When Bigger Isn't Better

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

The "Big" Bush Tax Cut

Particularly with the Bush tax cut, reporters tried to characterize the scope of each plan in an effort to provide context for viewers. (However, no network story told viewers that federal tax receipts totaled more than $1.8 trillion during the 1999 fiscal year, a fact that would have gone a long way towards putting the proposed cuts into context.) Bush's plan, for instance, was identified as "$483 billion" four times and "$480 billion" once, while McCain's was twice described as "$237 billion." Oddly enough, on December 1 NBC's David Bloom said Bush had proposed "more than $1 trillion [in] tax cuts," while ABC's Dean Reynolds said the Texas governor had promised a "half a billion dollar tax cut." Reynolds obviously meant to say "half a trillion," while Bloom was apparently projecting the size of the cuts over a ten-year period.

Beyond the statistics, however, reporters used adjectives to define each plan. Bush's plan was called "major," "sweeping," "huge" (3 times) and "big" (6 times). McCain's was once termed "modest," but was usually described in terms relative to the Bush proposal: "half as big," "more modest," "only half," "half the size," "smaller," "half as large," and "tilts less toward the wealthy."

Reporters' use of these terms helped frame the overall debate as one between an outsized tax cut and one that was portrayed as prudent. Intentionally or not, the networks thus bolstered McCain's argument that "it's fiscally irresponsible to promise a huge tax cut that is based on a surplus that we may not have."10 With reporters echoing McCain's rhetoric about "a huge tax cut," it was difficult for Bush to convincingly argue that his proposal wasn't a budget buster.

Bush's task was made even more difficult by the fact that all three of the networks chose to quote Democratic criticisms of Bush's tax plan. On the day the plan was announced, ABC's Jack Ford quoted Al Gore, "It's astonishing that Governor Bush can't keep himself from using up the budget surplus,"11 a complaint that made its way onto all three networks in one form or another. In contrast, no Democrat was ever quoted on the evening news complaining about the McCain plan.12

Finally, Bush was hobbled by the notion that the benefits of his tax cut were disproportionately skewed in favor of the wealthy. CBS anchor Dan Rather frequently repeated that charge, using the same phrasing each time. On January 5, he said that "McCain's charge, among others, [is] that the big Bush tax-cut plan is, in fact, a giveaway to the rich." Six days later, Rather repeated the mantra: "John McCain, who criticizes George W. Bush's tax cut plan as a giveaway to the rich, has now weighed in with a tax cut agenda of his own." Then on January 19, Rather once again stated that "McCain has called the $483 billion Bush plan a giveaway to the rich that doesn't help protect Social Security." Neither Bush nor any surrogate was permitted to respond to the "giveaway to the rich" charge on the Evening News.

This aspect of the tax debate would have benefitted if journalists had interviewed free market economists. According to the Heritage Foundation's Dan Mitchell, the top 10 percent of taxpayers currently pay 62 percent of all income taxes, a fact which makes it virtually impossible to construct a meaningful tax relief package that doesn't benefit this group. Further, Mitchell notes that "when marginal rates are higher than 30 percent, the rich probably will pay more if rates are lowered, because the incentives to hide, shelter and underreport their income will be reduced."13 These facts, and the perspective they represent, however, were completely absent from the three evening news broadcasts coverage of the GOP tax debate.