MediaWatch: May 1991

Vol. Five No. 5

Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Brady's Bunk

The media's Reagan-haters like to characterize the former President's method of argument as one part anecdote, one part misleading factoids. But that better describes the CBS News method of economic reporting. For again distorting the Reagan record with misleading anecdotes and flimsy statistics on the April 23 CBS Evening News, Ray Brady earns the May Janet Cooke Award.

For his "Eye on America" report, Brady traveled to Waterloo, Iowa to find an example of hard times: "For Carol and John Bernard, peace comes only at Sunday services. The rest of the week they and their six children, like thousands of other working Americans, try to survive on incomes that have been dropping since the 1970s." Times may be rough for the Bernard family, but Brady's implication -- that incomes have been dropping every year since the 1970s -- is demonstrably false. In fact, Census Bureau statistics show that since 1982, median family income has increased every year except one, and median household income has increased every year without exception.

Brady then charged: "Nationwide, the number of working people under the poverty level is up 28 percent since 1978." But what didn't Brady tell viewers? Chris Frenze, a staff economist with the Joint Economic Committee, told MediaWatch that according to Census Bureau data the percentage of people under the poverty line with year-round full-time jobs in 1989 was six percent. Nor did Brady explain that the population has increased 16 percent since 1978.

Brady claimed wages have declined nationwide: "Across America, employers, hit by competition, falling profits, and hard times, have been cutting wages to the point where most Americans are worse off now than they were in the early 1970s. In fact, if you adjust for inflation, since that time their paychecks have fallen by 17 percent." Brady's claim roughly matches Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures, but the BLS numbers exclude certain earners, including self-employed and supervisory employees. Data from the Social Seurity Administration, (which includes the workers BLS excludes), show an increase in average wages in the '80s. This flies in the face of Brady's emotionally overwrought conclusion: "For many working families, the pain is knowing all hope for a better life is shrinking as fast as the American paycheck."

During a Nightwatch interview a few hours later Brady claimed benefits are declining: "Around the country, more and more companies that are saying to those who are still working: 'You've got to pay twenty percent of your benefits. We're not picking up the whole tab. You've got to pay forty percent of your benefits. And in many cases, you see companies that are simply not paying benefits at all anymore."

Many companies may be requiring their employees to pay a higher share of their benefits, but according to the BLS Employment Cost Index, employers have increased their spending on benefits for the last ten years in a row.

Nightwatch host Deborah Potter asked Brady: "What are the nationwide trends in terms of the availability of good-paying jobs? Are they just gone? Have they left America?" Brady responded: "Well, yes, a lot of them have left America, Deborah." But as columnist Warren Brookes recently pointed out, "Labor Department data showed that over 40 percent of the new jobs created from 1983 forward were in its highest skill category... while less than 11 percent were in so-called service jobs."

In the midst of all this bad news, Brady did find someone celebrating: "Well I hate to use the term, Deborah, but the upper one percent in this country are making out like bandits because their incomes have shot up enormously. Perhaps even the upper two or three percent, because you've had all these LBOs and these takeovers and a booming stock market, and that has enabled the very, very upper economic class to really make fortunes during the 1980s."

Brady shares the assumptions of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which concluded that the income of the top one percent grew 87.3 percent from 1980-1990. But economist Chris Frenze told MediaWatch that CBO income data skews the actual income of the rich by refusing to index capital gains income for inflation. Additionally, CBO excludes net capital losses over $3,000, thus overstating gains and understating losses.

Last month, Face the Nation Executive Producer Marianna Spicer-Brooks cared enough about viewer reaction to spend more than a half-hour talking to MediaWatch about her show's use of statistics. But Brady refused to discuss his story or the source of his figures. "I'm very sorry, I don't have time, I'm on a deadline. Sorry." When asked if there would be a better time to talk, Brady responded by hanging up. "News" stories like Brady's are perfect examples of what's wrong with television news: too much drama and not enough evidence. By using anecdotes to misrepresent the national economic picture, CBS is all style and no substance.