Still Liberal, Still Biased

How Big Media Helped the Left and Hurt the Right in 2003


Network, Clamor for Even More Spending: Network reporters covering President Bush’s tax cuts were concerned with assessing the high “cost” and spelling out who would most benefit from the changed policy. But as the House and Senate passed bills in June authorizing a massive new pay-out for prescription drugs, the networks displayed little interest in outlining who would pay (those at lower incomes still working) and who would benefit (the elderly, the wealthiest age group). TV correspondents also rarely mentioned the price tag of the expensive new drug benefit, except in the context of amplifying critics who charged it was not nearly “enough.”

As previously noted, Dan Rather on May 21 referred to the compromise tax cut, estimated at $350 billion before it “sunsets” after ten years, as “President Bush’s big tax cut plan.” Less than three weeks later, on June 10, Rather did not mention the cost of the prescription plan or refer to it as “big” although it will cost much more — $400 billion over the first ten years and, because there was no sunset provision, and trillions more thereafter.

Instead of fretting about the price tag, Rather portrayed it as long overdue: “In Washington today, for the umpteenth time, there’s talk of a possible compromise deal to provide at least some prescription drug coverage for people on Medicare. CBS’s Joie Chen reports what’s different this time as millions of older Americans wait for action.” Chen chronicled how paying for prescriptions is a “daily concern” at senior center before she trumpeted how “some badly needed help may be on the way, a $400 billion plan outlined today would give all seniors a prescription drug benefit.”

The next morning on Today, NBC’s Campbell Brown stressed the plan’s inadequacies: “The cost of the plan, $400 billion. But advocates for seniors, like the powerful American Association for Retired Persons, say it’s still not enough.” So did ABC’s Linda Douglass that night on World News Tonight: “Senators voted earlier this year to limit the cost of any plan to $400 billion over 10 years....Democrats complain that a third of seniors will still be stuck with big bills.”

As the bill moved to the Senate the following week, the networks ignored conservative critics who opposed the expensive new entitlement. Instead, TV coverage contrasted supporters of the new giveaway with detractors who wanted an even larger handout. “The Senate begins debate today on what would be the biggest expansion of Medicare benefits in its history,” NBC’s Ann Curry summarized on the June 16 Today. “If the bill passes prescription drugs would be subsidized for all 40 million members for the first time. Critics say the drug benefit isn’t enough.”

On Good Morning America the same day, ABC’s Tony Perkins shared Curry’s agenda when he interviewed Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson: “Some have said this bill doesn’t go quite far enough — it’s more of a start than a long-term solution. Do you agree? How do you address those concerns?”

Not even Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy was generous enough for CNN’s Judy Woodruff. Interviewing the legendary liberal on June 18, she suggested he was shortchanging old people: ”I began by asking him about his signing off on a plan that would leave some seniors with less drug coverage than they need and whether he undercut those seniors.” She also reprimanded Kennedy for supposedly aiding a conservative: “At a time when the Democrats are trying mightily to carve out distinct positions for themselves against a very popular Republican President,” she scolded, “what you have done is helped a Republican President take a very controversial issue off the table.”

Woodruff was no doubt pleased that Kennedy opposed the final Medicare reform bill passed by Congress in November.

Network reporters took their cue from liberal groups who wanted an even more expansive program. On NBC Nightly News June 23, Norah O’Donnell showed a complaining John Rother, Policy Director for the American Association of Retired Persons: “People are disappointed that there isn’t more of a benefit here. And sometimes they’re mad. Sometimes they think, well, at least it’s a first start. But everyone is disappointed.”

Then, O’Donnell fleshed out Rother’s argument by displaying a victim: “Like 77-year-old Pat Roussos of Connecticut, who suffers from arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure. Her out-of-pocket drug costs now, as much as $6,500 a year.” The story then included a soundbite from a pessimistic Pat Roussos: “It’s only a start, and I’m not convinced it’s going to go very far.”

June_textboxNBC failed to tell viewers that Roussos was not a random senior citizen, but is the Connecticut Community Coordinator for AARP, the official who oversees the state’s 72 local chapters. The next night, CBS echoed the same complaint, that the $400 billion price tag was just too small to provide proper relief to senior citizens (see box).

Where were the critics arguing that the entitlement’s projected $400 billion cost was too much of a burden on taxpayers? The Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler described the bill as “an impending disaster for all Americans” in a June 13 research memo. And in a June 24 Wall Street Journal op-ed, economists Andrew Rettenmmaier and Thomas Saving estimated that “the new benefits will create an unfunded liability of $7.5 trillion, or almost twice the current debt held by the public.” But the budgetary implications of such massive spending was apparently not “newsworthy” to the same network reporters who worried about how much the tax cut would increase the deficit.

Media See Legal Battle as Conservatives vs. "Rights": As the supposedly Bush-favoring, conservative-tilting Supreme Court came to the end of its term in June, the headline-grabbing decisions were more pleasing to liberals — even though the networks didn’t seem to find anyone who fit that label.

On June 23, the Court ruled largely in favor of allowing the use of racial criteria in admissions at the University of Michigan, both for undergraduates (the Gratz case) and law school applicants (the Grutter case), but no one called the racial-quota supporters “liberals.” It helped that military officers and corporate chieftains — each seen as stereotypically right-wing — filed supportive briefs in favor of, to use the media code word, “affirmative action.” Liberals favored “affirmative action,” while conservatives were often cast as “opponents of affirmative action.”

During live coverage of the decision, ABC’s John Cochran relayed from the White House that the two sides of the debate were “conservatives,” and on the left, “civil rights supporters.” He explained that President Bush took “the side of the white plaintiffs in this case. That angered many civil rights supporters around the country and it pleased very much a lot of conservatives. However, when the administration actually filed its brief, it was much narrower than conservatives have wanted.”

That approach was also employed in dividing the Court. On CNN, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin explained “Affirmative action has become a mainstream cause, and that’s why Sandra Day O’Connor, a mainstream justice, voted the way she did.” On CBS’s The Early Show the next morning, reporter Bob Orr found an unlabeled Sandra Day O’Connor voted for a “narrowly tailored” use of race, but “the Court’s conservatives dissented.”

On June 26, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 in Lawrence v. Texas to strike down state laws against sodomy, and again, the networks split the case into “gay rights activists” and “conservatives” — or worse.

ABC led off with Jackie Judd, who found “activists literally cried for joy,” while “social conservatives mourned today’s ruling.” Legal reporter Cynthia McFadden followed suit: “Those in favor of gay rights considered the opinion a triumph...while on talk radio, conservatives called the decision a travesty.” McFadden concluded: “Gays and lesbians are clearly encouraged, but given some of the ferocious language on the other side, full equality may be a good ways off.” The next morning, Good Morning America reran the Judd story, but anchor Dan Harris added an introduction also pitting “gay rights activists” against “conservative groups.”

On CBS, reporter Richard Schlesinger said the gay Texas plaintiffs were “reluctant symbols for gay rights activists who are ecstatic with the decision....Conservative groups quickly condemned the decision.” In a second story, reporter Bob McNamara described talk show host Marlin Maddoux as one who has “championed conservative causes for years, and he concluded that “conservatives” were already promising to “undo the controversial ruling.”

On NBC, legal reporter Pete Williams led off with how “Gay rights groups were jubilant,” while “Conservative groups today roundly criticized the ruling as overreaching.” Next, reporter Roger O’Neill found only one fringe: “On the extremes, Rush Limbaugh lambasting the court, agreeing with Justice Anthony [sic] Scalia’s dissenting opinion that the court has taken sides with gays in America’s cultural wars.”

These legal controversies underline how the media slants its coverage of social issues. On the epic political battles of our time, the sides are portrayed as the civil rights activists versus the “ferocious” conservative opponents “on the extremes.”