Media Myth: Taxation with Misrepresentation

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When is a dollar a taxpayer dollar?

     A. When it’s paying for stem cell research.
     B. When it’s going to the military in Iraq.
     C. When it’s supporting public education.
     D. When it’s aiding sick and hungry Africans.
     E. All of the above.

     The correct answer, of course, is E. but that wasn’t how broadcast journalists answered in the last year. They treated taxpayer dollars unequally – claiming many were “government funding” or “federal funding.”

     Viewers’ ears are likely to perk up when their tax dollars are mentioned, especially when they’re told those dollars are going to waste. On the other hand, the government’s funding yet another study isn’t exactly the most exciting of reports. The difference between the two is all in how journalists frame the story.

     According to a Business & Media Institute review of a year’s worth of “taxpayer” mentions on broadcast news, how the media report on spending depends on the subject. “The U.S. government is spending billions of your tax dollars fighting the war in Iraq and billions more to rebuild the country,” said CBS’s Scott Pelley on the Feb. 10, 2006, “Evening News.” In contrast, when the subject was stem cell research, NBC reporters mentioned support for “federal funding” for the research three times in a July 29, 2005, “Nightly News” report.

The "taxpayer-funded" PR effort in Iraq
Presidential gasoline "cost taxpayers"
"Federal funding" for stem cell research

     Two of the media’s favorite topics to criticize the Bush administration – Iraq and Katrina – were treated as taxpayer funds gone wrong. On the Jan. 6, 2006, “Early Show,” CBS’s Thalia Assuras asked acting FEMA Director David Paulison: “Can you assure the American people that FEMA is not wasting their money?” following with “The taxpayers will be watching.”

     Broadcasters even made a point of reminding viewers that they were paying “upwards of $100,000 a year – taxpayer money” for the White House executive chef (Mark Knoller, Aug. 14, 2005, “CBS Evening News”) and gas for the president’s motorcade. On the Sept. 27, 2005, “Good Morning America,” ABC’s Jessica Yellin discussed President George W. Bush’s call for energy savings following Katrina’s oil supply disruption. She then snarked about the president’s own energy use. “When the president traveled less than five miles to have dinner last night, he used five SUVs, four vans and two limousines,” Yellin said. “It’s estimated filling up all those tanks cost taxpayers more than $600.”

     But when it came to massive amounts of foreign aid and controversial funding for stem cell research, those endeavors were often described as funded by the more benign, faceless “government” or “federal” money.

     Making those distinctions can affect what viewers take away from a news story, said Business & Media Institute adviser John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union. “Just as politicians try to make government benefits as visible as possible, and government costs as hidden as possible, members of the media can strategically choose their language about who is paying for a government program to try to influence viewers’ perceptions of the program,” Berthoud said.

     “A reporter will remind viewers that they ultimately pay the cost of government when the reporter wants to subtly influence the audience to dislike a program. But if the reporter likes the expenditure, they will use the language of politicians in describing who is paying for it,” he added.

     The government has no money of its own – a fact the media often forget. The $2.4 trillion spent by the federal government in 2005 was extracted from taxpayers. As NBC’s Brian Williams said on the “Nightly News” March 7, 2006, “When it’s taxpayer money, the taxpayers must ultimately decide if it’s worth it.”

     It’s all taxpayer money – and the Business & Media Institute highlights the media’s inconsistency on this subject.

What is taxpayer-funded?
     “Funded by taxpayer dollars” has an ominous ring to it. At the very least, it calls attention to the fact that individuals across the country are sacrificing for a certain program to go forward. Journalists used the term “taxpayer” to place emphasis on many expenditures, with Katrina netting the most mentions.

     Katrina: On the Oct. 5, 2005, “NBC Nightly News,” Lisa Myers did a one-sided story about FEMA contracts. “Critics say again and again taxpayers are paying too much, driving up the already-staggering costs of Katrina,” Myers said. She interviewed a mobile home manufacturer and a roofer who didn’t get government contracts, as well as a Democratic congressman who argued that administration decision-makers had paid too much. She didn’t interview anyone involved in the process, but only alluded: “The Corps of Engineers says Akima could deliver the classrooms faster.”

     Iraq: The war has produced a landslide of negative stories, as the MRC’s Rich Noyes showed in a 2005 study. David Wright’s Feb. 18, 2006, “World News Tonight” report dwelled on problems in Iraq and sent the bill to the American taxpayers. “The U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly $5 billion so far on reconstruction, but many Iraqis have yet to reap the benefits,” Wright said on the ABC broadcast.

ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas mentioned the “intense battle for hearts and minds” involved with in Iraq on the Dec. 14, 2005, “World News Tonight,” teasing a story “inside the taxpayer-funded PR effort touting Iraqi forces.”

     Tax breaks: Chip Reid reported on the energy bill in Congress on the July 28, 2005, “Nightly News.” He referred to “tax breaks and subsidies, most for the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries.” After showing clips of a Republican and Democrat, Reid reiterated the Democratic position on tax breaks: “calling it a massive giveaway of taxpayer dollars when oil companies are making record profits.” The media have repeatedly treated tax cuts and tax breaks as government “expenditures,” even though that money was not the government’s to begin with.

     Reid had done a similar report the previous month. Brian Williams introduced a “Fleecing of America” segment on the June 3, 2005, “Nightly News,” lamenting a “corporate tax break” that is “still being used today and costs the treasuries millions.” Reid accused the tax break of “burning billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money,” ignoring the taxes paid by both the companies and their shareholders.

What’s not taxpayer-funded
     If something isn’t called “taxpayer-funded,” then it’s funded by some faceless entity called the “government,” “federal funds” or even “public money.” Using these terms separates the spending from those who fund it.

     Stem cell research: The media have given favorable treatment to stem cell research, as the MRC’s CyberAlert has documented. On the July 29, 2005, “NBC Nightly News,” Brian Williams introduced a story about Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) breaking “with the President’s position on federal funding for stem-cell research.” Chip Reid continued that Frist had “declared his support for expanded federal funding of stem-cell research using human embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.” Reid later added that “Fifty percent of Americans support federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.”

     Likewise, ABC’s Bob Woodruff discussed a possible ban on “cloning to create embryos for stem cell research” on the March 27, 2005, “World News Tonight.” He said “the United States has already effectively banned federal funding, but the states are picking up where the federal government left off, and public spending actually tripled in the last year.”

     Public Education: How education was funded depended on what sort of education the journalist meant. On the July 2, 2005, “Saturday Today,” NBC’s Pete Williams discussed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s voting record. He said she had “approved taxpayer-funded vouchers for sending students to religious schools.” Of course, all public schools are taxpayer-funded. Those who choose to send their children to private or “religious” schools essentially pay for two educations – the one their children receive, and the one everyone else’s children receive.

     But in a May 2, 2005, “Closer Look” segment about the “No Child Left Behind” education program, ABC focused on the “federal” funding of education. Elizabeth Vargas opened the “World News Tonight” report with “complaints that … Washington is not providing enough money to pay for the improvements.” Bill Redeker’s report detailed the state of Utah’s plans to rebel against “No Child Left Behind,” which might mean losing “$76 million in federal funding” or as Redeker said later, “giving up federal funding.”

     Foreign Aid: First Lady Laura Bush gave NBC’s Ann Curry a lesson on the July 12, 2005, “Today.” Curry acted as though President Bush had been giving his own money to foreign relief: “You know, your husband has significantly contributed to AIDS in Africa …” but said that “the American people have heard the criticism that’s he’s not done enough to truly make a difference.” Mrs. Bush corrected her: “Well, I think there – I think we’re really seeing a difference, and not just for money that comes from the United States government and from the taxpayers …”

     In a story about the Group of Eight (G-8) wealthiest nations’ Summit, CBS reporter Allen Pizzey said protesters “want the rich nations to do something about African debt and aid.” In the July 5, 2005, “CBS Evening News” story, a clip of President Bush speaking added the real source of that “aid”: “Why does it make sense for me, as the person who’s supposed to be wise and guardian of the taxpayers’ money, to send money to a country and to have – and know the government’s going to steal it? That doesn’t make any sense.” The Business & Media Institute found the media cheerleading the Live 8 concerts last year and celebrity pleas for G-8 nations to contribute more taxpayer-funded aid to poor countries.

     Local services: On the July 31, 2005, “CBS Evening News,” Joie Chen reported on the city of Alexandria, Va., and its new “free” wireless Internet program. She referred to it as paid for by “the city,” while United States Telecom Association CEO Walter McCormick portrayed it more accurately as “a questionable use of taxpayer dollars.”

     School meals: Former Sen. Bob Dole reminded viewers of another way to describe taxpayer-funded programs on the March 7, 2006, “Today” show. He was discussing a public school breakfast program with NBC’s Katie Couric. Couric asked him, “And when you say eligible kids, this is a government-funded program …” Dole interrupted: “Entitlement.”

     The Business & Media Institute looked at stories on ABC, CBS and NBC from March 9, 2005, to March 9, 2006, and analyzed journalists’ use of the word “taxpayer” to describe U.S. government expenditures. Mentions were counted only if a reporter or anchor used the word “taxpayer” in that context. Stories pertaining to citizens paying taxes (mostly around April 15) were disregarded. In all, 155 mentions of “taxpayer” were analyzed, with a few stories containing more than one different context for the word. If separate mentions were given in a show’s introduction and a story later in the show, both were counted.

Recommendations for taxpayer watchdogs:

Be consistent. If something is paid for by the government, that means it’s the taxpayers – no matter what the project is.

Don’t confuse tax breaks with government programs. One lets people keep more of their money; the other takes their money and uses it elsewhere.

Distribute cheap shots evenly. If you’re going to point out how much taxpayer money the president spends to go out to dinner, why not investigate how much of the public dime Democrats are spending for travel, etc.?