When Bigger Isn't Better

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


Executive Summary

It's puzzled pundits and confounded commentators: Why have many Republicans been eager to embrace the candidacy of Sen. John McCain, who makes a great show of the fact that he's proposed the smallest tax cut of any major Republican presidential candidate in a generation? Could it be because the national media have portrayed tax cuts as all risk and no reward?

To shed some light on the issue, the Media Research Center's Free Market Project reviewed every story on the ABC, CBS or NBC evening news that either featured or referenced the GOP tax-cut debate during the six months leading up to the New Hampshire primary (August 1 to January 31). The total sample consisted of 36 stories -- 31 field reports and five anchor-read briefs -- most of which aired during the final four weeks of the GOP primary campaign.

The key findings:

  • One Liberal Expert: The evening news broadcast quotes from 58 talking heads, but only one expert -- the director of a liberal public policy group who bashed George Bush's tax-cut plan;

  • Zero Conservative Experts: No conservative experts were quoted or cited in any GOP tax-cut story;

  • The Forbes Shut Out: Steve Forbes's flat-tax proposal, which was mentioned in 96 evening news stories four years ago, got just two passing references this year;

  • Bigger Is Badder: Network reporters frequently labeled Bush's plan as "big" and "huge," language that bolstered McCain's charge that a large tax cut was fiscally irresponsible;

  • No Room for Optimism: No network correspondent questioned whether McCain's budget projections were too low, even after the notoriously pessimistic CBO upped its surplus estimates by $1 trillion in late January.

"As it was shown on the evening news, the debate seemed to be about whether Bush's plan cut federal revenues too much, creating the possibility of future deficits. According to this framework, McCain's approach seemed prudent, and Bush's seemed risky. The fact that reporters themselves often echoed the same concern's about Bush's plan gave McCain an advantage in that debate," writes Richard Noyes, Director of MRC's Free Market Project.