MediaWatch: March 1993

Vol. Seven No. 3

More Badly Biased Budget Reporting

Despite the talk about the new media being in touch with the people, the old news media are still more in touch with the politicians. Harvard professor Timothy Cook has theorized that inside-the-beltway reporters often practice "top-down policymaking: instead of bringing public opinion to official Washington, the news disseminates the views of Washington across the country."

This is especially true in coverage of the federal budget. In 1990, MediaWatch analysts reviewed a month of evening news stories during the conclusion of the budget deal and discovered network reporters had failed to explore the most elementary topics. Reporters never explained that the projected fiscal 1991 budget was a full $100 billion more than the fiscal 1990 budget; never explained that many spending "cuts" were only cuts in projected increases; never explored the savings from cutting government waste; and never pointed out that the planned across-the-board Gramm-Rudman spending cuts, which the budget deal was designed to avoid, would have still left the budget $15 billion higher than the year before.

Two years later, the fiscal results of the 1990 budget deal are clear: Instead of reducing the deficit by $500 billion, the 1991-95 debt is projected to increase by $500 billion over 1990 figures.

To revisit network budget coverage, MediaWatch analysts reviewed every evening news story (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's World News, and the NBC Nightly News) on the Clinton budget from February 14 to 28. In total, 93 news stories were reviewed to determine:

How many times did reporters mention that the 1990 budget summiteers also claimed they would reduce the deficit by $500 billion? Zero. For a group that has been forcefully critical on the state of the economy, it's surprising that TV reporters aren't relaying the failure of the last major agreement pledged to cut the deficit. But maybe that's because the deal raised taxes.

To determine if this trend also held sway on the network morning shows, MediaWatch analysts reviewed every morning news story and interview on the budget (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) on February 17, 18 and 19. Out of 62 stories and interviews, only three references to the 1990 deal appeared, all on ABC. Charlie Gibson asked Vice President Gore: "A major foundation in Washington said it was four tax increases in the last ten years that were designed for deficit reduction -- in each year, the deficit has gone up. So why should people believe there'll be any change in the deficit this time?" Gibson asked the same question to Paul Tsongas, and Joan Lunden asked it to Clinton budget director Leon Panetta the next day.

How many times did reporters point out that many spending "cuts" were actually cuts in projected increases? Zero. Again, you would think reporters had been humbled by the last budget deal. For example, on September 30, 1990, ABC reporter Ann Compton declared: "Tonight, both sides say that unlike budget deals of the past, these cuts are real." But reporters continued to describe planned reductions in dramatically growing programs like Medicare as "cuts." On February 14, CBS reporter Wyatt Andrews suggested: "The Administration wants to cut $35 billion from Medicare costs." 

The networks were repeating print media mistakes. The Washington Post ran a story headlined "Proposed Medicare, Medicaid Cuts Total $62.6 Billion Over Five Years." But the story reported: "The measures announced today are intended to slow the projected annual increase in Medicare from 12.3 to 10.5 percent and in Medicaid from 14.2 percent to 13.8 percent."

How many times did reporters point out the discrepancy between the $493 billion in deficit reduction promised in White House briefing materials and the $325 billion in reduction promised the next day? Three. CNN anchor Patrick Greenlaw simply labeled it "confusion," and CBS and NBC simply broadcast the new number without comment. Only ABC harped on the point. On World News Tonight January 18, reporter Brit Hume showed Leon Panetta citing "$500 billion in deficit reduction," and declared: "According to the official Clinton budget document, though, that's misleading," since $168 billion in spending hikes were not included.

ABC was also the only network to mention the discrepancy in the morning. Reporter Ann Compton referred to it in one report. In an interview with Panetta, Joan Lunden asked if the President was aware of the discrepancy when the White House released budget documents citing the $500 billion figure before the President's speech. Panetta responded: "He was very aware." Although all four networks were quick to critique the "misleading" ads of the Bush campaign, misleading budget documents weren't news to some networks.

According to Cato Institute budget analyst Stephen Moore, the 1991-95 deficit "will be $1.3 trillion higher than it would have been if Congress had summoned the will to meet the Gramm-Rudman target and had never held a budget summit." Until the networks marshal the real numbers about spending "cuts" and review the record of past "deficit reduction," viewers will have to find other sources to learn how Washington really works. For now, the networks are as absorbed in the Capital's convenient budget illusions as the politicians themselves.