A Summer of Skewed News
Table of Contents:
- Executive Summary
- Regulations: Four out of Five Networks Agree
- Network Reporters: Deficit Hawks but Spending Doves
- Pushing a Tax Cut Rollback
- One ABC Reporter Exposed Ridiculous Spending, Another Embraced It
- Conclusion: Recommendations For Improved Coverage
One ABC Reporter Exposed Ridiculous Spending, Another Embraced It
On the June 15 World News Tonight, veteran reporter John Cochran gave ABC viewers one of those all-too-rare investigations into how government wastes taxpayer money. Cochran detailed some of the ridiculous or irrelevant items tucked away inside an emergency spending bill ostensibly designed to fight terrorism.
“Most of the tourists out on the National Mall today don’t know or don’t care that the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History houses, out of public view, worms and insects pickled in alcohol, a flammable substance,” Cochran informed viewers. Senators like West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd declared that a “fire hazard,” Cochran continued, but “how to get the $2 million to move the bugs to another location? Simple: just tack it on to the emergency funding the President wants to fight the war on terrorism.”
“And, while Congress was at it, they tacked on some other items,” Cochran told viewers. “Fifty million dollars for an animal disease laboratory in Iowa; $2.5 million for research on foot-and-mouth disease in rural New York; $16 million for fishing communities in New England; textile import provisions that could help two southern Republicans up for re-election; and an attempt to bring back that old favorite, the honeybee subsidy.” No member of Congress appeared on ABC to explain how subsidizing honey farmers would improve American security, but Cochran played a soundbite from Republican Senator John McCain calling such projects “war profiteering.”
It’s obvious from Cochran’s reporting that both Republicans and Democrats were using the popular “War on Terrorism” label as a way to obtain federal funding for more than a few dubious projects. Yet on August 18’s This Week, Cochran’s colleague George Stephanopoulos used the positive-sounding items in the exact same bill as an argument that Bush’s attempt to restrain federal spending was merely a cover for more tax cuts.
Stephanopoulos’s liberal analysis occurred during an interview with Dan Bartlett, the man who now holds under President Bush the same position Stephanopoulos held under President Clinton — senior adviser for communications. With matching figures on screen, Stephanopoulos outlined some of the potential tax cuts the Bush team was reportedly considering: “Doubling the [capital] loss deduction costs about a billion dollars a year; increasing IRA limits, about $1.5 billion a year; and ending the double taxation of dividends, according to a 1992 Treasury study, at least $13 billion a year, some people think it would be far more.”
Viewers saw all those numbers, which ABC conveniently added up, and displayed their total: $15 billion per year.
Then, over an on-screen graphic titled, “$5.1 Billion Emergency Spending,” Stephanopoulos presented only the beneficial-sounding components of the spending package Cochran had exposed two months earlier. The price tag for each element of the bill appeared on screen: “Compare that to the cost of the emergency spending proposal, which the President rejected this week. It was $5 billion. It included firefighting grants [$150 million], nuclear plant security [$235 million], cargo inspection [$39 million] and the emergency funds for New York City [$99 million].” That screen did not provide a total — maybe because it would have made viewers realize that Congress had added a lot of pork-barrel spending to the bill. The spending Stephanopoulos highlighted added up to just $523 million, or only about one-tenth of the total bill.
After all of this set-up, Stephanopoulos finally got to his question: “Is the President saying, if he proposes a new tax plan, that these tax proposals are more important, are a higher priority for the United States than those spending proposals?” It’s more than a little disingenuous for Stephanopoulos to trumpet the tiny fraction of popular items from a spending bill that his own network had already exposed as full of pork, and then use that skewed presentation of the bill to imply that valuable projects are being sacrificed in the quest for tax cuts.
Yet despite his below-the-belt presentation, Stephanopoulos’s underlying theme was the same as most of his new colleagues in the Fourth Estate: tax cuts are “costly” because the government will end up with less money to spend on new projects, despite the fact that citizens will end up with more of the money they’ve earned to spend on projects of their own.