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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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June 1996


Press: Fiscal Conservatives?
Editor's Note, by Timothy Lamer

"There is a liberal bias [in the media]; it's demonstrable." "The old argument that the networks and other `media elites' have a liberal bias is so blatantly true that it's hardly worth discussing anymore." Are these quotes from Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey? Or maybe Rush Limbaugh and William Bennett? No, the above quotes are from two members of the "media elite" -- Newsweek Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas and CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, some journalists are beginning to admit there's a liberal bias in the national media. But many of them ludicrously maintain that the bias only extends to social and cultural issues, not to economic issues, and that most reporters are in fact economic conservatives. James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly makes this claim in his recent book Breaking the News. He argues that "the supposed liberalism of the elite press is more limited than many people believe. On economic issues -- taxes, welfare, deficit control, trade policy, attitudes toward labor unions -- elite reporters' views have become far more conservative over the last generation, as their incomes have gone up."

The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne agrees. During a May 29 Brookings Institution panel discussion, he said that "the press mostly has the biases of the educated, some would say over-educated, upper middle class." This, Dionne argued, means there is a liberal bias in coverage of social issues, but "the issues we're most conservative on are in fact economic issues, just like much of the upper middle class that looks at its tax bill."

Fallows and Dionne are highly- regarded beltway journalists, and properly so. But on this issue they are terribly mistaken. Their argument lacks one element: proof. Numerous studies conducted by the Media Research Center demonstrate that most economic reporting in the non-business media is solidly liberal. For example:

Tax cuts. Reporters used to be less biased in tax coverage than they have been recently. It was the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 that ended any semblence of balance on tax issues. When tax cuts were being discussed in December of 1994, all 12 economists interviewed by the networks were against cutting taxes. The message: no matter what politicians say, tax cuts are bad economics. Then this year, when Steve Forbes' flat tax became a hot issue, reporters were more than twice as likely to mention arguments against it than for it. Fifty-one arguments against the flat tax were presented during January on the networks and in national news magazines. Only 24 arguments in favor were presented. Fallows and Dionne must know that "Reaganomics" has become a cuss word among reporters.

Federal regulations and mandates. Like most liberals, reporters seem to think businesses have money trees in their stockrooms. It rarely occurs to them that companies may have to increase prices, lay off workers, or reduce salaries and benefits in order to comply with regulations and mandates. A recent example is the debate over increasing the minimum wage. During the first four months of 1996, there were 60 sources interviewed for soundbites by the networks. Almost twice as many supported the increase (39) than opposed it (21).

Some reporters simply accepted the Democrats' logic at face value. According to NBC's Lisa Myers, the increase would be "good news for about 10 million workers" who earn near the minimum wage. CNN's Kathleen Kennedy worried that if the two parties couldn't agree, "people earning the minimum wage may not get a raise anytime soon."

Federal spending and the budget. Reporters seem to favor budget discipline when the issue is cutting taxes. But when spending programs are threatened, anecdotes abound outlining who will allegedly be harmed by fiscal restraint. During the first hundred days of this Congress, 34 network stories asserted that a balanced budget achieved by spending restraint would harm the poor. Only four stories focused on the benefits of a more limited government. And during the two government shutdowns last year, reporters repeatedly intoned about the "critical cuts" (Dan Rather) and "major cutbacks" (Tom Brokaw) in the GOP budget, without mentioning that Republicans planned to spend $267 billion more in 2002 than in 1996. According to CBS's Bob Mc-Namara, the shutdowns were "a hard lesson on what happens when big government goes away."

Part of the Fallows-Dionne misunderstanding may be in defining economic conservatism. For some reporters the definition is broad enough to include the architect of the Clinton health plan. CNN's Jeff Levine, on the August 30, 1993 Inside Politics, described (I'm not making this up) "the Ira Magaziner people" as "free marketeers."

If someone who proposed the biggest increase in government power since the New Deal is a "free marketeer," then who isn't? But if the definition includes, at the very least, some skepticism about government's ability to solve society's problems, few in the "media elite" qualify.


Rich Noyes


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