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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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May 1996


Issue Analysis: Minimum Depth on Minimum Wage
Reporters Miss Important Angles of Debate Minimum

One of the key debates currently defining the differences between Republicans and Democrats is the argument over efforts to raise the minimum wage. Democrats argue that the government can legislate higher pay for those earning the minimum wage without harming anyone. Republicans, on the other hand, argue that by artificially raising wages, the government will cause employers to lay off workers.

On which side did the media weigh in? Media Research Center analysts reviewed all of the minimum wage stories on evening news shows (ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC) and morning news shows (ABC, CBS, NBC). There were 36 stories and anchor reads about the debate. With a few exceptions, the networks took the side of those supporting a minimum-wage increase. For example: Soundbite sources were almost twice as likely to be supporters of the minimum-wage increase than opponents. Out of 60 soundbite sources, 39 supported the minimum-wage increase, while only 21 were opposed to it. Several stories contained soundbites only from Democrats and their allies.

Bob Schieffer's April 25 CBS Evening News report, for instance, had soundbites from Democrats Maxine Waters, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and two minimum wage workers whom the Democrats had brought to Washington for a news conference. "Democrats will keep the pressure up," Schieffer said. "They believe that Republicans are taking such a pounding on this they'll eventually allow a vote." He didn't tell viewers what Republicans believed.

This emphasis on supporters of the minimum-wage hike led some reporters to accept the Democrats' opinion that the wage could be increased without harming workers. According to NBC's Lisa Myers, on the April 17 Nightly News, a minimum-wage increase would be "good news for about 10 million workers now earning near the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour, frozen since 1989." CNN's Kathleen Kennedy, on the April 24 The World Tonight, worried that "people earning the minimum wage may not get a raise anytime soon. Despite political pressure from both parties, House Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey have virtually ruled out scheduling a vote on the minimum-wage increase." The political horse-race aspect of the debate was emphasized far more than the economics of the debate. There were only three soundbites from economists; there were 46 soundbites from politicians. The networks were much more interested in who would win and lose politically from the debate than what the effect would be on the country. According to NBC's Tom Brokaw, on the April 17 Nightly News, it was likely that "the most basic wage in this country affecting millions of workers and businesses will go up. But, who gets the credit?"

This weighed heavily on the minds of other reporters, as well. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, on the April 24 Nightly News, predicted that "by digging in their heels, Republicans may also be digging themselves into a political hole." And ABC's Cokie Roberts, on the April 23 Good Morning America, said: "If the Republicans are stuck going along, then they want to get some credit." Journalists were more interested in interviewing other journalists than in interviewing economists. The obsession with political angles reached almost comic proportions at times. On the morning shows, where live interviews are common, there were five such interviews of journalists about the minimum wage, but none with economists.

ABC's Willow Bay interviewed ABC's Sam Donaldson on a Good Morning America Sunday segment. ABC's Charles Gibson interviewed ABC's Cokie Roberts and ABC's Tyler Mathison on a Good Morning America segment. NBC's Bryant Gumbel interviewed NBC's Tim Russert on a Today segment. And CBS's Harry Smith interviewed The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes. None of these shows were interested in the insights of economists, however.

There was more skepticism of Republican motives than Democratic motives. Three stories suggested that Republicans opposed raising the minimum wage because their business allies opposed it. ABC's Carole Simpson, on the April 28 World News Sunday, reported that Republicans "say [a minimum-wage hike] is bad for small business." According to Bob Schieffer, on the April 17 CBS Evening News, Republicans "know polls show most Americans favor an increase, but many of their business allies oppose it." Neither Simpson or Schieffer suggested that Republicans may oppose an increase because it would hurt workers.

No reporter made the analogous charge against Democrats, that they support the increase simply because their labor allies support it. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, on the April 25 Today, did at least state that there was a principle at stake for the GOP: "They can stand their ground on principle on this issue, but lose ground in public opinion." He did not explain what that principle was, though. The one study of the impact of minimum wage increases cited by reporters is one most economists disavow. The infamous Card-Krueger study, named after the two economists who directed it, was mentioned favorably in two stories. Card and Krueger looked at the impact of a minimum-wage increase in New Jersey, compared to neighboring Pennsylvania, which hadn't increased its state minimum wage. They found that there was no job loss in New Jersey due to the increase. Since this is one of the only studies to produce such a finding, it is often cited by advocates of increasing the minimum wage.

ABC's Tyler Mathison mentioned the study on the April 23 Good Morning America. NBC's Mike Jensen also mentioned it favorably on the April 26 Nightly News. Neither of them mentioned the well-publicized problems many economists found with the study's methodology. Jensen, in fact, used a soundbite from one of the study's chief critics, economist Richard Berman, but didn't mention his criticisms of the study. He even employed an Alan Krueger soundbite to refute Berman.

There were exceptions to the biased coverage. ABC's Bob Zelnick, on the April 24 Good Morning America, pointed out that "if labor costs rise too much, many employers might simply fire workers or cut back on new hires." And while journalists usually don't bother to interview small-business owners about how political policies will affect them, several did interview them about the minimum wage. NBC's Tom Brokaw devoted an entire Nightly News segment to the concerns of a small business owner "in his own words."

By far the best interview segment about the minimum wage was Anthony Mason's interview of Republican Senator Don Nickles and Democratic Congressman David Bonior for the April 22 CBS This Morning. Mason challenged both politicians, and in so doing brought up points no other reporter mentioned. For instance, he asked Bonior: "After the last increase in the minimum wage, Department of Labor statistics show we lost some half a million jobs, I believe. Is this going to cost us jobs? Are we making a mistake if we do this now?"

He also asked Bonior, "Congressman, in the first two years of President Clinton's term, when you controlled Congress, this issue was never brought up. Why is it on the table suddenly now, when we're running up to an election? You had an opportunity to do something and it wasn't done then." Mason was the only reporter to look at what happened after past federal minimum-wage hikes and to point out that the Democrats didn't increase the minimum wage when they controlled Congress.

But for the most part, coverage of the minimum wage was overwhelmingly devoted to superficial political calculations, and even then, biased against those who opposed an increase in the minimum wage.


Rich Noyes


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