Both houses of Congress are fighting over the debt ceiling - the Senate debating a plan by Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid and the House voting on a bill pushed by Speaker John Boehner. So far, only one actual bill has passed, but it was rejected as dead-on-arrival by both the Senate and the media. Reid called the bill the "perhaps some of the worst legislation in the history of this country" and journalists reflected that view, mentioning it by name in less than 10 percent of their stories since it passed.
The political fight over what strings to attach to an increase in the debt limit is as hot as the heat wave that has been oppressing the U.S. President Obama has scolded those opposing his desire to see tax increases in a bill with expressions like "eat our peas." Yet the media coverage of the battle has often portrayed Obama as the grown-up … the compromiser, despite his unwavering insistence that tax increases be in any sort of agreement.
The GOP has been painted as the Party of No, and a brand new Media Research Center study found that all three broadcast networks cast them as the debt ceiling villains.
But the GOP actually introduced a real plan, voted on it and passed it with Republican and Democratic votes in the House of Representatives. It was the Senate Democrats and President Obama who refused to consider "Cut, Cap and Balance." But they were not alone. The three broadcasts networks also treated the GOP plan as a waste of time, by barely mentioning it in their reports.
The Business & Media Institute examined news transcripts containing the words debt ceiling from July 12-25 (a week before and after the July 19 vote on Cut, Cap and Balance) and found that out of 112 stories on ABC, CBS and NBC less than 10 percent (11 stories) mentioned the proposal by name. An additional 12.5 percent (14 stories) of stories talked about the legislation without naming it at all.
CBS and NBC portrayed it as a waste of time. NBC's Ann Curry asked Kelly O'Donnell, "Do we really have time for a plan that is really just show, Kelly?" On July 19, CBS's Bob Schieffer couldn"t understand why cut, cap and balance was going to a vote when it "faces a certain presidential veto and will never become law." "So why do that when time is short?" Schieffer complained. But the very next night, CBS touted the "remarkable resurrection" of the Gang of Six and their budget plan.
The day before the House vote, CBS's Bill Plante did his best to throw cold water on the GOP plan by failing to mention public support for cut, cap and balance and repeated Democrats' claims that a balanced budget amendment was "dead on arrival."
Between the lack of coverage and digs about the fruitlessness of a vote or the aggressiveness of cut, cap and balance bill, the networks proved they were on the minority side of public opinion. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll (which CNN itself ignored) that showed 66 percent of voters favored that plan.
But one of the only times that majority public support for the Republican-sponsored plan was cited on the networks was when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., appeared on the CBS "Early Show" July 23 and praised the cut, cap and balance plan.
Johnson said, "I believe [it] is really the solution. Unfortunately, the Senate wouldn't even proceed to a debate on that … I think the American people support that as well. A recent poll showed that 66 percent like the concept of cutting spending now, capping the growth in spending over the - over 10 years, and then increasing the debt ceiling in exchange for passing a constitutional amendment which, by the way, the American people support by a margin of 74 percent."
Networks Promoted 'Bipartisan' Gang of Six Plan Instead of CCB
Given the scarce coverage, it is clear ABC, CBS and NBC didn't favor "Cut, Cap and Balance," but they did have some affection for a different deal - the plan concocted by the "Gang of Six" Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.
Network reporters and guests promoted that compromise plan which Marc A. Thiessen of American Enterprise Institute called "a massive tax increase." He pointed out that claims that the Gang of Six plan would cut taxes were "deeply misleading."
"[I]f you judge the Gang of Six plan against current law - which assumes millions of middle-class families would have paid the AMT for the first time next year, the R&D tax credit and other tax 'extenders' will disappear, and all of the Bush tax cuts, including those for the middle class, will expire on Jan. 1, 2013 - then yes, the Gang of Six cuts taxes by $1.5 trillion. But judged against current policy - what Americans pay today in taxes - the Gang of Six plan constitutes a massive tax increase," Thiessen wrote.
Yet the networks touted it as a plan both sides could agree on. CBS's Bill Plante said, "It was the best news heard around here in weeks" on July 20. That same morning David Muir boosted the plan saying, "the stock market apparently liking this" deal. In the days that followed other network journalists said the "bipartisan" plan was "gaining support," despite the negative reaction it received from the House of Representatives, which Peter Roff described for U.S. News & World Report as a "resounding 'thud'."
That didn't stop John Avlon of Newsweek and the Daily Beast from endorsing that "courageous" plan on the CBS "Early Show" saying: "And the folks who have the courage to reach across the aisle that they'll be rewarded with your support. When something like the Gang of Six comes forward, the bipartisan plan, that deserves your strong support it seems to me."