Cheerleaders for the Revolution
Table of Contents:
- Executive Summary
- The President's Economic Agenda: Liberal Government On Steroids
- Foreign Policy: The Whole World As Barack Obama's Stage
- Other Topics: Ethics, the Environment and Embryos
- Conclusion: Media Watchdogs Now Obama's Lapdogs
The President's Economic Agenda: Liberal Government On Steroids
The centerpiece of President Obama’s first 100 days was his economic agenda, and the broadcast networks certainly chronicled the new President’s interventionist approach. During just this brief, three-month period, the White House intervened to change the way business is done in both the banking industry and the auto industry. Obama fired the CEO of General Motors; instructed Chrysler to merge with the Italian car-maker Fiat; limited the pay and bonuses of executives at the nation’s top banks; instructed banks to be more lenient to credit card holders; and constructed an elaborate program to use taxpayer money to subsidize the home mortgages of several million homeowners.
As for big government, the President pushed through a huge $787 billion stimulus package, and proposed a massive $3.5 trillion budget for next year, projecting large deficits and a swelling national debt over the next ten years. The President announced he would push for universal health care coverage, adding more than $600 billion to his budget for that purpose, and suggested a “cap-and-trade” system of taxing carbon dioxide emissions that would cost each American more than $3,000 per year in higher energy costs and decreased productivity.
In spite of this (partial) menu of initiatives, the networks failed to run a single story focused on the question of whether Obama's economic policies were driving the U.S. in the direction of European socialism. In the first 100 days, not a single network news reporter used the term “socialist” to describe how the administration was shifting economic authority away from the free market and towards government.
On five occasions, the term was used in network news stories — three times in soundbites from sources and twice by reporters summarizing the views of Obama’s conservative critics. In no case was the discussion of socialism more than a brief mention. The February 28 NBC Nightly News, for example, ran a clip of Newt Gingrich from CPAC, saying of Obama’s policies: “It is the boldest effort to create a European socialist model we have seen.”
Summarizing Obama’s first 100 days on the April 26 Evening News, CBS’s Jeff Greenfield acknowledged that the term was used by “the right” to describe Obama’s policies, but also saw “allies” who “like” Obama for his leftist approach. “The degree to which he sees government as an active partner in so many fields....is one reason why his opponents on the right are using phrases like ‘socialist’ or ‘fascist’ to describe him. They see Obama as a big government guy, and to some extent he’s confirmed that, and his allies like him for that reason.”
Not only did reporters eschew the “socialist” debate about Obama, they never once labeled his big government, tax-and-spend approach as “liberal.” The L-word passed the lips of ABC’s John Hendren and Dan Harris as each summarized how Republicans used it to describe Obama’s big spending, as when Harris announced on the February 8 World News: “Republicans are saying that this stimulus bill is a tired old liberal wish list.”
NBC’s David Gregory used the label on the January 23 Nightly News to describe those who thought the President wasn’t spending enough: “This stimulus package has to do something that Americans are not doing, and that’s pump money into the economy to get it moving again. Some liberals think you need more.” And CBS’s Chip Reid on February 6 said congressional liberals did not like the Senate’s attempt to cut back some of the stimulus spending.
Of the top seven economic policy initiatives that received major coverage during the first 100 days, all were given mainly positive coverage by the three broadcast networks — a far cry from the adversarial approach that dominated during the Bush years. Some topics, such as the big spending in the stimulus package and the budget, incorporated some Republican or conservative critics in stories in which the views of liberals, Democrats and the administration dominated. Coverage of other issues — such as health care, the banking bailout and the auto bailout — essentially excluded any conservative critics of Obama’s big government approach.
A rundown of how the networks covered each of the big economic topics during the first 100 days:
Stimulus Package (150 stories): By far, the most heavily covered agenda item of the new Obama administration was the President’s nearly $800 billion stimulus package. The debate over the stimulus bill consumed most of the first four weeks of the Obama administration, and network evening news coverage of this issue was skewed in favor of the big government spending plan backed by President Obama and Democrats and against Republican and conservative critics.
From the first day of the administration through the end of the congressional debate (January 20 through February 14), the three evening newscasts aired 182 statements arguing for or against the merits of the stimulus package. (These included both comments from sources in soundbites, plus any opinions expressed by the correspondent themselves.) Nearly three-fifths argued on behalf of the stimulus (58%), compared to barely two-fifths who criticized the package (42%). ABC’s World News offered the friendliest coverage, followed closely by the NBC Nightly News, while the CBS Evening News struck a balanced note.
While the big spending package was frequently criticized by GOP talking heads, network reporters often cast the bill as essential. CNBC economics reporter Steve Liesman appeared on the January 25 NBC Nightly News to argue: “I think the market wants to see this stimulus plan passed.” Liesman’s colleague, Melissa Lee, appeared on the January 31 Nightly News to make a similar plea: “The bleak economic outlook is strengthening the case for swift action on a stimulus plan.”
“The Senate is going to start debating the massive economic stimulus plan tomorrow. The stakes could not be higher for millions of Americans in pain,” ABC’s World News Sunday night anchor Dan Harris empathized on February 1. Later on that broadcast, correspondent Bill Blakemore promoted the idea that spending taxpayer dollars on operas and playhouses was worthwhile stimulus: “Arts advocates say the arts support six million jobs, $167 billion worth of business, and would be putting any new money right back into the system with new jobs.”
On the February 14 CBS Evening News, correspondent Barry Petersen asserted that the Japanese economy failed to rebound in the 1990s because the Japanese stopped their massive spending program too soon — and that the U.S. should brace for even greater government spending than the $787 billion stimulus bill. (See box.)
After Congress sent the stimulus bill to President Obama for his signature, the coverage entered a new phase, as the networks touted it as a boon to local economies and help for citizens during hard times. Unlike stories about the congressional debate, which usually included both sides, these stories invariably excluded critics in favor of one-sided depictions of the stimulus as a force for economic good.
“The Open Cities Health Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, offers primary medical and dental care on a sliding scale to anyone who walks in the door,” NBC science correspondent Robert Bazell explained on February 16 as he set up an example of how the stimulus was helping local communities. “The clinic’s director, Dori Bolo, is thrilled that the stimulus package provides $87 billion nationally for Medicaid.”
“The President’s $787 billion plan for boosting the economy will help state and local governments struggling to pay their bills,” CBS’s Katie Couric chirped on the February 18 Evening News. “For states like California, Bill Whitaker reports, the money can’t come soon enough.” Reporting from Los Angeles, Whitaker touted how: “With Democrats seeking tax increases, Republicans, spending cuts, the only relief on the horizon: the federal economic stimulus money.”
Two weeks later, on the March 6 Evening News, Couric ran a cluster of stories all aimed at celebrating jobs created by the stimulus. (See box.) On April 29, the President’s 100th day in office, CBS ran three more stories celebrating the stimulus. Reporter Mark Strassmann showed how stimulus money was funding new bridges in Tennessee. “It’s a start,” he argued, “this project to rebuild bridges — and hope.”
ABC’s Bill Weir was excited about how the stimulus helped pay for new hybrid buses in Santa Monica, California. “The city had scrimped and saved to buy ten new hybrid buses at around $700,000 apiece. But then came the stimulus money, so they ordered six more,” Weir enthused on the April 13 World News. He detailed how several manufacturers and suppliers in different states all benefitted from Santa Monica’s order for new buses: “It’s a first tangible example of the money working to create jobs now, and a smooth ride later.”
Following passage of the stimulus in mid-February, the three evening newscasts ran 19 such one-sided stories touting its benefits — and promoting the liberal presumption that such government spending can promote a healthier U.S. economy. Instead of challenging the premise of Obama’s big government approach, the networks deployed their resources in a campaign to validate it.
The Banking Bailout (86 stories): The continuing taxpayer bailout of the financial sector was the second-most discussed policy item, accounting for nearly one out of ten Obama stories. Unlike stories about the stimulus package, which contained some conservative dissenters, none of the bank bailout stories featured soundbites from any source — expert, politician or everyday citizen — criticizing either the concept of the bailout or the administration’s opportunism in using the bailout as a means to pressure banks to change their business practices.
Indeed, reporters often presumed that the banks who took bailout funds should bow to the administration’s wishes. On April 23, for example, the President assembled lenders at the White House to lecture them about credit card lending practices. None of the networks suggested this was an improper intervention in the financial industry; indeed, CBS’s Katie Couric suggested it was not “fair” of banks to limit credit or hike interest rates on borrowers.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” Couric told reporter Anthony Mason, “many of these banks took taxpayer bailout dollars and now they’re turning around and penalizing a lot of taxpayers, some of whom pay their credit card bills on time.” ABC’s Gibson summarized the “stern warning” from the President: “If you don't protect the consumers, the government will.”
NBC’s Brian Williams framed it this way: “Some of the same banks that got billions in taxpayer money to stay in business are now sticking it to those same taxpayers, their customers,” and he applauded Obama’s reaction: “The President admonished the credit card companies and came down on the side of consumers.”
It wasn’t just credit cards: the Obama administration also required newly bailed-out banks to change their rules on executive compensation and bonuses and to participate in the administration’s mortgage bailout. (More on both of those topics later.) None of the networks ran stories focused on whether these impositions signaled an administration that had exceeded its authority, nor did they investigate whether bailouts that were originally advertised as a temporary bridge to keep the banking system afloat last fall had actually made the biggest banks long-term appendages of the executive branch.
Indeed, virtually all of the network coverage focused on describing how the government was proceeding to intervene in the financial marketplace, rather than getting both sides to debate whether the government should intervene. Even talk of “nationalizing” major U.S. banks — a concept so breathtakingly foreign to America’s free market culture that one would have expected even liberal journalists to react with skepticism — drew surprisingly little negative reaction from reporters.
According to ABC’s John Hendren on the February 15 World News, “some prominent economists, including Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, say nationalization is the only way out of the current financial crisis, given that the nation’s largest banks are now carrying a crushing half a trillion dollars in bad debt.” He ran a soundbite of Krugman predicting that the just-announced “stress tests” for banks would give the government a rationale for taking over the banks: “They’re gonna go in there and do a kind of Claude Rains in Casablanca — ‘I’m shocked, shocked to discover that these banks are in so much trouble financially,’ and then seize them.”
On the February 19 CBS Evening News, anchor Katie Couric equated a government takeover with a big hug from Uncle Sam: “It could keep banks open and free up money so they can start lending again....In Britain, a government takeover of a bank last year helped to temporarily calm fears in the financial markets there. Nationalization may have a psychological impact as well, and Uncle Sam wrapping his arms around failing banks in this country might provide a big dose of confidence for the American consumer.”
The next night, CNBC correspondent Trish Regan, on the February 20 NBC Nightly News, assured viewers that, for most people, nationalization would be no big deal: “As worried as shareholders in these institutions, these banks, may be, people that have accounts in them — whether that be a savings account, checking account, money market, CD — they really don’t need to be worried....The FDIC insures accounts up to $250,000 and, second, if the government were to nationalize these banks, remember, these banks would be owned not by shareholders, but by the government. So, in theory, everyone’s money should be perfectly safe.”
The following Monday on ABC’s World News, anchor Charles Gibson asked reporter Betsy Stark why “nationalization is considered such a dirty word?” After explaining Wall Street’s “philosophical” objections, Stark assured Gibson that opposition to a government takeover is “not entirely rational.” (See box.)
In all, one-fifth of the bank bailout stories (17, or 20%) discussed nationalization. Most of the time, reporters merely pointed out that the White House had ruled out nationalization (actually, spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected nationalizing the entire banking system, not individual banks), but rarely brought on critics of the idea. An exception was a piece on the February 23 NBC Nightly News, which featured two critics of nationalization to one supporter. The New York Stock Exchange’s Steve Grasso was one of the former. “You don’t want the government controlling anything. You want the markets dictating price,” he argued. “You want supply/demand dictating everything.”
Surprisingly, only CNBC correspondent Scott Cohn, reporting on the February 27 NBC Nightly News, actually used the term when the Obama administration became the largest single owner of Citigroup by reclassifying its stake in the company as common stock. “You can call this ‘nationalization light,’” Cohn quipped.
While Citigroup remains an ostensibly private company, just two business days after the administration’s stock grab, the bank announced it would let newly-unemployed mortgage holders temporarily drop their monthly payments to just $500, with funds going to taxes, insurance and principal — but no interest. It’s exactly the kind of lenient policy the Obama administration was championing, another example, perhaps, of how government ownership is re-shaping private businesses.
Budget/Spending (64 stories): President Obama’s first budget blueprint, for the fiscal year beginning October 1, proposed spending a record $3.5 trillion (up $400 billion from President Bush’s final budget), about half of which ($1.75 trillion) would be financed through deficit spending, by far a record. Under Obama’s budget, the national debt would soar to more than $20 trillion by 2019, the Congressional Budget Office determined, or more than 82 percent of the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — levels not seen since World War II.
Obama announced his budget February 26, but the previews began nearly a week earlier, as the networks parroted the White House spin that the President would aggressively reduce the deficit. In the four days leading up to the Obama’s speech to Congress (February 21 to 24), far more statements on evening newscasts painted the President as a deficit fighter (83%) than as a big spender (17%).
ABC’s David Muir began the February 21 World News by pitching how the President was “slashing the deficit by at least 50 percent by raising taxes on the wealthy, people making $250,000 and above, and cutting war spending by bringing troops home from Iraq.”
The next night, ABC’s Yunji de Nies kept up the salesmanship: “President Obama hopes to get control by slashing the federal deficit in half over the next four years. He’ll do it by cutting spending in at least two keys areas: winding down the war in Iraq, which now costs the taxpayers an estimated $400 million a day, and federal health care spending by overhauling Medicare and Medicaid.”
The next evening, February 23 — in spite of the massive stimulus plan just signed and ambitious campaign promises yet to fulfill — all three network newscasts touted how the President pledged at his “fiscal responsibility” summit to cut government spending and reduce the deficit by more than half:
NBC’s Brian Williams heralded “the President’s plan to bring down the federal deficit during a time of record government spending.” CBS’s Chip Reid explained that “most of the savings would come from winding down the war in Iraq; ending the Bush tax cuts for people making over $250,000 a year; and cutting spending.” According to ABC’s Jake Tapper, “deficit hawks applauded the President’s focus today, saying ignoring the problem could cause an even more severe crisis....The President said to the group he has no interest in making government bigger for the sake of making it bigger.”
When the actual budget details were revealed three days later, most network reporters seemed to realize that Obama had proposed a very liberal, tax-and-spend budget. While none of the three networks used that term, both ABC and CBS suggested a profoundly liberal shift, incorporating phrases such as “redistribution of wealth” and “radical.”
“This $3.5 trillion budget outline represents a break from the past in a dramatic, if not radical, fashion,” ABC’s Tapper observed February 26. “President Obama is trying to redirect vast sums of wealth from wealthy individuals and businesses to people of lower incomes and ambitious and costly programs for the environment, education and health care.”
“In what would be a major redistribution of wealth, the President proposes taxes on high-income Americans totaling about $637 billion over the next ten years,” CBS’s Reid seconded.
Even ABC’s George Stephanopoulos described Obama’s budget as “radical progressive reform.”
But to NBC’s Brian Williams, the massive price tag was “the cost of our new reality.” White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie maintained the deficit-cutting theme as she parroted: “the President promises to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term, in part by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans....The White House says this budget is more honest than previous ones....It assumes the economy will begin to turn around this year and grow robustly by 2011, a forecast advisers say is not too rosy.” Instead of an independent expert, NBC turned to Obama’s own economic adviser, Christina Romer, who unsurprisingly assured viewers that Obama’s assumptions were “nothing out of the ballpark.”
Bonuses/Executive Pay (61 stories): Even as the Obama administration was lobbying for its $800 billion stimulus package, and agreeing to a spending resolution with over 9,000 earmarks totaling roughly $8 billion, the President and his allies (and more than a few Republicans) engaged in high-profile scolding of supposed overspending and extravagant pay at companies that received government bailout money.
While network news coverage contained no direct criticism of the bailouts themselves, the bonuses — especially those given to executives at the AIG insurance company — were the topic of feeding frenzy coverage in mid-March. Rather than scrutinize the hyperbolic reaction of politicians from both parties, the networks essentially joined in the bashing themselves. The networks aired six times more statements (104) criticizing the corporations who paid out large bonuses to employees, compared with statements suggesting the political reaction was counterproductive or an infringement on businesses that remained in the private sector (16).
TV coverage largely matched the preening tone adopted by politicians. After a late-January report about year-end bonuses for securities industry employees, President Obama slammed the practice as “shameful” and “the height of irresponsibility.” Network reporters praised the President for lashing out. “Channeling his inner populist, the President got upset about something that the public has been angry about for weeks,” NBC’s Chuck Todd celebrated on January 29.
Over on ABC, correspondent Dan Harris argued that the bonuses are “not only infuriating to the President, but many Americans are bewildered and angry too,” and warned “Wall Street may be playing a dangerous game here at a time when Congress is considering rewriting the basic rules of American capitalism.”
But, uniquely, CBS that night also explained the “bonuses” were down 37 percent from the previous year, and are a core element of an employee’s compensation, not a year-end pat on the back, undermining the premise of the President’s outrage. Correspondent Anthony Mason found a compensation expert to explain that “the bonuses paid to these financial services people accounts for 50 or 75 percent of their total compensation, and it’s geared to revenue that they brought in or success they brought into the firm. So it’s more akin to a sales commission than what you or I would think about as a bonus.”
The next week, Obama announced his own rules on how taxpayer-subsidized companies should compensate top officials. While all three networks offered full reports on their February 4 newscasts, only ABC’s Jake Tapper included any conservative critics — a single soundbite from an unidentified man who saw the administration overstepping its boundaries. “Government should stay out of markets because they do a horrible job of it,” the man argued. Besides that, the coverage was devoted entirely to explaining or justifying the President’s new rules.
The “government does a horrible job” perspective was also in short supply when the networks latched on to the AIG bonus story in mid-March. All three networks framed the story as that of a righteously angry public rising up against a greedy corporation. “The controversy over the $165 million in bonuses paid to employees of AIG is consuming Washington these days, a reflection of public anger that a company bailed out with tens of billions in government funds would pay bonuses to the very people who destroyed the company,” ABC anchor Charles Gibson declared on March 18.
“Anger was all the rage,” NBC’s Chuck Todd observed that same night. In spite of the fierce coverage, neither NBC nor CBS had time to mention that many top Democrats — including President Obama, Vice President Biden and top congressional Democrats Barney Frank and Chris Dodd were big recipients of campaign cash from AIG. (See box.)
At the exact same time the AIG bonuses were getting huge play from the three networks, the Wall Street Journal reported that the mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which essentially had been taken over by the government in September because of huge losses, gave its employees $210 million in bonuses, $45 million more than AIG. And, unlike AIG, Fannie and Freddie were central to the exponential growth in mortgage-backed securities that created such chaos in financial markets. Further, the top echelons of these companies included many well-connected Democrats — White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, for example, had served on Freddie Mac’s board of directors after he left the Clinton White House in 2000 until he ran for Congress in 2001 — pocketing $320,000 in just over one year, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Given the heavy coverage that the networks devoted to bonuses handed out by the bailed-out AIG, one would have assumed even bigger bonuses from companies that were central to the financial collapse — and in which the government now owned 79.6 percent of the stock — would have generated even more attention. Yet the networks were virtually silent.
ABC’s World News made no mention of the bonuses, although on the March 18 Nightline (a program not included in our study) co-anchor Terry Moran gave the matter a single sentence in a story about the AIG bonuses: “But then came news the insurance giant is not alone. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also plan to pay out big bonuses, despite needing giant federal bailouts.”
Katie Couric gave 27 seconds to the bonuses on the April 3 CBS Evening News. Her entire item: “There was a huge uproar last month when AIG — bailed out by the taxpayers — paid employees $165 million in bonuses. Now, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are getting ready to top that. The mortgage giants seized by the government last year are paying $210 million in bonuses to more than 7,600 employees. Four Fannie Mae executives will get at least $1 million apiece.”
For its part, NBC skipped the Fannie/Freddie bonuses entirely.
Auto Bailout (48 stories): President Obama inherited the auto bailout from President Bush, who approved loaning just under $20 billion of Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to General Motors and Chrysler at around the first of the year. While the Obama administration was deciding how to proceed, the networks championed the bailout as essential; a majority of statements (58%) cast the auto bailout in positive terms, compared to 42 percent who opposed pumping more taxpayer money into the two companies.
Auto analyst John Wolkonowicz argued on the February 26 CBS Evening News that General Motors “now knows how to do it. They know how to get it right. They need a bridge over the troubled waters, so to speak.”
A month later, the President came out against new loans for the auto companies, instead ordering Chrysler to merge with Fiat and re-shuffling the top management of General Motors and demanding a new restructuring plan form each. The networks cast this as “tough” medicine from the White House.
“President Obama couched his actions as tough love for the auto industry’s own good,” ABC’s Jake Tapper seconded. Reporting from Detroit, ABC’s Chris Bury cast Obama as the Sheriff of Motor City: “Today’s tough talk from the new sheriff in town was not necessarily welcome....The automakers, under pressure before, have a gun to their heads now, and they seem to think the new sheriff in town wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.”
“These are bold moves to quickly determine the future for two American icons,” CNBC’s Phil LeBeau reported for the March 30 NBC Nightly News: “For the first time, the government is endorsing the idea of bankruptcy to clean up GM’s massive debts.” NBC’s Brian Williams said Obama’s rejection of the automakers’ restructuring plans “adds insult to injury” for Detroit’s workers.
Obama’s firing of General Motors’ chairman and CEO was hit from the right three times as an improper intervention in the private sector, including a man-on-the-street quoted on ABC March 30: “This is a capitalistic country, and we, the stockholders, should fire somebody, not the President.”
But the networks twice as often pushed the liberal gripe that Obama had fired too few CEOs, as when NBC’s Brian Williams suggested to correspondent Chuck Todd that “the critics are already circling, saying ‘If you’re going to fire the head of a car company, what about some of these financial firms and bankers who got us in so much trouble?’” Todd told Williams that complaint was coming from “folks on the left,” with conservatives saying Obama was looking like “a nationalization Democrat, a pro-government Democrat.”
Two days later, Williams stuck with the criticism from “folks on the left” in an interview with Treasury Secretary Geithner: “People think the car business has been treated differently by the administration....You bounced the CEO of GM, and yet there are CEOs of finance companies still in office.”
At the end of April, the White House plan for the auto companies came into sharper relief, and — contrary to the spin of late March — it was far less “tough” on the pro-Democrat auto union than it was on the creditors who would ordinarily fare best in a traditional bankruptcy. The administration’s revised plan gave itself and the United Auto Workers a large equity stake in both GM and Chrysler, while bondholders would receive stock worth only a fraction of their initial investment. On the April 27 World News and Nightly News, reporters gave only a single sentence to perhaps the key headline of GM’s restructuring plan. “Uncle Sam would become GM’s majority stakeholder, for better or worse,” ABC’s Eric Horng mentioned in passing.
“Finally, the controversy,” CNBC’s Phil LeBeau disclosed on NBC, “the U.S. government, under the current debt exchange proposal from GM, will own up to half the shares from the automaker.”
CBS’s report failed to mention the proposed large government ownership of General Motors, but did manage to put a human face on the plan to shortchange bondholders. Reporter Anthony Mason found an 81-year-old retired schoolteacher who invested in General Motors bonds to pay for her retirement.
“I’m going to be hit three different ways,” Marjorie Holden pointed out. “I lose the capital, I lose the interest, and I’m going to be taxed to bail them out. That doesn’t seem really quite fair to me,” she told CBS viewers.
Mortgage Bailout (35 stories): President Obama’s plan to use taxpayer funds to subsidize struggling homeowners drew almost exclusively positive coverage from the networks when it was announced on February 18, with the emphasis on those who would be helped, rather than the taxpayers who would be supplying the funds.
The networks’ theme was government riding to the rescue: “President Obama warned today that a cornerstone of the American Dream is crumbling,” fill-in anchor George Stephanopoulos announced on ABC’s World News. “President Obama is throwing a lifeline to millions of homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages or at risk of outright foreclosure,” CBS’s Katie Couric heralded at the top of the Evening News.
Over on NBC, reporter Matt Taibbi profiled a widowed woman with a young daughter who was relying on a dwindling savings to stay current on her interest-only mortgage, soon to re-set at a much higher rate. Taibbi suggested Obama’s plan was their only hope: “The hope now is that the home they were sure they would lose and go broke in the process might have at least a chance to be saved.”
The next night, however, the networks discovered a backlash against the President’s plan among homeowners with realistic mortgages who paid on time. That morning on cable, CNBC’s Rick Santelli spotlighted the other side of the story when he wondered on-air, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?...President Obama, are you listening?”
ABC and NBC’s February 19 newscasts both offered reports on angry homeowners, with NBC using Santelli as their prime example. ABC’s John Berman showcased everyday citizens. “It’s not fair to those of us who make our house payments every month,” one man declared. “They shouldn’t have bought them [houses they could not afford] in the first place so, no, I’m furious about it,” a woman similarly argued.
But while both of those reports featured upset citizens, they concluded with assurances from economists that, no matter how unfair it might seem, Obama’s plan would really help everyone: “Nobody wins when someone’s kicked out of their house when there’s a viable solution to keep them in their house,” economist Chris Mayer argued on ABC.
“It is a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s one we need to swallow so that the financial system, the economy, don’t slide away,” economist Mark Zandi echoed on NBC. In other words, everyday people might be angry, but experts say Obama is right.
“The solution might not be 100 percent fair to everyone,” ABC’s Berman argued, “but then again, who said recessions are always fair?”
CBS failed to catch up to the public backlash until the next night, February 20, even as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs attacked critics such as Santelli. “I feel assured that Mr. Santelli doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Gibbs smugly asserted, although CBS’s Chip Reid pointed at that, even “Gibbs conceded that some people who made bad decisions will be helped by the plan.” Like Reid, ABC’s Tapper also told viewers of Gibbs’ admission that Obama’s plan would help some undeserving individuals, but NBC’s Chuck Todd omitted that from his report on Gibbs’ smackdown of Santelli.
Overall, the backlash sparked in part by CNBC’s Santelli meant that network coverage of Obama’s mortgage bailout was more balanced than his other big government proposals. Four out of ten statements (41%) rejected Obama’s plan as unfair to responsible homeowners, compared to nearly six in ten (59%) who favored government intervention on behalf of homeowners, split between those who supported Obama’s bailout plan (46%) and those who suggested the bailout should be even more generous (13%).
The March 4 CBS Evening News, for example, profiled a homeowner who owes 54 percent more than his home is currently worth. “The part of the Obama plan written for these homeowners doesn’t help those who owe more than five percent of what their house is now worth,” reporter Ben Tracy fretted.
Three days later, CBS profiled homeowners upset that Obama’s bailout would not help them, either. “Without a government mandate, there’s often little incentive for banks to re-work mortgages with hard-hit homeowners, or help people who have second mortgages,” Reporter Daniel Sieberg mourned. “Although President Obama claims his mortgage plan will help seven million homeowners, some analysts say it will be more like one and a half million.”
Health Care Reform (26 stories): Much as they did with the White House’s gimmicky “fiscal responsibility” summit, the networks gravitated to President Obama’s March 5 health care forum, making it the peg for in-depth coverage of the prospects for health care “reform.” All of the coverage was framed from the liberal perspective of the need for government to further intervene in the health care system to enforce “universal” health coverage.
“At a summit of health care providers and consumers and insurers at the White House, the President vowed to solve a problem that has bedeviled presidents since Theodore Roosevelt,” ABC anchor Charles Gibson intoned. “There was an air of possibility at the White House,” reporter Jake Tapper suggested at the end of his report.
The March 5 CBS Evening News and the March 1 World News on ABC asserted that the problem was, as ABC’s David Muir put it, that “46 million Americans are without health insurance.” Yet, as a July 18, 2007 report from the MRC’s Business and Media Institute explains, that commonly-cited statistic is drawn from a Census Bureau report and includes roughly 10 million non-citizens, eight million young adults, and another nine million who make in excess of $75,000 per year — groups accounting for more than half of the uninsured.
The network coverage included no conservative experts, and no statements suggesting that the increased government involvement would worsen the state of health care in America. Instead, the networks were excited by the prospect of government taking over an even larger share of the nation’s health care system. ABC medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson was perhaps the biggest cheerleader, celebrating news that Obama wanted $634 billion for a new health care fund. “Health care experts that I’ve talked to today are thrilled with this budget proposal. They see it as a very strong signal from the President that he is indeed very serious about health care reform and willing to put a lot of money behind his rhetoric,” Johnson exulted on February 26.
Three days later, on the March 1 World News, Johnson made his perspective clear: “We spend more than twice as much per person on health care in this country as the average of all other industrialized countries, yet we’re the only one that doesn’t have universal coverage. That’s a national shame.”
On March 5, Johnson participated in Obama’s health care forum, then went on World News to tell anchor Charles Gibson about the experience: “I have to tell you, Charlie, I was blown away by President Obama’s grasp of the subject, how he connected the dots, how he answered the questions without any script.”
None of the network stories about Obama’s health care plans included any conservative or free market experts to balance the views of those, like ABC’s Johnson, who championed a greater role for government. While the details of the administration’s health care proposals have yet to be disclosed, the network coverage of the first 100 days certainly favored the sort of big government plan favored by liberals, and completely ignored the possibility of a free market solution empowering individuals instead of bureaucrats.