The Art and Science of Scary "Cuts"

Our national media do not take charges of an institutional liberal bias well. Often they ignore them. Sometimes they simply deny them. Few reporters call and stand their ground.

Recently, the Media Research Center asked a panel of 46 judges from across America to select the "Best Notable Quotables of 2003," for the year's worst reporting. One unhappy winner was Time reporter Karen Tumulty, who won the "Media Millionaires for Higher Taxes Award" for some May 11 comments on CBS's "Face the Nation." She called the MRC to protest. "This is taken out of context!" she complained to MRC's Tim Graham.

The MRC takes complaints seriously, so Graham looked into it. The topic on CBS on that May Sunday was the growing unpopularity of the nation's governors, facing a tough choice in times of leaner tax revenues either to raise taxes or cut spending. Armed with the liberal mindset that governments are always underfunded, CBS host Bob Schieffer asked Tumulty this telling question about the governors' low approval ratings: "Is that because the states are just so starved for money?"

Here's Tumulty answer: "That's right. And while these arguments we're having here in Washington over tax cuts may look sort of abstract to most people in America, it is not abstract when your kid's teacher gets laid off...Libraries are closing, teachers are getting laid off. Gray Davis is in the position of having to decide whether he should deny prosthetic limbs to poor people."

In other words, because of "abstract" tax cuts, poor people are denied an arm or a leg. The judges for the "Best of Notable Quotables" saw this quote and voted it as the winner of the "Media Millionaires for Higher Taxes Award." Tumulty suggested MRC analysts needed to look at the whole CBS segment to put the quote in its proper perspective. But a rerun shows that this exchange with Schieffer is about the only discussion of potential spending cuts in the few minutes of the CBS roundtable - there was nothing else to analyze.

So researchers re-checked Tumulty's article for Time that week. It revealed that Tumulty's televised comments about "abstract" tax cuts - not so abstract to the American who sees a refund in the mail, or in the retirement account - were originally the opinions of a Democratic Party wonk. "To the extent that anyone is engaged in public life these days, you're engaged with what's going on at the state level rather than something abstract like the Bush tax cuts," Democratic pollster Ed Reilly is quoted as saying in Tumulty's piece. "It's not an abstraction when your kid's teacher gets laid off."

As for denying arms and legs to the poor, Tumulty was even harsher in her own magazine than she was on TV: "Governors are not just raising taxes but also releasing prisoners and shutting down libraries. Among options that Davis has had to consider: denying prosthetics to amputees who can't afford them and eliminating adult diapers for prostate-cancer patients."

Tumulty's source for these claims, most likely, is a Los Angeles Times report on May 4, in which reporter Gregg Jones gave readers an inside-the-room account of how Gov. Davis deliberated with staff about whether to propose cutting Medi-Cal subsidies (the state version of Medicaid) for prosthetic limbs and adult diapers. But Tumulty doesn't ask the obvious question: just how politically crass is it to detail for reporters how Davis might have to propose cutting prosthetic-limb subsidies?

What was called for was an expose on the Democrats and their shameless propensity to threaten dire-sounding phony spending cuts so voters will support raising taxes. The MRC's judges responded because quotes like these falsely signal to voters that there is no budgetary fat to be found and eliminated. There is only this false choice: you favor tax hikes, or you favor prostate-cancer patients wetting themselves.

Tumulty says her quotation is "out of context," but it's national media budget reporting that's too often out of context. The liberal mindset looks for scary specifics, but it has no big picture. For example, the Cato Institute found that California's state spending grew from $39.5 billion in fiscal year 1994 to $78.1 billion in fiscal year 2001, a 98 percent increase. That ought to leave money for prosthetics for the poor. Either Tumulty was unaware of that fact - in which case she is unqualified to cover this issue - or she ignored it, and ought to be disqualified from covering the issue.

Unfortunately, our national media are chronically guilty of loving the politics of budgets - the nasty charges and counter-charges, the crafty gamesmanship, the vividly phony examples of "draconian cuts" - and leaving all the hard information of ever-expanding government growth for musty books and hopeless wonks.

But in this case, it's MRC Judges 1, Tumulty zero.