When the White House
and Congress came to terms on a budget deal purporting to balance
the budget in five years, President Clinton said: "We changed the
course of the nation. This is profoundly important." Senate Majority
Leader Trent Lott agreed. "Because of what we do here today," the
Mississippi Republican announced, "this country can look forward to
an era of prosperity."
Network reporters took
their word for it and simply ignored long-term structural problems
with key entitlement programs, problems which will cause future
deficits to explode no matter what the ledger says in the year 2002.
In March, MediaNomics
reported that in 16 evening stories during February about federal
budget negotiations, none mentioned the long-term entitlement
problems that neither party wanted to address. In early May, when
the budget deal was announced, the trend continued.
On the May 1 CBS Evening
News, Dan Rather said negotiators were close to a deal on "a
possible legislative landmark." The next day, when the deal was
closed, Rather repeated himself, saying Congress and the White House
had "reached a landmark deal today."
On the May 3 CBS Evening
News, Paula Zahn announced that "the forecast looks good for the
breakthrough deal to balance the federal budget by the year 2002."
Wyatt Andrews then declared that "there were cheers in both
political camps as Washington celebrated the impossible a balanced
budget in five years with both tax cuts and increased spending and
assurances from both sides this was real."
The other networks were
equally breathless. NBC's Tom Brokaw, on the May 2 Nightly News,
heralded the agreement as "a breakthrough deal on the federal
budget. The best demonstration of bipartisan spirit since the Gulf
War in the capital."
At ABC, on the May 2 World
News Tonight, John Cochran called the budget deal "historic." Kevin
Newman, on the next evening's broadcast, said that "it looks like
plenty of bipartisan good will in Washington following yesterday's
historic balanced budget agreement." "A breakthrough budget deal"?
"A legislative landmark"? "An historic agreement"?
CNN's Frank Sesno was the
only television reporter to look beyond both parties' press
releases. "Oh, they didn't really balance the budget, mind you,"
Sesno pointed out on the May 7 World Today. "They just decided to
balance it, and they laid down a very rough road map of how to do
it. But there have been promises before." Sesno, alone among
television reporters, also told viewers about the entitlement issues
that both parties conveniently forgot.
"The economy and the budget
face a couple of ticking time bombs Medicare and Social Security,"
Sesno reported. "Both, left alone, will explode early in the next
century, and this new budget does not put the pin back in the
Sesno then outlined the
stark demographic facts: "The problem is simple; it's known as the
Baby Boom. For twenty years after the end of the Second World War,
Americans turned out babies faster than factories turned out cars
and toasters. In about 15 years, they'll start retiring, claiming
their Medicare and Social Security."
He explained that in 1960
it took five workers to support one retiree, but that by the year
2025 it will take two workers to support every retiree. He then ran
a soundbite from former Reagan Budget Director James Miller, who
argued that "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme of the sort that
people would get thrown in jail for if it were in the private
According to Sesno, "What
that means for the next century is this: Those big deficits could be
back again times two." But other reporters didn't look that far