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
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
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