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

Conclusion: Liberal Spin on All Three Networks, bus CBS Was the Worst

In its coverage during the first ten weeks of the Bush administration, the CBS Evening News displayed a unique antagonism toward the tax cut and the arguments made on its behalf, while obliging its liberal critics by frequently reciting their arguments against the tax cut. Neither ABC nor NBC could ever be confused with promoters of the tax cut, to be sure, but both World News Tonight and the NBC Nightly News offered viewers an occasional glimpse of conservatives’ perspective on these key points.

ABC, for example, was more restrained than either of its competitors when it came to the debate over the size of the Bush tax cut. As on CBS and NBC, it skewed its stories to give more airtime to liberal critics who complained that the tax cut was "big" or "huge" (by a margin of 15-3), but its own on-air personalities generally did not repeat such partisan rhetoric themselves. On occasion, ABC anchor Peter Jennings referred to it as a "broad-based tax cut" or an "across-the-board" tax cut, but he avoided the blunt language used by CBS’s Rather and NBC’s Brokaw which left no doubt of their personal view of Bush’s tax proposal.

More than its competitors, NBC juxtaposed the complaints of liberal critics that the Bush tax cut was unfairly tilted toward the wealthy with a glimpse of data showing the other side of the story. In three stories, NBC reported that lower- and middle-income families receive a larger percentage tax cut than the rich. That’s not the whole story, of course, but it’s a necessary fact to include in any debate over the perceived fairness of the Bush tax cut. Those three stories couldn’t overshadow the 14 instances in which liberal politicians were able to claim on Nightly News that the Bush cut was unfair, but those three stories made NBC more balanced than CBS, which failed to ever report this basic fact.

If a single anecdote can illustrate hostility toward the tax cut, then consider: On February 27, President Bush outlined his tax and budget plans before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. That night, CBS News paid for a professional poll to be conducted after the speech. A scientifically-drawn random sample of 978 Americans who watched the speech were surveyed, and the results were properly reported on CBS’s Web site and its morning news program, The Early Show.

But the scientific survey found that most of those who watched liked Bush’s programs in general, and two-thirds (67%) said they liked his tax cut in particular. Instead of telling viewers this positive fact about the tax cut, the CBS Evening News buried the poll. Reporter John Roberts chose to interview two women in a coffee house in Omaha, Nebraska, one of whom thought the tax cut should be reduced and another who opposed it outright.

Here’s a transcript of the relevant portion of that report:

Roberts: "At the Stage Right Café in Omaha, where the sarcasm runs as strong as the coffee, they’ve heard all the talk about tax cuts."
Jan Dill [coffee house patron]: "Some people think it’s too small. Some people think it’s too big. And some people think it’s just right. Isn’t that what it was?"
Roberts: "What do you think?"
Dill: "I think it could probably be reduced."
Roberts: "Jan Dill believes if Mr. Bush can hold the line on spending, his tax cut could work. But Sue Kilgarin fears the President is rolling the dice on eight years of success just for political gain."
Kilgarin [second patron]:
"I think a big tax cut is just a real feather in someone’s cap."

Roberts’ report might have been excusable if CBS had not been sitting on a poll showing that, in stark contrast to his informal survey at the coffee shop, most of the public (including 48% of the Democrats surveyed in CBS’s scientific poll) favored the tax cut.

After suppressing a poll showing support for Bush’s larger tax cut, the next night Roberts told viewers about a survey that an unnamed competitor to CBS News had conducted. After running a quick clip of Republican Congressman Tom DeLay criticizing a Democratic tax bill as "nothing more than a redistribution of wealth," Roberts immediately undercut him: "New polls, however, show voters leaning slightly in favor of the Democratic plan."

It is not clear what "new polls" Roberts was citing, but a likely source was a Reuters-Zogby poll released on that day which did report that 40 percent of those surveyed supported the Democrats’ proposed $800 billion tax cut, compared with 38 percent who backed Bush’s cut. If it was the Reuters-Zogby poll, then it’s worth pointing out that eight percent of the public rejected both cuts, preferring an even greater tax cut.

It is remarkable that after weeks of hearing that the tax cut is too big, too unfair, and perhaps a danger to the nation, a large segment of the population remains supportive of President Bush’s tax cut plan, and a great number of citizens want even greater tax reduction. But there is still no escaping the basic fact that the networks in general, and the CBS Evening News in particular, have failed to offer their audiences anything close to a balanced and fair debate on the key issues involved in the tax cut debate of 2001.