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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Friday, July 28, 2000

Volume 8, Number 15

Mediaís Routine Election Year Spin Against Tax Cuts Re-Surfaces

On July 18, the Congressional Budget Office announced that the big, fat federal budget surplus would become bigger and fatter over the next decade ó bigger even than the $1.9 trillion predicted by the White House Office of Management and Budget just last month. The CBO now projects an accumulated $2.17 trillion in budget surpluses (read: excess tax payments) over the next ten years.

Meanwhile, three different tax cutting measures advanced through the Congress in July: one to phase in an elimination of estate taxes; another to ensure that couples arenít penalized by the tax code when they marry; and a third measure to increase allowable tax-deductible IRA contributions. All three measures garnered network news coverage, but while correspondents frequently claimed that tax cut proponents were motivated by a desire for political advantage, only one story even hinted that tax cut opponents also harbor a political agenda.

From July 14 to July 21, the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC evening newscasts ran a total of 14 stories on congressional tax cut proposals ó four anchor-read "briefs" plus ten full-length reports. Eight stories (57%) portrayed the tax bills as an election-year effort by Republicans to squander the surplus in order to boost their partyís popularity, while only one story (on CBS) cast doubt on the "fiscal responsibility" stance adopted by President Clinton and other tax cut foes.

On July 14, the Senate voted 59-39 to end the estate tax. CNNís The World Today offered typical coverage, as correspondent Bob Franken relayed the floor debate to viewers by showing politiciansí dueling soundbites: "The good news is that Congress has repealed the death tax," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX). "The bad news is the President says heís going to veto it. But the good news is Bill Clinton is not going to be President next year."

Countering Gramm, CNNís report also featured Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) asking supporters of the measure, "Have you done anything for our school children? Have you done anything for our parents? Have you done anything about prescription drugs? Have you done anything to make our health care system safer? Have you done anything to make our schools safer? The answer to all of those are no, we have not."

Had it ended there, Frankenís report would have been essentially balanced. Instead, the CNN reporter chose to add a political analysis that undermined both tax cut advocates and their argument that the proposal was good public policy: "Republicans feel they have political winners in these tax packages. The votes come just two weeks before the GOP convention." Franken then quoted the American Enterprise Instituteís Norman Ornstein, who observed cynically, "If Bill Clinton vetoes the bills that they pass, what could be better?"

"So, even if the legislation is doomed, the Republicans have a campaign issue," Franken summarized for viewers, ending his story without ever hinting that those Democrats who resist tax cuts are seeking an advantage for their own party.

Frankenís spin was echoed on the other networks. "Nine Democrats voted with Republicans to repeal the [estate] tax," ABCís Linda Douglass reported the same evening for World News Tonight. "One reason: the GOP has gotten better at selling its tax cuts to the public, using catchy phrases like Ďdeath tax,í" ó a zinger that neatly undercut arguments that the estate tax should be repealed for public policy reasons. (See MediaNomics, June 16, 2000.) Of course, Douglas failed to similarly reveal the political tactics of the pro-estate tax forces.

Three nights later, on July 17, as the Senate debated ending the marriage penalty, NBC Nightly Newsís Lisa Myers called it "an election-year tax cut for 21 million married couples." After interviewing a working couple who pay the IRS an additional $1,200 each year because theyíre married, Myers added that "since this is an election, thereís also a tax cut for couples who do not pay the marriage penalty because only one spouse works." In fact, the provision Myers was referring to was designed to ensure equal treatment of working mothers and those that choose to stay at home to raise a family.

After letting senators from both parties make their points, Myers asserted (again) that tax cut advocates were motivated by politics. "Even though the president has promised to veto this bill, Republicans think cutting taxes for millions of couples is a winning campaign issue," she told viewers, adding that "polls show increasing support for a tax cut, especially among independent voters who may tip the balance in November."

CBSís Bill Plante, on the July 18 edition of the Evening News, was the sole correspondent to hint that tax cut opponents had a political agenda, too. After repeating claims that tax-cutters harbored a political strategy ("the promised presidential veto will come just in time to be chewed over at the Republican convention two weeks from now"), Plante got Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to admit that "well, it is a political season."

"Well, yes," Plante added in closing. "If there were any doubt about that, the President, despite the fact that he trashed the bill that was passed today [ending the marriage penalty], offered to sign it ó if the Republicans will give him prescription drug coverage under Medicare."

Not as hard-hitting as it could have been; Plante would have been correct if heíd observed that while the President ostensibly opposed the tax cut as too expensive, he promised to sign the same bill if Congress would only make it even more expensive. But letís give credit where itís due: Plante was the only correspondent to indicate that both sides might have been pursuing a political agenda.

Plante, however, failed to stick with his balanced approach. On July 19, the House voted to increase the limits on tax-deductible IRA contributions, which hadnít been changed since 1981. (See MediaNomics, April 7, 2000.) Standing in front of the White House, Plante reported that night there is "a concern here bordering on panic that the Republican spending of the surplus is hitting a chord with the voters." (Just for the record, tax cuts arenít "spending.")

"For years," Plante wrapped up, "it was the Republicans who preached fiscal responsibility. Now the Democrats are finding it just as hard to sell." Thatís an odd conclusion, since Planteís own story noted (correctly) that nearly all House Democrats voted in favor of the supposedly irresponsible IRA measure.

The real problem is that network reporters have for years portrayed tax cuts as a cynical form of electioneering, while tax cut opponents are often painted as "fiscally responsible" even if theyíre longtime promoters of more government spending. Such spin tilts news stories to the left even when both sides are given equal time to state their case.

In 1999, congressional tax-cutters packaged several of the same proposals that passed this year ó including the end of the marriage penalty and the repeal of the estate tax ó into a single piece of legislation that President Clinton eventually vetoed. Introducing a CBS Evening News story on last yearís congressional action, Dan Rather told viewers that "an election-year tax-cut battle kicked into higher gear today."

When the issue is tax cuts, the networks seem to think that every year is an election year.

ó Rich Noyes


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