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Liberal Spin Prevails: How CBS Led the Networks' Charge Against the Bush Tax Cut

Executive Summary

Liberals have unloaded on President Bush’s proposed tax reduction package, condemning it as a risky scheme and a massive, budget-busting giveaway to the rich. Tax cut proponents have countered that by various historical measures Bush’s tax cut is hardly excessive, and argued it provides a greater percentage tax reduction to lower- and middle-income households than it does to wealthier families.

So which set of opinions has held sway on the three evening newscasts since the inauguration? To find out, the Media Research Center’s Free Market Project (FMP) analyzed all 93 tax stories that appeared on ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News from January 20 through March 31, 2001. Among the findings:

  • The networks quoted liberal critics who charged that the Bush tax cut was "massive" or "huge" five times more often than they quoted tax cut supporters making the opposite point.

  • Network reporters — led by anchors Dan Rather (CBS) and Tom Brokaw (NBC) — joined liberals in branding the Bush tax package as "big" or "very big," expressing the same judgment themselves on 30 different occasions. In contrast, no broadcast reporter ever labeled Bush’s cut as either modest or even small.

  • Complaints from liberal tax cut opponents such as Senator Tom Daschle that the tax cut is unfairly skewed in favor of the wealthy were relayed to network audiences twice as often (31 times) as the contrary point of view (15 times).

  • The CBS Evening News never once revealed data reported on both the NBC Nightly News and ABC’s World News Tonight demonstrating that Bush’s plan offered a greater percentage tax reduction to lower- and middle-income families.

  • None of the networks reported that the last income tax increase, passed in 1993, solely targeted higher income families, nor did any of the networks bother to tell viewers that the top five percent of earners currently shoulder more than half of the tax burden, while the top one percent of earners pay more than one-third (34.8%) of all federal income taxes.

  • The CBS Evening News was the least likely to relay comments from Bush or other tax cut supporters promoting the economic benefits of a significant tax cut, and instead gave the most time to the liberal claim that the tax cut would harm the nation or do a poor job of relieving the current economic slowdown.

  • Taken together, while all three networks tilted their coverage in favor of tax cut opponents, the CBS Evening News displayed a unique antagonism toward the tax cut and the arguments made on its behalf.

Given the anti-tax cut slant in the TV coverage, it is noteworthy that a majority of the public continues to support proposals to significantly reduce the tax burden. But this review of the coverage shows the three broadcast networks, especially the CBS Evening News, went out of their way to trumpet the complaints of liberal opponents of the Bush tax cut, and helped bolster those partisan claims with their own statements and selective reporting of the relevant statistics.