When Bigger Isn't Better

ABC, CBS, and NBC's Coverage of the GOP Tax-Cut Debate


For most voters, the campaign debate isn't what the candidates say on the trail; it's what passes through the media filter and actually reaches the nation's living rooms. It's journalists' agenda-setting role -- the media are often less effective at telling us what to think than they are at telling us what to think about. Even staunch Republican voters who are fully aware of the national media's liberal leanings can be affected, as their perception of the issues and candidates are involuntarily influenced by the media's biased presentation of the campaign.

A prime example of the media elite's agenda-setting power was the Republican candidates' debate over tax cuts prior to the New Hampshire primary. After nearly eight years of Clintonomics, it was widely assumed that GOP primary voters would reward candidates who favored significant tax cuts, even if Democratic voters had other priorities. Yet New Hampshirites instead rewarded the one candidate, John McCain, who consistently argued that tax cuts were a lower priority than debt reduction and ensuring the continued solvency of the Social Security system.

How influential were the media in leading New Hampshire Republicans to this decision? To find out, the Free Market Project reviewed the three broadcast evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News) from August 1, 1999 through January 31, 2000, the six months leading up to the New Hampshire primary. We found that ABC, CBS and NBC:

  • out of 58 talking heads, provided just one "expert" — Robert McIntyre, head of the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice, who condemned George Bush's across-the-board tax cut plan;

  • largely ignored Steve Forbes's ambitious flat tax proposal, instead presenting a closed debate between Bush's and McCain's tax cut plans;

  • repeatedly labeled Bush's proposed tax cut as "big" or "huge," and conveyed criticisms from Democratic candidates that his plan was "irresponsible";

  • never questioned McCain's assertion that a smaller tax cut was essential to protecting and preserving the Social Security system.

Given the coverage, it was hardly surprising that Forbes was the choice of relatively few of those voters who said tax cuts were a high priority (even though he offered the largest tax cut proposal), and that nearly half of the GOP electorate thought Social Security was a higher priority than tax cuts, a group that disproportionately chose McCain, according to CNN exit polls conducted the day of the primary.