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A Summer of Skewed News

The Liberal Tilt in TV’s Economic Reporting


Pushing a Tax Cut Rollback

BartletttextboxTelevision reporters were not as sympathetic toward taxpayers as they were to elderly prescription drug users. Even while correspondents were chastising Congress’s failure to spend more money, concern about the rising deficit manifested itself in a renewal of last year’s hostile coverage of the Bush tax cut. (Details are available in MRC’s April 2001 Special Report, Liberal Spin Prevails: How CBS Led the Networks’ Charge Against the Bush Tax Cut.) 

According to the liberal media’s economic template, deficit spending is bad because government borrowing forces interest rates to rise, and higher interest rates hurt economic growth. Yet few liberal pundits perceive the harmful anti-growth consequences when the government confiscates the same amount of money from the private economy through taxation, instead of selling Treasury notes and savings bonds. Thus, schemes to postpone or even repeal last year’s tax cuts featured prominently on the networks’ economic news agenda this year.

A sign of just how pervasive the anti-tax cut bias is at the networks: NBC’s Tim Russert — normally a balanced interviewer who presses both liberals and conservatives to justify their positions — used his position as moderator of Meet the Press to push the idea of either freezing or repealing the Bush tax cut. On his weekly Meet the Press since the beginning of 2002, Russert has asked a total of 40 questions about weakening the Bush tax cut and not one about whether taxes are too high. 

As any good interviewer would do, Russert demanded that tax cut supporters such as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels justify their stance in favor of lower taxes. But Russert indulged liberal opponents of the Bush tax cut, pressing them on whether or not they would support a rollback in its provisions. “If the President’s tax cut, in your estimation, is driving these deficits, why not step forward and say ‘We should end the tax cut, roll it back,’” he demanded of the liberal Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) on June 9.

Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, who opposed last year’s tax cut, appeared on the September 1 Meet the Press alongside Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, a tax-cut supporter. In a five-and-a-half minute span, Russert badgered them both about repealing the tax cut a total of eight times, or about once every 41 seconds.

Here, in compact form, are six of Russert’s questions: He started by asking Lowey, “Should the Democrats be in favor of freezing the Bush tax cut?” Then to Davis: “Would it be better to freeze, postpone, the Bush tax cut?” To Lowey: “Why not freeze the tax cut rather than spend the Social Security surplus?” After Lowey remarked that the Republicans had “squandered” the surplus, he probed: “How did they squander it? With the tax cut?” Russert asked Lowey: “As part of a budget summit, would you be in favor of freezing the Bush tax cut?” Then he turned back to Davis: “But, Congressman Davis, you did come to office with a $5.6 trillion surplus, and it’s gone, and a third of that can be directly attributed to the tax cut.”

TextBox3Senator Hillary Clinton voted against Bush’s tax cut and began lobbying for its demise in 2001, yet on September 15, Russert didn’t press her for alternative policies to promote economic growth, but merely allowed her to reaffirm her anti-tax views: “You said we should repeal the Bush tax cut. Do you believe that is now necessary in order to have the money to fight wars?” What a softball — she thought repealing the tax cut was “necessary” without the war.

Of course, Russert was hardly alone. The same day the Meet the Press host was inviting Representative Lowey to bash the tax cut, CBS’s John Roberts was substituting for Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, questioning Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, an ardent foe of Bush’s tax cut. Roberts never confronted the liberal McAuliffe with conservative arguments; he only wondered why Democrats weren’t doing more to undo Bush’s tax cut: “If you’re so critical of the President and his handling of the economy and deficits why is there no great hue and cry among Democrats in Congress to repeal the tax cut?” he pleaded.

Roberts’s follow-up question was no less obsequious, as he repeated Democratic talking points to the man who helped write them: “Is now the time for the President to be proposing new tax cuts, particularly ones that seem to benefit wealthy investors more than they do middle- and lower-income Americans?” When McAuliffe proceeded to, predictably, malign the tax cuts, Roberts returned to his original theme: “So why, and I asked you this before, why no hue and cry to roll back the current tax cut?” 

Even if interviewers like Russert and Roberts repeatedly bring up rolling back the tax cut as a way to get Democratic politicians to put their money where their mouth is, such a steady drumbeat only reinforces the liberal point that lower taxes are harmful. If, in an alternate universe, both liberal and conservative politicians were asked over and over again about cutting taxes, liberals might quite rightly feel that their point of view was being de-legitimized. In the real world, however, the liberal view is usually well-represented in the agenda and premise of journalists’ questions; it’s the conservative view that’s routinely ignored.