Networks Use Bridge Tragedy to Build Support for Higher Taxes

     The tragic Minnesota bridge collapse on August 1 prompted the media to call for higher taxes and $1.6 trillion in spending – which would enlarge the very government that has failed to maintain U.S. infrastructure.


     “It’s estimated that updating all the nation’s infrastructure would cost, and this is a tough number to get your head around, $1.6 trillion,” said Nancy Cordes on the August 3 “Early Show.”


     But in fact only one-third of that “will be new funding,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which came up with the $1.6 trillion number.


     A call for higher taxes, rather than lower spending or new ownership, came from “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric on August 2.


     “Are taxpayers ready to spend the billions, maybe trillions, it would take to fix all the pipelines, tunnels and bridges?” asked Couric.


      The media were immediately ready to throw more tax dollars at the state and federal governments responsible for the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minn. But it is likely that if a private company had owned the bridge, the media would have reacted differently.

Failure … of Government?


     After the I-35W tragedy occurred, the media were quick to call for higher taxes to solve infrastructure problems, but glossed over the fact that the bridge collapse was a failure of government.


     Bridges and other parts of the nation’s infrastructure (dams, the power grid, etc.) – for the most part – are built, maintained and inspected by state and federal governments.


     According to media reports, about 70,000 other bridges in the U.S. fit the “structurally deficient” category under federal ratings. The I-35W bridge also had a sufficiency rating of 50 on a scale of zero to 100.


     But the federal ratings are confusing, because “that does not mean these bridges are unsafe,” said NBC’s Lisa Myers on the August 3 “Today” show.


     The New York Daily News reported that the Brooklyn Bridge was given the lowest possible rating of zero, yet it remains open.


     “Obviously the Brooklyn Bridge was not deemed to be unsafe, but there are issues we’re going to be addressing,” said a spokesman for NYC Department of Transportation in the Daily News.


     Still, the media quickly deflected blame away from the government by saying there wasn’t enough money in government coffers to solve the problem, or that political will to fix the nation’s infrastructure was lacking.


     “Congress only funds about 25 percent of the nation’s infrastructure. States and local governments pick up the rest of the tab, and they’re cash-starved, too,” said CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson on the “Evening News” August 3.


     “Today” show host Meredith Vieira agreed, “we don’t seem to have the funds or the wherewithal to repair our bridges,” on August 3. Vieira was interviewing Sam Schwartz, the former chief engineer for the NYC DOT.


     But some experts disagree, including Schwartz. “We need less money,” he replied to Vieira. “What do I mean by that is we need to spend the money wisely. We have to spend it on maintenance.”


     Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense also said on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” August 4 that the problem is not a lack of spending, it’s unwise spending.


     “We need to be putting our funding to the most important issues and the most challenging issues facing us, rather than essentially pork-barrel spending as usual,” said Ellis.


     The state of Minnesota, like every other state, collects gasoline taxes to help pay for roads and bridges. As of 2005, Minnesotans paid 40.4 cents in combined taxes on every gallon of gasoline, according to data from the Tax Foundation.


     “A little over $50 billion a year [is generated by gasoline taxes]. Congress also supplements this,” according to Pete Sepp, vice president for communications at the National Taxpayers Union. But not all of the money from gasoline taxes goes to pay for roads, he told the Business & Media Institute. Twenty-five percent “is mandated to go toward mass transit.”


     Minnesota also found money for plenty of other projects, according to Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley in “Left, Right & Center” on August 3.


     “But Minnesota in the year 2006 spent $12 million renovating a movie theatre downtown, a million on a replica of a Viking ship, $34 million subsidizing an ethanol producer, $30 million on a bear exhibit. All of those were higher priorities for Minnesota than repairing the bridge …” Blankley said.

Pro-Government, but Biased Against Businesses


     When disasters strike, the media have a history of placing blame on private companies at the earliest opportunity.


     After the Sago Mine tragedy in 2006, the media quickly scrutinized the company that owned the mine and blamed International Coal Group (ICG) for what had occurred.


     “[I]t appears its billionaire chairman was well aware of the mine’s extensive problems,” said ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas on the Jan. 6, 2006, “World News Tonight.”


     ABC investigative correspondent Brian Ross went after ICG’s CEO Wilbur Ross on the same program, asking questions like, “Were you comfortable sending men into that hole?” Investigations later determined lightning strikes were the cause of the disaster.


     Two networks reacted similarly to the most recent mine crisis.


     On August 6, as six miners remained trapped in a Utah coal mine, “Evening News” and “NBC Nightly News” both attacked Murray Energy Corporation and its safety record. This time, however, ABC had more complete information. Viewers had to turn to ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson” to find out that the mine has a “good safety record” and an accident rate half of the national average.


     But when the tragedy involved a government-run entity, the stories weren’t as pointed.


     While reporter Nancy Cordes stated during “CBS Morning News” August 3 that many bridges built during the Eisenhower era are rated “structurally deficient” “thanks to neglect,” she did not lay the blame where it belonged – squarely at the feet of state and federal governments.

Media Illogic: Raise Taxes, Problem Solved


     Ironically, the media solution to America’s infrastructure problems is to continue lining the pockets of the same government that failed to protect Minnesotans from an aging and structurally unsound bridge.


     The [Minneapolis–St. Paul] Star Tribune reported on August 3 that Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) was likely to call a special legislative session “almost certain to produce a gas tax increase.”


     Some would argue that a better solution would be to cut spending and/or privatize elements of infrastructure.


      Economist Thomas Sowell wrote a column on August 7 that explained why governments have little incentive to maintain infrastructure, but private companies would have many incentives to operate a bridge, road or other type of infrastructure.


“A company that has to get the money to build and maintain bridges or other infrastructure through the voluntary actions of people in the financial markets, instead of being able to extract money from the taxpayers, is going to find financiers a lot more finicky about what is being done with their money. People who are putting their own money on the line are going to want to have their own experts taking a look under the bridges they finance, to see where there are rust, cracks or crumbling supports,” wrote Sowell.


     Cato Institute senior fellow Alan Reynolds told BMI, “We should privatize as many roads and bridges as possible (as Indiana recently did), and electronic tolls make this increasingly feasible. With direct payment for road use, indirect payment (the gas tax) becomes less desirable.”


     But the media aren’t keen on selling U.S. roads and bridges to companies. BusinessWeek magazine tried to frighten readers of the May 7 issue about bridges and roads for sale.


     A subheading for the cover story read, “Why investors are clamoring to take over America’s roads, bridges, and airports – and why the public should be nervous.” BusinessWeek even used the negative word “privateers” to describe companies that would like to own or lease infrastructure.


     CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has also come out against privatization of infrastructure as unimaginable.


     “It’s incredible. The ideas that are being put forward to avoid public responsibility, the idea that a state government or an authority of any kind could sell infrastructure, highways, it just boggles the imagination,” said Dobbs on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” January 9.