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

The CBS Evening News Promoted the Idea that Tax Cuts Are Dangerous

A key argument of tax cut supporters is that a significant reduction in the federal tax burden would benefit the economy. During the presidential campaign, Bush advocated cutting tax rates to ensure long-term growth; during the transition and in his first ten weeks in office, Bush additionally argued that enacting tax cuts this year would help speed the economy’s recovery from its current slowdown. "I strongly believe that a tax relief plan is an important part of helping our country’s economy recover," the President was shown stating on NBC on February 5.

This argument on behalf of the tax cut was reported on all three network broadcasts. On NBC, this pro-tax cut argument actually dominated the debate, while on ABC it was relatively balanced with the liberal counter-arguments that the Bush tax cut would either offer no assistance to the economy, or do more harm than good. For example, on March 15, ABC showed the comments of House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt: "This tax cut does not stimulate the economy; in fact, I would argue to you it’s having an opposite effect."

Exhibit6But on the CBS Evening News, the argument that tax cuts were beneficial was treated minimally, while the liberal talking point that tax cuts were dangerous was featured far more than on either ABC or NBC. (See Exhibit 6, "Would the Tax Cut Help?") On February 5, for example, correspondent John Roberts gave airtime to an unlabeled liberal activist who cited Ronald Reagan as proof that too much tax cutting was a terrible thing: "Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice can’t forget the last time Congress went on a tax cut spree in 1981; America is still paying the bill," Roberts lectured, once again failing to mention McIntyre’s liberal credentials.

A few moments later on the same night, CBS’s Bob Schieffer paraphrased Democratic "fear that anything larger [than the $800 billion cut proposed by Daschle and Gephardt] could set off the kind of red ink spending that produced the enormous deficits of the 1980s." Schieffer’s report, billed by anchor Rather as a "Real Deal" analysis "beyond the photo-ops and spins," was strictly limited to presenting the Democratic arguments against Bush’s tax cut.

On February 8, Rather introduced a story by countering the conservative point that lowering tax rates would help the economy. Citing unnamed experts, he paraphrased their view of Bush’s tax cut: "Some economists worry that it’s a long term risk." The story that followed, by John Roberts, failed to follow through by showing an actual economist — or anyone else — making that point.

On February 10, a story by Wyatt Andrews strained to fault the Bush administration for encouraging Congress to make the tax cuts retroactive, but not actually sending the legislative language to the Hill. "The jump start, part of the sales pitch, is not yet part of the plan," he alerted viewers. The not-so-subtle point, in the words of weekend anchor Thalia Assuras, was that "the cuts would not be of any immediate help."

On February 19, CBS decided that it was national news that a New York City priest, Father Bill Greenlaw, thought that Bush’s idea to eliminate the estate tax would harm charities. "This is crazy, in my judgment, to think about eliminating that so that the most wealthy of our society can become still more wealthy," Father Greenlaw told CBS’s Jim Axelrod.

On February 27, Rather opened the Evening News by saying the President would, in his address to Congress that evening, make "a TV pitch for a tax cut gamble." The next night, Rather again cited economists whom he wouldn’t name and who didn’t appear in the follow-up story, proclaiming that "Democrats and some independent economists believe the Bush push is risky business."

Neither ABC nor NBC ever went so far as to label the President’s program a "gamble," and neither of the other broadcasts ever cited the worries of unnamed experts as a way of validating the claims of liberal tax cut opponents. In its presentation of the debate over whether Bush’s tax cut would help or harm the U.S. economy, the CBS Evening News displayed news judgment that placed it to the left of even its two broadcast evening brethren.