How the Networks Promoted the Biggest Spending Bill in History: Executive Summary

In a few short months, the term “stimulus” went from a $175-billion campaign promise to the most-expensive law ever passed by Congress. Nearly $800 billion of special interest funding, healthcare plans and precious little infrastructure made up the final agreement.

New President Obama had strong majorities in both the House and Senate to push his massive stimulus bill through. But he had another advantage – the same news media that helped him get elected was covering the “bold” push for a stimulus plan. Two broadcast networks – ABC and NBC – showed particularly strong support for the president by relying on pro-stimulus voices by a more-than 2-to-1 ratio (139 to 56). As reporter Scott Cohn told the NBC “Nightly News” audience about a struggling Indiana community. “Economic stimulus isn’t just a political debate around here. It could be a matter of survival.”

The Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute looked at all 176 stimulus stories on the three broadcast network evening news shows from Nov. 4, 2008 when Obama was elected, through Feb. 10, when the Senate approved the initial stimulus plan. Here are some additional findings:

  • Networks Refuse to Explain the Most Important Question: Almost completely absent from the reporting was how the president and Congress intended to pay for the stimulus. Many stories included criticism of the size of the package, but only three across all three networks discussed that such a plan might involve either cutting programs or raising taxes. That’s less than 2 percent of the stories.
  • ABC, CBS, NBC Biased in Picking Stimulus Spokesmen: All three broadcast networks favored pro-stimulus speakers – the president and his wife, congressmen, mayors and ordinary citizens – more than any who dared critique the stimulus package. Supporters outnumbered critics by a total of more than 2-to-1 for the three networks.
  • Anti-Stimulus Economic Experts Forgotten: The Cato Institute ran an ad with more than 250 economists who opposed the stimulus package. Not one of them was interviewed during this study period. Pro-stimulus economists outnumbered those who questioned the package by a ratio of 5-to-1 (15 to 3). Liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman appeared five times – sticking to a theme that the economy is “desperately in need of life support.”
  • ABC the Worst: ABC’s slanted use of economic “experts” made it the worst of the three networks covering the debate. Pro-stimulus economists outnumbered opponents 9-to-1. One ABC story quoted three economists – none of whom graded the stimulus package lower than a B.
  • CBS the Best: CBS wasn’t perfect. It relied on pro-stimulus voices 59 percent of the time. But that was far better than its opposition. In February, as the battle was nearing a vote, the network showed an exactly even mix of positive and negative views. Reporter Chip Reid did a good job keeping the stories balanced.

While the stimulus battle appears over, the economic problems are not and other similar votes may follow. Here are some recommendations for the networks to improve their coverage: 

  • Ask How We Are Going to Pay for It: The stimulus bill is the most-expensive in history – yet only three stories out of 178 even raised the issue. Only one piece by ABC actually attempted to address the long-term fiscal impact. Journalists have an obligation to ask the most basic questions, including how we are going to pay for it and when.
  • Not Every Issue Is Left or Right: At different times in the stimulus debate conservatives and liberals questioned the spending, but this wasn’t about those sides. Those for and against the package were not represented equally. Reporters have to balance supporters and opponents, not just political parties to give criticism a fair hearing.
  • Expand the Rolodex of Economists: One of the biggest flaws in the reporting was a reliance on TV-friendly economists – most of whom strongly supported the stimulus package. There were others – hundreds just in one advertisement that ran in major newspapers – who opposed the entire package. Not one of them was quoted.
  • Avoid Shallow Sound-Bite Reporting on the Economy: The economy is too complex for shorthand descriptions. Typically, economists disagree about how good or bad the U.S. financial picture truly is. Modern-day journalists have no trouble including the negative, but need to make an effort to give audiences a more balanced view.

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