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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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March 1997


Issue Analysis: Entitlements and Budget Coverage
Forgetting the Scary Fiscal Future

Republicans and Democrats in Washington have decided to focus on the year 2002 to balance the budget. Many economists say this is shortsighted. They point out that regardless of whether Congress and the President succeed in balancing the budget by then, structural problems in entitlement programs remain that will cause the deficit to re-emerge shortly after 2002 and cause severe economic problems for Americans.

Nonetheless, network reporters have chosen to focus on the year 2002 with the politicians and ignore the fiscal tidal wave to hit shortly thereafter.

MediaNomics analysts reviewed every story on ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, CNN's World Today, and the NBC Nightly News during February about President Clinton's proposed 1998 federal budget. There were 16 such stories. Not one mentioned the long-term entitlement problems left unaddressed by President Clinton's budget.

All of them, instead, concentrated entirely on the year 2002.

Wyatt Andrews, on the February 9 CBS Evening News, said the President's blueprint is "a budget plan that promises lower federal taxes, cuts in spending, and a balanced budget in five years, and that's the proposal from the President, a Democrat." According to Andrews, "There is a document on the table now that balances the budget in five years, which is what both sides say they want. Show me the money, Washington style, is about to begin in earnest."

NBC's Tom Brokaw, on the February 6 Nightly News, reported that "according to the President's calculations, it would be a balanced budget by the year 2000, and there would even be a surplus by 2002."

"CNN's Carl Rochelle has some numbers you'll be interested in," promised CNN's Linden Soles on the February 5 World Today. Would these be numbers explaining the explosive growth of entitlements in the next decade? No. "President Clinton will propose an ambitious $1.7 trillion budget that the White House believes will not only balance the budget over the next five fiscal years," Rochelle declared, "but will result in a $17 billion surplus by the year 2002."

The matter of honor was brought up by ABC's Peter Jennings, on the February 2 World News Tonight, who said the President had "called on Republicans to reach an honorable compromise with him and balance the federal budget in the next five years." Correspondent John Donvan reported that "in fact, the President's plan would balance the budget, but not until the year 2002, if his calculations are correct."

ABC's Robert Krulwich then reported on proposed cuts in discretionary spending: "The dirty little secret here is they don't have to decide which programs to cut this year. They can do that next year or the year after."

But is that Washington's only dirty little budgetary secret? Not according to economists. "Without entitlement reform," says Patrick Fleenor of the Tax Foundation, "the deficit will rapidly rise to levels that could threaten the economic well-being of Americans during the early part of the next century."

Fleenor points out that the baby boom generation will begin retiring late in the next decade and become eligible for Social Security and Medicare. "Even under the most optimistic assumptions," Fleenor observes, "if the federal government attempted to meet these demands it would have to raise taxes to unprecedented levels or go deeply into debt. In either case the economy would likely falter and the economic well-being of Americans could be forever jeopardized."

President Clinton's budget doesn't deal with this impending crisis, Fleenor argues, but reporters aren't interested in any budget problem beyond the year 2002.


Rich Noyes


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