The media rightly donít like it when police engage in so-called
"racial profiling" ó randomly hassling people because they match
some pre-conceived stereotype. But thereís some evidence that when
it comes to presidential debates, the network truth cops engage in
their own version of profiling, combing through the claims of
conservative politicians while paying less notice to liberal
assertions that probably "sound right" to their ears.
After the vice presidential debate on October 5, Lisa Myers,
captain of NBCís "Truth Squad," gave Republican candidate Dick
Cheney a roughing up for his claim that "Fifty million American
taxpayers out there get no advantages at all out of the Gore tax
proposal, whereas under the Bush plan, everybody who pays taxes
will, in fact, get tax relief."
admitted that it was unclear how many American taxpayers (30
million? 50 million?) were shut out by the Gore plan, but said
"Cheney was wrong when he says Bush cuts taxes for everyone who pays
taxes. In fact, millions of low-income Americans who pay payroll
taxes, but don't earn enough to owe federal income taxes, get no
help from Bush."
Myers was technically right but, itís a minor point. Both Bush
and Gore have proposed adjustments to the federal income tax code:
Bush offering across-the-board rate reductions; Gore offering a
potpourri of credits for various classes of taxpayers. While Cheney
failed to specify that the focus of his comments was the income tax
(he should have said, "everybody who pays income taxes will, in
fact, get tax relief"), it is doubtful that many citizens were
Contrast that with a claim that Vice President Gore made during
the presidential debate that was held two days earlier. Moderator
Jim Lehrer told him that, "many experts, including Federal Reserve
Chairman Greenspan, Vice President Gore, say that it will be
impossible for either of you, essentially, to keep the system viable
on its own during the coming baby boomer retirement onslaught
without either reducing benefits or increasing taxes. Do you
"I do disagree," Gore responded, "because if we can keep our
prosperity going, if we can continue balancing the budget and paying
down the debt, then the strong economy keeps generating surpluses.
And hereís what I would do, hereís my plan: I will keep Social
Security in a lockbox, and that pays down the national debt and the
interest savings I would put right back into Social Security. That
extends the life of Social Security for 55 years."
Denying that the Social Security system requires reforms more
fundamental than shuffling interest payments into a "lockbox" if it
is to be viable half a century from now is far more important than
whether references to "taxes" means income taxes or all federal
taxes. Before the campaign started, network reporters themselves
knew reform was necessary. As correspondent Jerry Bowen explained on
the CBS Evening News on December 8, 1998: "Itís a problem of
fewer and fewer workers paying into the system as the countryís 76
million baby boomers move into retirement."
Additionally, claiming that surpluses could both be spent and
saved at the same time is even more egregious. "If you take the
Social Security surplus each year and use it to pay down the
national debt, youíre not exactly keeping Social Security funds in a
lockbox," explained Peter Ferrara, a Social Security expert at
George Mason University. No network reporter pounced on Goreís
comments following the first presidential debate, however.
All year, in fact, the Vice Presidentís Social Security proposals
havenít gotten much scrutiny from the media, partly because theyíve
been presented as offering the least change from the status quo. But
given the demographic shifts that are inevitable as the 21st century
rolls along, that may actually make it the more radical alternative.
As Ferrara wrote in an
October 6 essay for the Cato Institute, the Gore prescription
"would just transfer several trillion in general revenues into
Social Security to cover its financing gaps. This is effectively a
multitrillion-dollar income tax increase to bail out the program,
above what income taxes would otherwise be."
There arenít a lot of issues that can credibly claim to be more
important than the long-term future of Social Security, and the
networks have all taken their measure of George Bushís plan to let
workers use a portion of their payroll taxes to begin building
private savings accounts. But with the presidential election just
four weeks away, the networks have yet to provide a comparable
examination Al Goreís plans, and the campaign clock continues to
tick down the seconds until Election Day.