Flashback to 1995/96: Networks Mourn Victims of Shutdown, Single Out Republicans for Blame

“After the President vetoed several spending bills, not one story blamed him for the shutdown, but nearly two dozen declared the GOP culpable. Furloughed workers and other ‘victims’ were featured in half the stories.” Sound familiar? That’s from a 1996 Media Research Center study on the battle between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. Yes, the current shutdown showdown is deja vu all over again in who gets blamed.

To help illustrate the very familiar media tone and approach, I’ve put three clips together out of the MRC archive, starting with Bob Schieffer anchoring the Saturday, December 16, 1995 CBS Evening News: “Well, they’ve done it again. Nine days from Christmas, Republicans have forced another partial shutdown of the government because they cannot come to an agreement with the White House on how to balance the budget.”

The scound clip in the video is from another familar voice who is still around, CBS’s Scott Pelley on January 2, 1996 comparing Republicans to terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

Finally, in the third clip, then-ABC reporter Jack Smith took to World News Tonight to relay the plight of two government workers who couldn’t afford....well, watch to find out what those mean Republicans denied them. (Thanks to the MRC’s Geoff Dickens for finding the latter two videos.)

Audio: MP3 clip

From the January 1996 edition of MediaWatch, a monthly newsletter published by the Media Research Center in the pre-blog era, a study we conducted of the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC evening newscasts from December 14, 1995 to January 5, 1996:

As a second partial government shutdown descended on Washington, network coverage once again favored President Clinton’s arguments over those of House Republicans. Last month, MediaWatch examined coverage during the November 13-20 shutdown and found not a single story noted how much more than the GOP Clinton wanted to spend. No story questioned his rhetoric about “destroying” Medicare even though the GOP plan called for hikes. Reporters conveyed the Democratic spin about the disastrous impact upon federal workers and the public.

As a new budget impasse began in mid-December, MediaWatch analysts reviewed all 131 budget-related stories on evening newscasts (ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN’s World News) from the evening before the shutdown (December 14) through the day it ended (January 5).

After President Clinton vetoed several spending bills, not one story blamed Clinton for the shutdown, but nearly two dozen declared the GOP culpable. Furloughed workers and other “victims” were featured in half the stories while no story explored the “Washington Monument” strategy or the financial boost offered by a balanced budget.

Blame. To fund the government, Congress passes appropriation bills which the President must then sign. Clinton vetoed spending bills on December 18 and 19 that would have kept open six cabinet departments. But on the question of who caused the shutdown, reporters exclusively pointed a finger at the Republicans. In the 48 stories in which reporters allocated blame, 23 assigned blame to the Republicans, but not one held Clinton culpable (25 blamed both).

On December 16, when the government’s temporary spending authority ran out, Bob Schieffer led off the CBS Evening News like a disappointed father: “Well, they’ve done it again. Nine days from Christmas, Republicans have forced another partial shutdown of the government because they cannot come to an agreement with the White House on how to balance the budget.” The next night, ABC’s Jerry King also blamed the GOP. “There’s no indication from House Republicans, whose budget-cutting zeal started all of this, that they are ready, Christmas season or not, to end it.”

During the negotiations that followed the vetoes, reporters repeatedly blamed Republicans for not compromising. On December 23 CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pined for an earlier time: “In the old days, the two sides would simply have split the differences, but House Republicans say they are proud to be revolutionaries...From the White House perspective there’s still one very big wild card: the most militant House Republicans say they’re in no mood to compromise. The question remains whether Speaker Gingrich can reign them in, or wants to.”

Even as Clinton delayed agreement by breaking his promises to release a seven-year balanced budget, the networks still blamed the GOP. ABC’s Peter Jennings intoned on January 4, “We begin in Washington tonight, where the Republicans and the Clinton administration may be inching their way towards a partial resolution of the government shutdown. President Clinton and the Republican leaders in Congress have been meeting almost daily this week, but today the Republicans apparently felt the need to reassess their position, which has kept a quarter of a million government employees off the job.”

Spending. None of the 131 stories compared the higher levels of spending both sides proposed. Only two mentioned the levels of spending in the President’s plan or the Republican plan, one coming not in a news story, but in a CBS commentary by Joe Klein.

Federal Workers. Only 280,000 workers were placed on furlough, just 15 percent of the work force. Still, the media focused on the issue in nearly half the stories (62), while only three reports focused on overburdened taxpayers. ABC’s John Martin examined those angry at the de facto paid vacation on December 18: “This time government workers have an added worry -- Congress has been hearing from people who do not want to pay furloughed workers as they were paid after last month’s shutdown.”

“Victims.” Sixty-seven of 131 stories mentioned a victim of the shutdown. Thirty stories called attention to families being turned away from National Parks or Smithsonian Museums. On December 22, CBS looked at how the stalemate canceled a re-creation of an Olde English Christmas banquet. John Blackstone reported: “For thousands of people, a Christmas dream is a traditional Christmas in Yosemite National Park. But the budget stalemate has closed the park gates and Yosemite’s old fashioned Christmas is slipping away....The valley has somehow been drained of a seasonal joy it’s known for almost 70 years.” Although not by a reporter, in this story both sides were blamed as one of the participants wrote a poem about the cancellation in which she referred to Newt Gingrich as “slimebucket” and Clinton as “sleaze.”

“Washington Monument.” Not one report brought up the “Washington Monument” game being played when high profile services, like national parks and passport offices are closed in order to maximize inconvenience. No report questioned why these services were stopped even though, as The Wall Street Journal found, one-third of the federal workers at the Interior Department and two-thirds of State Department employees were considered essential and thus were on the job.

Upside to the Shutdown. If you relied exclusively on the evening news, you would never have thought there was an upside to the shutdown. Only twice did a report call attention to a positive effect of the shutdown. Both were on CNN and dealt with the airline ticket tax expiring at the end of 1995. Anchor Linden Soles announced on January 1, “Washington’s budget battle has reaped a windfall for air travelers,” saving these travelers $12 million a day. But NBC anchor Brian Williams saw just the opposite the same day: “We have this footnote to the mess here in Washington tonight, because of it a tax on domestic airline tickets expired at midnight so while the budget negotiators are arguing about the best way to save money, the government is actually losing money.”

Similarly, never mentioned were the benefits of a balanced budget. The Washington Post reported January 4 that experts estimated a balanced budget would give $1,000 annually to families through lower interest rates.

For years, the media have complained about politicians ducking the tough issues; debating slogans, not substance. Finally, a substantive policy dispute presents itself. Unfortunately, the media aren’t able to overcome their biases and look beyond the very bumper sticker politics they formerly decried.

— Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and Vice President for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center. Follow Brent Baker on Twitter.