When Bigger Isn't Better

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

Conclusion: Voters Deserve More Information

Exit pollsters asked New Hampshire voters which they thought was the higher priority, tax cuts or Social Security. According to CNN's exit polls, those who participated in the Republican primary were exactly split, as 46 percent chose each option. Of those who believed that Social Security was more important, McCain won in a landslide: 62 percent, vs. 24 percent for Bush and 8 percent for Forbes.21 That's hardly surprising, however, since McCain was the only GOP candidate who himself said that preserving Social Security was more important to him than tax cuts.

Those who placed a premium on tax cuts voted for Bush, though barely. Less than four in ten (38%) chose the Texas governor, compared with 36 percent who chose McCain and 18 percent who chose Forbes.22 The fact that this group preferred McCain over Forbes by a two-to-one margin is surprising, since McCain had downplayed the importance of tax cuts while Forbes had made it the centerpiece of his New Hampshire campaign.

But those results are more understandable after one reviews the networks' portrayal of the GOP tax debate. Forbes's tax plan was barely mentioned on the evening news, while McCain's was given virtually equal billing with Bush's. So despite the fact that, because of his advertising and local media coverage, Forbes's plan was well known to New Hampshire voters, primary voters were well aware of the fact that the national media did not regard Forbes as a viable contender for the GOP nomination. It is safe to conclude that national media portrayals of a two-man GOP race are at least partly responsible for the fact that many pro-tax cut voters apparently shied away from supporting the candidate with the most ambitious tax-cutting proposal.

Similarly, at the same time that McCain's plan was presented as "more modest" than Bush's, the networks failed to interview any experts who disagreed with the notion that substantial tax cuts were incompatible with preserving Social Security, even after CBO vastly increased its estimates of the size of the future federal budget surpluses. Instead, network reporters focused on the daily tracking polls and fleeting controversies that have become the staple of network campaign news.

For years, the networks have been criticized for ignoring policy issues while stressing the strategy and tactics of each campaign. In this case, it's clear that that long-standing bias kept reporters from asking the questions and seeking out the experts who would have been able to contribute vital information and context at the time when Republican voters were weighing the various candidates and their tax proposals.

Whether those voters would have made different choices if they had been better informed is, of course, unknown. But that doesn't mitigate the networks' obligation to provide them with as much information as possible, so that voters can make the final decisions.



Stories were identified using the Media Research Center's News Tracking System (NTS), a comprehensive data base of network news programs categorized by story topic. The results of the NTS search were compared with a Lexis-Nexis search of ABC, CBS and NBC news transcripts, using keywords "Bush," "McCain," "Forbes," "Keyes," "Bauer," "Hatch," and "tax" to ensure that no stories were omitted from the sample. Duplicate stories were discarded. 
CBS Evening News, November 15, 1999. 
CBS Evening News, December 1, 1999. 
ABC's World News Tonight, December 1, 1999. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, December 1, 1999. 
"21st Century Family Security Plan," Sen. John McCain, January 11, 2000. 
CBS Evening News, January 11, 2000. 
Experts and other sources who are presented by reporters as both knowledgeable and non-partisan have great effect at changing viewers' opinions on public policy issues, while politicians and other partisans are frequently discounted. See "What Moves Public Opinion," Benjamin I. Page, Robert Y. Shapiro and Glenn R. Dempsey, in the American Political Science Review 81, No. 1, March 1987. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, January 16, 2000. 
Quoted on ABC's World News Tonight, December 1, 1999. 
However, at least one prominent Democrat has voiced some support for McCain's plan. "He's got it about right," President Bill Clinton told an interviewer from BusinessWeek. "He and Gore can argue about the details." See "New Hampshire, According to Bill," by Lee Walczak, in BusinessWeek, February 14, 2000. 
"Taxes: Reforming the System to Make It Simple and Fair," by Daniel J. Mitchell, published by the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. 
"A Tax Cut With a Purpose," speech by George W. Bush to the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, December 1, 1999. 
"21st Century Family Security Plan," Sen. John McCain, January 11, 2000. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, January 4, 2000. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, January 8, 2000. 
"Surplus Projections Balloon; Possible $1 Trillion Extra Widens Tax, Spending Choices," by Eric Pianin and John F. Harris, in the Washington Post, January 26, 2000. 
"The Case For A $Trillion+ Tax Cut," by Lawrence A. Hunter, published by the Institute for Policy Innovation. 
"Skipping the Obvious With Tax Cut Ideas," by Bruce Bartlett, in the Washington Times, December 8, 1999. 
CNN Exit Poll of New Hampshire Republican Primary Voters, February 1, 2000.