When Bigger Isn't Better

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

Forbes Excluded From Light Coverage

imgtaxreportDespite broadcasting hundreds of stories about the Republican nomination contest during the six-month study period, the networks aired only eleven field reports and five anchor-read briefs that focused on the GOP tax debate, most of which were broadcast in January. An additional 20 stories that were not primarily about taxes, but which mentioned one or more of the candidates' records or positions on taxes, were also included in the study.1

Bush's plan, unveiled in Iowa on December 1, 1999, was mentioned the most frequently, in 25 of the 36 stories. McCain's plan was less frequently mentioned (17 stories), mainly because he didn't formally present it until just three weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Each of those candidates drew stories on all three newscasts on the day that they unveiled their proposals.

In contrast, Steve Forbes's flat tax proposal, a carbon copy of which was mentioned in 96 evening news stories during the 1996 primaries, garnered just two passing references this time. During a November 15, 1999 profile, CBS's Bill Whitaker said that "though he has plans for tax cuts and school choice, there's still that nagging perception that this heir of the Forbes magazine multimillions is on the world's most expensive ego trip."2 The rest of Whitaker's story focused on the daunting challenge Forbes faced in the current campaign.

Then, when Bush unveiled his tax cut proposal on December 1, CBS's Bob Schieffer defended it against Democratic attack with this backhanded swat at Forbes: "Although Democrats denounced the plan as irresponsible, Bush's plan follows fairly mainstream Republican thinking and avoids the more exotic flat-tax plans advocated by Forbes and some of the other Republican candidates."3

For the rest of campaign, the networks made no specific mention of Forbes's tax plan, which would have established a flat 17 percent rate for all individual taxpayers and closed most loopholes. Instead, Forbes entered the tax debate only when he criticized one of the frontrunners, either in debates or in his TV advertising. His second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses made news on all three broadcasts, but his tax plan -- like most of his platform -- remained hidden from viewers.

Forbes's flat tax proposal was essentially a carbon copy of the one that made such a splash four years ago, but reporters yawned this time. Why? During the last campaign, Forbes also didn't receive much attention from the networks until he began rising in New Hampshire public opinion polls in January 1996. At the time, ABC anchor Peter Jennings told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that the media were focused on Forbes "in order to make it an interesting race." Speaking for most of his brethren, Jennings added, "I don't think people really regard Forbes as an absolutely serious possibility to get the nomination."4

This time, the same candidate approached voters with the same plan, but the networks tuned him out because, in their judgment, he failed to offer the prospect of "an interesting race." In dismissing Forbes as a candidate, the networks were also excluding the most conservative tax reduction plan from the news agenda as well. Instead, viewers were presented with a Republican race that had been essentially reduced to just two contestants and two tax plans.