When Bigger Isn't Better

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

No Conservative Experts

Network audiences got their best look at the Bush and McCain plans on the days that each was announced. On December 1, 1999, ABC's Dean Reynolds offered a straight summary: "Under the Bush plan, income tax rates would drop from 39 percent to 33 percent for the wealthiest Americans. Middle-income rates would go from more than 30 percent down to 25 percent. And low income earners would pay no more than 10 percent, instead of the current 15 percent, a focus on the working poor in line with Bush's repeated calls for compassionate conservativism....Bush would also phase out inheritance taxes and give greater help to families with children, to married couples and to the elderly on Social Security."5

ABC and CBS didn't quote any experts, instead airing sound bites from Forbes and McCain as counterpoints to Bush. Only NBC broadcast an on-camera interview with an expert, Robert McIntyre of the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice, who asserted that Bush's proposed cut would leave the government short of revenue.

"He'd either have to raid the Social Security trust fund, or he'd have to have gigantic cuts in everything else the government does," McIntyre charged.6

img1taxreportDespite the political importance and potential policy consequences of the various GOP tax plans, the liberal McIntyre was the only expert shown on camera during the entire six month period; no conservative experts were ever shown or cited. In two other stories, however, NBC reporters David Bloom and Jonathan Alter each paraphrased the views of unnamed "budget analysts" on whether Bush's tax cuts might trigger a return to deficit spending -- and each provided a different answer [see box].

By the time McCain offered his plan on January 11, the New Hampshire campaign was in full swing, and the networks generally offered fewer details of McCain's plan than they had with Bush's. All the networks offered a comparison of the total dollar value of each package -- Bush's was pegged at $483 billion over five years, while McCain's was billed at $237 billion over the same period, although when various corporate tax increases are taken into account, the McCain proposal provides a net tax reduction of only $86 billion.7

CBS's Bill Whitaker was the only correspondent to compare the effect each plan would have on individual taxpayers, demonstrating that Bush's proposal offered greater tax reductions to lower and middle-income families. "Under the McCain plan," Whitaker reported, "a family of four earning $35,000 would see their taxes cut by $1,200. Earning $75,000, they'd get a $1,700 tax cut. At $150,000 in earnings, McCain would slash their taxes by $4,500. Bush, by comparison, would cut $1,500 from the lower wage taxes, $2,100 from the middle income family and $4,300 from the higher wage bracket." All of these figures were displayed in an on-screen chart.8

When it came to the McCain plan, however, no experts were either shown on any evening news broadcast or paraphrased by network reporters. This meant news audiences wouldn't hear the views of conservative tax experts who argue that tax cuts are preferable to either debt reduction or reinforcing the existing Social Security system. But unlike with Bush, the only critics of McCain's approach who made it on TV were his rivals for the Republican nomination, not the sort of impartial sources who are likely to sway viewers.9