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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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March 1996


Easy on Government Pollution
Reporters Don't Challenge Politicians on Anti-Green Subsidies

When the media report on the environment, which will no doubt be a big issue in the upcoming presidential campaign, they almost always employ the same formula. Private industry is portrayed as the cause of all environmental problems; government is portrayed as the protector of the public. This formula ignores one big cause of environ- mental problems -- federal agriculture subsidies, which not only hurt taxpayers and consumers, but also finance environmental destruction.

Example: recent coverage of the Clinton Administration's proposal to try to restore parts of the Florida Everglades. Most reporters accepted at face value the Clinton plan, which would increase the tax on sugar by a penny per pound to pay for a $1.5 billion program that includes the federal government buying and restoring land in the Everglades.

According to CBS This Morning's Jane Robelot, on February 20, "The Clinton Administration has announced ambitious plans to save the Everglades from further ecological destruction by raising the tax on sugar." Correspondent Art Rascon continued: "It's the largest infusion of federal dollars ever proposed for the Everglades, making it one of the biggest ecological restoration projects ever."

Newsweek's Miami correspondent Peter Katel, in the March 4 issue, added that "Clinton's plan is the high-water mark of reform. Senator Majority Leader Bob Dole and Florida's two senators have a more modest plan to spend $200 million of taxpayer funds -- not sugar money -- to buy some of the sugarcane land for water-restoration projects." Mike Clary of the Los Angeles Times wrote on February 20 that "the administration's seven-year plan to save one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States is as ambitious and comprehensive as any environmental project of recent years, environmentalists say."

And according to ABC's Barry Serafin, on the February 19 World News Tonight, "Administration officials say the [sugar] industry, which enjoys generous price supports must pay its fair share, a view shared by many in South Florida, who are determined to bring back the state's fabled river of grass."

Although none of these reporters were wrong, and a few even pointed out the huge federal subsidy sugar gets from high tariffs, none asked why the government shouldn't simply stop subsidizing sugar. The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Jonathan Tolman told MediaNomics that if the government simply "brought down the tariff wall on sugar, it would discourage overfarming of sugar near the Everglades and make land there less expensive, which would make Gore's program to buy the land less expensive." In addition, no reporter brought up another point Tolman makes: "The Clinton tax increase on sugar will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices."

Only Eric Schmitt of the New York Times, in a February 29 article about price supports, made the connection between the government subsidies and environmental damage. Schmitt pointed out that "under the sugar program...the government sets price supports that maintain domestic sugar prices at twice those on the world market and, according to the General Accounting Office, cost consumers $1.4 billion a year. Strict quotas on cheaper foreign sugar maintain the support price levels, which critics say benefit a small number of wealthy plantation owners and encourage overproduction in environmentally sensitive areas like the Florida Everglades."

But Schmitt was the exception among national reporters. Most reporters chose to challenge neither Clinton nor Republicans on why they maintain a subsidy that hurts consumers, taxpayers, and the environment.


Rich Noyes


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