It’s frequently said that the media are obsessed with the "horse
race" aspects of presidential campaigns — the polls, strategies,
tactics and assorted hoopla — and give short shrift to substantive
policy issues. It’s been the mantra of media critics during each
election for more than 30 years.
take a closer look at what that means in the case of just one
important issue, taxes, and it’s clear that the media’s favored
approach threatens to rob elections of their meaning. Given that the
candidates’ proposals on other crucial issues — including education,
the environment, foreign policy and anti-drug efforts — have gotten
even less coverage this election-year than taxes, many voters will
go to the polls having been shortchanged by the networks.
In the past several weeks, Al Gore has pulled even with George W.
Bush in presidential preference polls. One consequence of this is
that network reporters have begun dissecting the Republican’s
campaign for strategic and tactical flaws, and the mostly liberal
correspondents have been telling their audiences that Bush’s tax
cuts have failed as a campaign issue. But a review of evening news
coverage over the past several weeks discovered that audiences have
been told almost nothing about either Bush’s or Gore’s tax programs,
other than the political analysis that Bush’s plan "hasn’t caught
fire," as CBS’s Bill Whitaker termed it on the August 30 Evening
That’s one likely reason that many voters don’t yet seem to have
a clear sense of Bush’s tax proposal. Some
key data came out just last week — the Vanishing Voter project,
run by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and
Public Policy, has conducted weekly surveys since November to gauge
the public’s information and involvement in this year’s campaign.
Even after both party conventions, the Shorenstein poll conducted
August 23-27 found only 43% could correctly state whether Bush
favors or opposes a large cut in personal income taxes.
TV coverage has been miserly: Since July 24, one week before the
Republican Convention, through Labor Day (September 4), the ABC, CBS
and NBC evening broadcasts only mentioned one or the other tax plan
in 21 stories. Only seven of those stories (about one per week)
offered more than 30 seconds of discussion; the other reports
contained only brief throwaway lines that offered no real
information to viewers. A
Special Report published by the Free Market Project last March
found similarly superficial coverage of the GOP candidates’ tax
plans, even though tax cuts were the biggest single policy issue
debated during the presidential primaries.
Just as they did during the primaries, our analysts found network
reporters were once again frequently tagging Bush’s proposal with
labels such as "big," "huge" or "massive" — labels that reinforce
Gore’s message that the Republican nominee’s program is somehow
"risky." But no reporter called it a "$483 billion" cut, the
preferred term during the primaries. Instead, by projecting the
total over a lengthier time period, correspondents referred to the
"$1.3 trillion tax cut." CBS’s Whitaker on August 24 actually called
it a "massive $1.6 trillion tax cut," but resumed calling it a "$1.3
trillion tax cut" in his August 30 report.
In contrast, Gore’s fiscal plans only once assigned a descriptive
adjective ("smaller," a contrast to Bush’s cut). The Vice
President’s proposals were also given a dollar value only once, by
NBC's Claire Shipman on August 18, who assured viewers that "Gore
does intend to fully flesh out the $1.4 trillion worth of tax cuts
and new policy proposals that he outlined" in his convention speech.
(Last week, when Gore finally did "flesh out" his plans, the price
tag was revealed to be more than $2 trillion, according to a study
by the National Taxpayers Union. In her September 6 report on the
Gore program, which aired too late to be included in the overall
analysis, Claire Shipman didn’t give viewers the updated figures.)
During the GOP primaries, only one network story used a sound
bite from a tax expert — a December 1, 1999 Nightly News
story that quoted activist Robert McIntyre of the liberal Citizens
for Tax Justice. But in the latest phase of the campaign, none of
the 21 network news stories quoted any economists or tax experts.
The only sources were the two candidates, a handful of voters, and
political experts. Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, for example,
asserted on the August 24 Nightly News that "the reality is
there’s no broad audience for the kinds of large-scale tax cuts that
George W. Bush is proposing."
A New Hampshire voter, Adam Fishman, told CBS that he was an
independent voter who voted for McCain during the primary. "The
adult thing to do," Fishman lectured on August 30, "is to accept
that we spent other people’s money for 15 years and now you pay it
back. You know, [Bush’s tax cut proposal] didn’t wash with me back
in February, and it still doesn’t wash with me."
If you’re one of the few Americans who’s managing a presidential
campaign this year, you’re definitely interested in what voters like
Fishman and political experts like Garin have to say about the
electorate’s state of mind. But if you’re one of the millions of
voter trying to make up their own minds on the issue’s merits, the
networks weren’t supplying tax policy experts to provide informed
comment on whether either plan is smart policy.
Experts aren’t tough to find — CNBC's chief economist
Larry Kudlow offered useful context in a September 1 column. He
explained that taxes are now taking a disproportionately large bite
out of the income gains that have been produced during the booming
1990s. "While income has jumped $504 billion," Kudlow wrote, "tax
payments have risen $138 billion. So 27 percent of the income gain
has been absorbed by taxes."
Kudlow also put a different spin on plans to pay off the national
debt: "Instead of transferring these taxpayer surpluses to wealthy
bond-holders and foreign governments through debt redemption and
bond repurchases, the Administration would be better advised to
return the tax over-payments to working folks through
across-the-board marginal tax-rate relief," he wrote.
column that appeared in the Washington Times on August
30, the National Center for Policy Analysis’s Bruce Bartlett noted
that "interestingly, Mr. Gore has not offered any indication he
believes there will be any economic stimulus whatsoever from the
$2.3 trillion of new government spending he proposed. Presumably,
this means his massive increase in spending, which would completely
wipe out the non-Social Security surplus, will have no impact on
growth, inflation or interest rates."
"The fact the Gore campaign has not extolled the growth-enhancing
impact of its spending plans implies it believes there are none,"
Bartlett continued. "Thus, the Gore campaign has unwittingly
confirmed the view of supply-side economists, who have argued for 25
years that the correct economic model is exactly the opposite of
what most economists believe. In the supply-side model, tax cuts are
stimulative to growth, whereas spending increases are not. Now,
apparently, Mr. Gore agrees."
Bartlett and Kudlow both make interesting points that should have
been included in the networks’ coverage of the tax issue — assuming,
that is, that the goal is to be comprehensive. Their analyses also
would seem to provide the basis for interesting questions for the
candidates themselves, again presuming that reporters are interested
in informing audiences about the substance of the campaign, instead
of just the horse race.
When it came to the politics surrounding each candidate’s tax
plans, correspondents were unanimous: Bush was "scrambling" (NBC,
8/24) and "rattled" (ABC, 8/23), while "Gore’s fact-laden campaign
has taken some wind out of Bush's sails," according to CBS’s
Whitaker on August 24.
Even while their own coverage passed along very few details,
reporters hinted that the Vice President really had a sophisticated
program. "Buoyed by poll numbers that show him recapturing his lead
on key issues, the Vice President has found virtue in being a policy
wonk," CBS’s John Roberts said on August 21.
Meanwhile, reporters portrayed the Republican candidate as
defensive. "The Bush campaign has had to go to extraordinary lengths
this week to rebut charges by the Gore campaign that their $1.3
trillion tax cut would squander the nation’s surplus," argued ABC’s
Dean Reynolds on August 23. "Many say Gore’s attacks on Bush’s tax
plan have left the Texas governor appearing off-balance and
off-message," concurred NBC’s David Gregory the following evening.
But has Bush really been losing to Gore on the tax cut debate?
The Shorenstein poll suggests that most voters aren’t voting based
on taxes — or any other specific policy matter. The obvious
explanation for the apparent gaps in the public’s knowledge is that
the broadcast networks — the main source of news for tens of
millions of voters — still haven’t gotten past the sound-bite stage
of their skimpy coverage of the candidates’ platforms. Although
that’s a pretty damning indictment of TV journalism, there’s plenty
of time before Election Day for the networks to get substantive.