillan (R-NC), has decided to return to his former career. He's taken a reporter slot in the Cox Broadcasting Washington bureau. Snepp now files stories for Cox network affiliates in Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando and Pittsburgh as well as for San Francisco's Fox station. Roll Call reported Snepp covered McMillan's 1984 and 1986 campaigns for Charlotte's CBS affiliate before moving to Tampa's ABC affiliate.
Environmental Activism. At least three former members of the media are putting their experience to work for liberal environmental groups. David Goeller, media coordinator for Environmental Action since June, 1989, spent 20 years with the Associated Press, the last four covering the environment. In September, Environmental Action released its annual "dirty dozen" list. As usual, all but one were Republican, including Senators Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Senator Jesse Helms earned a "lifetime achievement award" for thwarting "efforts to protect our air and water"....
At the Environmental Defense Fund, a group promoting controversial global warming predictions, Allan Margolin handles media relations out of New York City. Until 1988 Margolin was an Associate Producer for ABC's Good Morning America....Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Vice President of the World Resources Institute (WRI), another group demanding more government action on global warming, wrote editorials for The Washington Post from 1979 to 1981. From 1977 to 1979 Mathews was Director of the Office of Global Issues for the National Security Council. Op-ed pieces by Mathews, which have castigated Bush's environmental policies and called for a higher gas tax, appear at least once a month in the Post.
Reporters Tout Gantt's Liberal Campaign
THE JESSE HELMS HIT SQUAD
Political reporters have spent the last two years complaining about the injection of race and the lack of substantive issues in political campaigns. But when Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) ran a series of ads questioning opponent Harvey Gantt's record on abortion and taxes, ads that had nothing to do with race, reporters avoided their substance and labeled them racist.
On America Tonight November 1, CBS' Lesley Stahl charged "some candidates are out with new TV ads appealing not so subtly to racism, reminiscent of the Willie Horton ads." She showed one which raised Gantt's record of supporting tax hikes and another which played a video clip three times showing Gantt supporting sex-selection abortions, the third time in slow motion to emphasize the point. Stahl's guest, Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, concluded: "Helms is trying to play out any racist fears you might have about Harvey Gantt. Ask yourself: What is the stereotype of a deep, slow-speaking, hence not too bright, very dark man." Stahl marveled: "That's outrageous!" That was before Helms even aired an ad on Gantt's support of quotas.
When reporters did talk about issues, they diminished Helms' social issues and polished Gantt's liberal agenda. NBC's Andrea Mitchell exemplified this on Today October 30: "Helms' attack on what he calls pornography has a lot of appeal here, especially in rural areas. But most people say they are more concerned about the things that affect their lives more directly, the economy, education, the environment. North Carolina is almost dead last in scholastic aptitude tests, has the worst infant mortality rate in the nation. Those are Gantt's issues."
After Helms beat Gantt by eight points, reporters became sore losers. From Gantt's election-night party, Mitchell reported: "This has really been a heart-breaking race....What happened here was a very strong racial message from Jesse Helms in the closing ten days of the race and it focused on something that we've found, found previously in Louisiana with the David Duke campaign."
USA Today also linked Helms to the Klan: "Some observers saw Helms as part of a Southern conservative fringe -- along with Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt, a Republican who was also re-elected, and Louisiana state Rep. David Duke -- that relied on tactics born in a deep South many thought had vanished." Boston Globe reporter Michael Frisby grieved: "A mass of faces, black and white, young and old, seemed to fill with tears at once...These were abortion- rights activists, environmentalists, and traditional Democrats who saw their hopes and dreams crushed by the negative, race- baiting ads."
Conservative Student Newspaper Under Attack
The conservative Dartmouth Review was subjected to another round of media hostility when someone sabotaged the paper's front-page credo and replaced it with a quote from Adolf Hitler. Dartmouth officials failed to investigate the controversy, declaring the Review guilty of intentionally publishing the quote, as did a number of reporters. In his October 7 story, New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield allowed Times readers to get the impression the Hitler insertion was intentional, letting seven paragraphs elapse before allowing the Review to respond.
The Times and The Washington Post tried to build a case that the Hitler incident represented the latest in a long line of Review offenses against Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and women. Butterfield asserted the Review "sponsored a free champagne-and- lobster feast to coincide with a campus fast for the world's hungry." Wrong, former Review editor Dinesh D'Souza told MediaWatch. After publishing an article on how the fast's sponsor, Oxfam America, had used its money to finance political movements, the Review held a dinner to raise money for a real charity. Butterfield also asserted that in 1981 the Review "published a list of members of the school's Gay Students Association." Wrong. D'Souza said the Review published a list of the group's officers, who were required to list themselves to apply for student funds.
ABC's 20/20 took on the controversy on October 12, calling the Review "radical," "radical conservative," and "ultra-conservative." ABC's Bob Brown allowed two professors to attack the Review, but aired no comments from faculty defenders. But by letting Review editor Kevin Pritchett and former Dartmouth music professor William Cole to speak at length, ABC offered the most comprehensive view of the controversy n print or broadcast. After the story, Hugh Downs and reporter Bob Brown solemnly criticized the Review. "What a strange atmosphere to find in a place of higher learning, where you'd expect tolerance and openness," said Downs. Brown agreed: "I can't think of a worse place to operate in an atmosphere of confrontation than a university campus." Tell that to the students of the '60s.
When Citizens Against Government Waste held a nationwide Taxpayers Action Day protest on October 27, only CNN reported the story. But all four networks repeatedly covered federal worker protests and each dedicated at least one whole story to how spending "cuts" would hurt federal workers. When the House passed the final budget compromise, ABC's Judd Rose reported: "The intense partisan warfare, the seemingly endless rhetoric, and the anxiety of federal government workers came to an end today."
Reporters ignored the other side of the story: that government workers have never suffered serious layoffs, and face much less anxiety than the private sector. In fact, bureaucrats are impossible to fire, and many work in obsolete offices. In his June Washington Monthly article "How to Cut the Bureaucracy in Half," Scott Shuger found some astonishing stories, like this one from an employee at HHS:
"We have enormous numbers of people who don't do anything. And I mean anything. One sells real estate. I spend an enormous amount of time on my volunteer work. There's a tremendous amount of socializing. People fall into each other's arms every day as though they had not seen each other for a year, catching up on what they had for dinner the night before. It's very social." Despite the financial burden of overstaffing, reporters didn't investigate the millions that could be saved from personnel cuts.
Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Number Juggling
Sometimes a story is so one-sided and misleading that it deserves to be seen in its entirety. So, MediaWatch has printed below the unedited transcript of this month's Janet Cooke Award winner: an October 16 CBS Evening News story by Richard Threlkeld.
Dan Rather: "Elected officials from President Bush on down are now trying to tap into and deflect voter outrage over the national debt and tax mess. At stake for the public in the final budget deal: whose taxes will go up and whose benefits will get chopped. For some perspective and context on the public's perception of a raw deal in the making, correspondent Richard Threlkeld is here tonight with the first of looks we'll be taking at the tax tangle and who pays. Richard?"
Threlkeld: "Dan, taxpayers always get mad when taxes go up, but what really gets taxpayers mad is when they suspect they've been paying more than their fair share. For a long time they accepted the conventional wisdom that if you cut taxes for the rich, the benefits would trickle down to everybody. But all the latest polls now show that most taxpayers have finally come to suspect otherwise."
Man on street: "I don't think the rich people pay what's equivalent to their wealth. I think that the poor people are taxed more and they make less."
Threlkeld: "And there's some evidence to prove their suspicions. Largely because of tax changes in the '80s, the income of the richest five percent of Americans has gone up by almost 50 percent while their tax rate's gone down about 10 percent [on-screen visual: Income Up 45%; Taxes down 10%]. Meantime, the income of the poorest 10 percent has gone down 10 percent and their tax rate has gone up by more than a fourth [on-screen visual: Income Down 10%; Taxes Up 28%]. While Congress was vainly trying to balance the new budget, millions of taxpayers were having the same problem balancing their budgets and finally figured out why: taxes."
Kevin Phillips, 'Republican Political Analyst': "People who were losing during the 1980s didn't know quite what was happening, they couldn't explain how it happened, but they began to see that they could buy less, that their standard of living was either stagnating or declining."
Threlkeld: "So last week when Congress and the White House first came up with a deficit plan that seemed to give the rich still another tax break, that was the last straw."
Woman on street: "If you have more money, then you should pay more money, and that's how I feel."
Man on street: "Target the rich. I'm not one of them."
Carol Cox, 'Cmte. for a Responsible Fed. Budget':"When people from working class families see their taxes go up, they'd like to see people that they think are better off than they have their taxes go up as well."
Threlkeld: "And the Democrats have gotten the message. For the first time in a decade they are not only unafraid to use the T word as in taxes, but they're even using the R word, as in soak the rich."
Rep. Barbara Boxer, 'D-Budget Committee': "Democrats are working for budgets that are fair so the Helmsleys and the Donald Trumps at last will pay their share."
Threlkeld: "So if and when they do sort out that deficit mess it's likely the rich are going to get soaked, at least a little, to make up for the soaking they avoided in the '80s, Dan."
What's wrong with this report? Not only were his sources totally one-sided in favor of raising taxes on the "rich" (inserting soak-the-rich "Republican analyst" Phillips is not an attempt at balance), his statistics were cleverly twisted to paint the worst possible picture of 1980s tax policy, specifically the 1981 and 1986 tax rate reductions.
Threlkeld did not attribute his statistics to any source, but they matched a March 26 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, Tax Progressivity and Income Distribution. And Threlkeld didn't even report the CBO figures honestly. While he said the bottom ten percent's taxes went up 28 percent from 1980-90 (as noted on page 30 of the report), he skipped over the next column in the CBO table: the bottom ten percent's tax share went down 15 percent from 1985-90.
Further, the big increase in taxes on the poor in the early 1980s was largely due to Social Security increases passed by President Carter in 1977 and expanded by bipartisan consensus in 1983. Christopher Frenze, a staff economist on the Joint Economic Committee, pointed out to MediaWatch that page 15 of the same CBO report showed effective income tax rates for the lowest 20 percent were -0.4 percent in 1980 and dropped further to -1.5 percent by 1990. But their social insurance tax rates (for Social Security and Medicare) rose from 5.4 to 7.6 percent over the decade, a 41 percent jump. If Threlkeld were really interested in pinning blame for rising taxes on the poor, he would have noted these trends.
Threlkeld also played with the numbers by insisting the top five percent's income went up "largely because of tax changes in the '80s," but he used the figure 45 percent, which according to page 28 of the CBO report, is the increase in pre-tax income, not after-tax income. If Threlkeld had made any effort to present a balanced story, he could have also mentioned some other statistics:
Economist Warren Brookes recently summarized IRS figures: "The real income taxes paid by 90 percent of Americans fell by 10 percent from 1981 to 1987 while the real income taxes paid by the richest 5 percent rose by nearly 43 percent."
The Census Bureau's 1989 Money Income of Families report demonstrated that while the rich did get richer during the 1980s, so did everyone else. The bottom fifth of families saw their median income fall nine percent from 1973 to 1981 and then rise in real terms six percent from 1981 to 1989.
The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey on after-tax income distribution showed the bottom 20 percent of U.S. households held 4.7 percent in 1986. By 1989, after the tax reform act, that level rose to five percent. In contrast, the income share received by the top 20 percent fell from 45.7 percent to 44.1 percent.
When contacted by MediaWatch, Threlkeld asked that we facsimile our questions. On November 6, he replied: "Ref your fax on our CBS Evening News piece of Oct. 18th [sic], are you suggesting that there is a substantial body of economic opinion that holds that during the 1980s that richer Americans were taxed more heavily than before and that poorer Americans were taxed less heavily than previously? If so, it seems to have escaped the attention of the Congress and the White House, not to mention the media.
"Those in the top bracket saw their income (pre-tax) increase app. 45%. A good many economists and other attribute that increase, or much of it, to tax changes in the '80s. So? What's the point? The figure for the poorest of those who filed was, if memory serves, for the whole decade, not the latter part of it."
"I've no doubt there are economists who will blame President Carter for what many seem to see as the present inequity of the tax system. I regret we didn't have the opportunity to include the views of the economist you talked to. So many economists, so little time."
Viewers deserve a full report on the effect of tax changes of the 1980s, the kind of reporting that balances the contentions and statistics of the liberal argument with those of the conservative side. Instead, CBS replayed the same political attack video on Reaganomics that they and their colleagues have been playing for 10 years.