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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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May 1997


Only CNN's Sesno Looks Beyond Press Releases About Budget Deal
Ignoring Entitlements, Again

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 grenade."

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 sector."

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 ahead.


Rich Noyes


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