Networks Help Obama Bridge Gap on Earmarks

     When Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin claimed she defeated the infamous Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark, the Democratic nominees and network, cable and print journalists rushed to “fact check” her statement.

     Journalists across the media spectrum carried Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s argument portraying Palin as an exaggerator at best, a liar at worst. Reports often failed to fully explain Palin’s handling of the “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark and mostly ignored budget watchdogs that still defended her record of reform. Obama’s nearly $1 billion in earmark requests, as well as Sen. Joe Biden’s $323 million were not mentioned by network reporters either.

     The assault stemmed from Palin’s remarks in her acceptance speech and on the campaign trail since September 3 about earmarks and specifically the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

     USA Today said on September 10 that her claim about the bridge was “barely half true.” A Washington Post front-page headline hit harder: “As Campaign Heats Up, Untruths Can Become Facts Before They’re Undone.” CBS “Evening News” ran three separate “Reality Checks” criticizing her statements.

     Obama’s shots against Palin on the campaign trail also resonated with media eager to discredit her. Obama’s sound bite on the issue made its way into four network stories in four days and seven CNN reports in six days. Recent stories aired by ABC’s “Nightline,” “World News with Charles Gibson,” and “Good Morning America” all repeated Obama’s criticism of Palin without rebuttal from her or the McCain campaign.

     “When you’ve been taking all these earmarks when it’s convenient and then suddenly you’re the champion anti-earmark person that’s not change. Come on! Words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up,” Obama said.

     Obama attacked Palin’s “self-styled record of reform,” according to ABC’s Jake Tapper, who quoted a portion of those remarks in a “Nightline” story without including a rebuttal from the McCain campaign.


     Reporters didn’t include groups that have praised Palin’s reforms, including Citizens Against Government Waste and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). AFP has said unequivocally that she did kill the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

     The national media focused on minutiae: berating Palin for claiming to have killed the “Bridge to Nowhere” – instead of laying out her record of support for earmark transparency, fewer earmark requests and charge to Alaska to grow up economically.

     Journalists could have taken the opportunity to dissect the earmarks and wasteful spending of both sides, but instead mostly ignored Obama and Sen. Joe Biden’s millions in earmarks for their respective home states.

There Once Was a Bridge


     Instead of honestly looking at the earmark records of Sens. McCain, Obama, Biden and Gov. Palin, the media latched onto just her record – specifically, her previous support for the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

     The notorious bridge, which would have linked Ketchikan, Alaska to Gravina Island (where there is an airport), was earmarked by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in the 2005 federal highway bill. CBS referred to it as “one of the worst earmarks ever” on Sept. 15, 2008. An earmark is a designation written into a spending bill that, if passed, requires those funds to be use only for that project. Earmark critics argue that the system is corrupt and encourages bad behavior.

     It was this well known earmarked bridge Palin spoke of on September 3. That was when Palin said she “told Congress, ‘thanks but no thanks on that ‘Bridge to Nowhere’.’” Democrats and the media seized the opportunity to paint Palin as a “flip-flopper” instead of a reformer.

     The Washington Post article headlined: “As Campaign Heats Up, Untruths Can Become Facts Before They’re Undone,” written by Jonathan Weisman, said that Palin’s repeated mentions of the bridge were “one example of a candidate staying on message even when that message has been publicly discredited.”

     But Ed Frank, vice president of public affairs for Americans for Prosperity, disagreed. In a “Memo to National Media” Frank said, “Publicly discredited? The simple, undeniable fact is Sarah Palin killed the Bridge to Nowhere, no matter how much Jonathan Weisman and the rest of the national media wish it weren’t so or how hard they try to ‘undo’ it.”

     On the networks, CBS “Evening News” attacked Palin the most with five separate reports – one even before Palin talked about earmarks in her acceptance speech. Three of those stories were called “reality checks.”

     The September 2 “reality check” rebutted Palin saying “Congress killed off that earmark well before Governor Palin formally abandoned it.” On September 15, CBS’s Nancy Cordes referred back and said the network had “debunked” Palin’s claim. Wyatt Andrews’ September 2 report also mentioned Palin’s earmark requests as governor, $197 million in 2009 fiscal year, and as mayor, $11.9 million.

     But Andrews’ CBS report, like many others, left things out including the earmarks of other candidates and groups that back Palin’s claim about the bridge.

     Citizens Against Government Waste “celebrated” on Sept. 24, 2007 after Palin announced the money would be used for other projects.

     AFP was another organization defending Palin that wasn’t included in network, CNN or the major newspaper stories about earmarks in September.

     Phil Kerpen, AFP’s director of policy, wrote on the AFP Web site September 11, “Palin stood up to [Sen. Ted] Stevens and pulled the plug on the bridge on September 21, 2007.”

     Anchorage Daily News backs up Kerpen’s claim. The newspaper reported on Sept. 21, 2007 that Alaska had “officially abandoned” the project. Palin was quoted in that story saying the bridge was $329 million short of complete funding and “It’s clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island.”

     According to Kerpen, “[T]he facts are plain. When it mattered, Gov. Palin stood up to Sen. Stevens and dealt the Bridge to Nowhere its death blow.” But Kerpen also called attention to something the national news media was ignoring: Obama and Biden’s support for the bridge to nowhere.

     “Let the record show that Barack Obama himself voted for the bridge at least twice, as did his running mate Joe Biden,” Kerpen said.

What about the Other Candidates?

     All the candidates should have been scrutinized when earmarks took center stage on the campaign trail, but that wasn’t what happened.

     Out of 37 network stories that mentioned earmarks and Obama, not one focused on the senator’s use of earmarks and only one included Palin’s criticism of his “nearly $1 billion” in earmarks. Similarly, the 10 stories that mentioned Democratic vice presidential nominee Biden and earmarks had no criticism of his record.

     But the Democratic ticket has requested millions of dollars worth of earmarks. Between 2006 and 2008, Obama requested over $740 million, according to the March 14 New York Times. The Wall Street Journal cited a higher estimate on September 15 of $860 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

     The Times reported that the list of requests “included $1 million for a hospital where Mr. Obama’s wife works, money for several projects linked to campaign donors and support for more than 200 towns, civic institutions and universities in Illinois.”

      Obama’s campaign Web site detailed the requests, which also included $62 million for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, $8 million for Human Genome Expression, $4.8 million for a Light Emitting Diode Healing Program and $2 million for a Soybean Disease Biotechnology Center.

     According to the Journal, Obama “halted all earmark requests in fiscal 2009.”

     As for the Democratic nominee for vice president, Biden’s made 119 earmark requests for 2009 totaling $323 million. Republicans are pressuring Biden to release records of his earmark requests for the past 35 years.

     As Time magazine’s Mark Halperin said on ABC “World News” September 9, “There’s almost no politician in America with a clean record on earmarks.” Halperin then credited McCain for being one of the few exceptions.

     ABC’s Ron Claiborne responded, saying. “In his 26 years, in Congress, McCain has never asked for an earmark.”