Sequester Scare: Two Thirds of News Stories Devoted to Hyping Budget Hysteria

“Deadline day. Hours, now, until massive government cuts go into effect that could impact every American. Jobs vaporizing. Flights delayed. Even criminals walking free.” That’s the call to panic with which ABC’s Josh Elliot greeted viewers on the March 1 Good Morning America. Elliot’s frenzied tone, on the day sequestration was going into effect, was typical of the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) network coverage of Washington’s most recent fiscal debate.

MRC analysts reviewed all of the 88 sequestration stories, from when coverage began on February 14 through March 1 when the “cuts” took effect, and found 58 (66 percent) of them advanced the most horrific Obama administration talking points. Another 10 offered the same scary forecasts but at least included the skeptical view that the sequestration reductions weren’t that big and their effects were being overhyped.

For over two weeks, since Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, the networks have filled their evening and morning news shows with “dire” predictions of kids going without vaccinations and meat shortages due to the “deep” and “massive” spending cuts. This despite the fact that the proposed “cuts” are  relatively small. As the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner wrote, “This year, the sequester would slow the growth in federal spending by just $85 billion, from an expected, pre-sequester budget of $3.64 trillion -- less than a 2.3% reduction. To put that in perspective, the federal government borrows $85 billion every 28 days.”

CBS ran the most sequestration stories (43) with a whopping 37 (86 percent) of them hyping the danger of reducing spending. Charlie Rose’s hair on fire promo, aired on the February 25 This Morning, was typical of CBS’s coverage: “Kids without vaccines; schools without teachers; and massive airport delays – we'll show you the worst-case scenario for government spending cuts.”

NBC ran a total of 27 stories, with 15 (56 percent) of them containing the kind of hyperbolic language delivered by Brian Williams on the February 19 Nightly News: “Deep impact....deep budget cuts poised to have a major impact on the military, law enforcement, even food inspection.”

ABC aired a total of 18 sequestration stories, 16 (89 percent) of which pushed budget panic. Most ABC stories took the tone of ABC’s David Kerley, who on the February 24 World News, claimed the reductions sounded like “a disaster movie” and warned: “Child care canceled for tens of thousands of kids. Long airport security lines. Flight delays with a shortage of controllers. And military cuts that will leave us 'second rate' according to the Defense Secretary.”


The view that the proposed spending reductions were not severe was rarely aired. NBC’s Peter Alexander, on the February 24 Nightly News, actually aired a soundbite from Republican Senator Tom Coburn who noted: “To not cut 2.5 percent of the total budget over a year, when its twice the size of less than 10 years ago. Give me a break.”

That bit of sane fiscal perspective was the exception to the rule, as the Big Three networks mostly advanced the Obama administration line of the day, as seen in Jon Karl’s February 27 report for ABC’s World News: “Each day, the White House's list of terrible things caused by the cuts grows longer, including flight delays, kids losing vaccines, and meat shortages. And now, the Department of Homeland Security says it has been forced to release hundreds of undocumented workers back into the United States. They had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The President traveled Tuesday to a giant military shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, to highlight how the cuts will hurt families and military readiness.”
Is it any wonder why Washington can’t get its fiscal house in order, when the liberal media describes even minor reductions in spending in apocalyptic terms?  

-- Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow Geoffrey Dickens on Twitter.