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 Special Report

When Bigger Isn't Better

ABC, CBS and NBC's Coverage of the GOP Tax-Cut Debate

by Richard Noyes, Director MRC's Free Market Project
March 6, 2000


For most voters, the campaign debate isn't what the candidates say on the trail; it's what passes through the media filter and actually reaches the nation's living rooms. It's journalists' agenda-setting role -- the media are often less effective at telling us what to think than they are at telling us what to think about. Even staunch Republican voters who are fully aware of the national media's liberal leanings can be affected, as their perception of the issues and candidates are involuntarily influenced by the media's biased presentation of the campaign.

A prime example of the media elite's agenda-setting power was the Republican candidates' debate over tax cuts prior to the New Hampshire primary. After nearly eight years of Clintonomics, it was widely assumed that GOP primary voters would reward candidates who favored significant tax cuts, even if Democratic voters had other priorities. Yet New Hampshirites instead rewarded the one candidate, John McCain, who consistently argued that tax cuts were a lower priority than debt reduction and ensuring the continued solvency of the Social Security system.

How influential were the media in leading New Hampshire Republicans to this decision? To find out, the Free Market Project reviewed the three broadcast evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News) from August 1, 1999 through January 31, 2000, the six months leading up to the New Hampshire primary. We found that ABC, CBS and NBC:

  • out of 58 talking heads, provided just one "expert" Robert McIntyre, head of the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice, who condemned George Bush's across-the-board tax cut plan;
  • largely ignored Steve Forbes's ambitious flat tax proposal, instead presenting a closed debate between Bush's and McCain's tax cut plans;
  • repeatedly labeled Bush's proposed tax cut as "big" or "huge," and conveyed criticisms from Democratic candidates that his plan was "irresponsible";
  • never questioned McCain's assertion that a smaller tax cut was essential to protecting and preserving the Social Security system.

Given the coverage, it was hardly surprising that Forbes was the choice of relatively few of those voters who said tax cuts were a high priority (even though he offered the largest tax cut proposal), and that nearly half of the GOP electorate thought Social Security was a higher priority than tax cuts, a group that disproportionately chose McCain, according to CNN exit polls conducted the day of the primary.

Forbes Excluded From Light Coverage

Despite broadcasting hundreds of stories about the Republican nomination contest during the six-month study period, the networks aired only eleven field reports and five anchor-read briefs that focused on the GOP tax debate, most of which were broadcast in January. An additional 20 stories that were not primarily about taxes, but which mentioned one or more of the candidates' records or positions on taxes, were also included in the study.1

Bush's plan, unveiled in Iowa on December 1, 1999, was mentioned the most frequently, in 25 of the 36 stories. McCain's plan was less frequently mentioned (17 stories), mainly because he didn't formally present it until just three weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Each of those candidates drew stories on all three newscasts on the day that they unveiled their proposals.

In contrast, Steve Forbes's flat tax proposal, a carbon copy of which was mentioned in 96 evening news stories during the 1996 primaries, garnered just two passing references this time. During a November 15, 1999 profile, CBS's Bill Whitaker said that "though he has plans for tax cuts and school choice, there's still that nagging perception that this heir of the Forbes magazine multimillions is on the world's most expensive ego trip."2 The rest of Whitaker's story focused on the daunting challenge Forbes faced in the current campaign.

Then, when Bush unveiled his tax cut proposal on December 1, CBS's Bob Schieffer defended it against Democratic attack with this backhanded swat at Forbes: "Although Democrats denounced the plan as irresponsible, Bush's plan follows fairly mainstream Republican thinking and avoids the more exotic flat-tax plans advocated by Forbes and some of the other Republican candidates."3

For the rest of campaign, the networks made no specific mention of Forbes's tax plan, which would have established a flat 17 percent rate for all individual taxpayers and closed most loopholes. Instead, Forbes entered the tax debate only when he criticized one of the frontrunners, either in debates or in his TV advertising. His second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses made news on all three broadcasts, but his tax plan -- like most of his platform -- remained hidden from viewers.

Forbes's flat tax proposal was essentially a carbon copy of the one that made such a splash four years ago, but reporters yawned this time. Why? During the last campaign, Forbes also didn't receive much attention from the networks until he began rising in New Hampshire public opinion polls in January 1996. At the time, ABC anchor Peter Jennings told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that the media were focused on Forbes "in order to make it an interesting race." Speaking for most of his brethren, Jennings added, "I don't think people really regard Forbes as an absolutely serious possibility to get the nomination."4

This time, the same candidate approached voters with the same plan, but the networks tuned him out because, in their judgment, he failed to offer the prospect of "an interesting race." In dismissing Forbes as a candidate, the networks were also excluding the most conservative tax reduction plan from the news agenda as well. Instead, viewers were presented with a Republican race that had been essentially reduced to just two contestants and two tax plans.

No Conservative Experts

Network audiences got their best look at the Bush and McCain plans on the days that each was announced. On December 1, 1999, ABC's Dean Reynolds offered a straight summary: "Under the Bush plan, income tax rates would drop from 39 percent to 33 percent for the wealthiest Americans. Middle-income rates would go from more than 30 percent down to 25 percent. And low income earners would pay no more than 10 percent, instead of the current 15 percent, a focus on the working poor in line with Bush's repeated calls for compassionate conservativism....Bush would also phase out inheritance taxes and give greater help to families with children, to married couples and to the elderly on Social Security."5

ABC and CBS didn't quote any experts, instead airing sound bites from Forbes and McCain as counterpoints to Bush. Only NBC broadcast an on-camera interview with an expert, Robert McIntyre of the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice, who asserted that Bush's proposed cut would leave the government short of revenue.

"He'd either have to raid the Social Security trust fund, or he'd have to have gigantic cuts in everything else the government does," McIntyre charged.6

Despite the political importance and potential policy consequences of the various GOP tax plans, the liberal McIntyre was the only expert shown on camera during the entire six month period; no conservative experts were ever shown or cited. In two other stories, however, NBC reporters David Bloom and Jonathan Alter each paraphrased the views of unnamed "budget analysts" on whether Bush's tax cuts might trigger a return to deficit spending -- and each provided a different answer [see box].

By the time McCain offered his plan on January 11, the New Hampshire campaign was in full swing, and the networks generally offered fewer details of McCain's plan than they had with Bush's. All the networks offered a comparison of the total dollar value of each package -- Bush's was pegged at $483 billion over five years, while McCain's was billed at $237 billion over the same period, although when various corporate tax increases are taken into account, the McCain proposal provides a net tax reduction of only $86 billion.7

CBS's Bill Whitaker was the only correspondent to compare the effect each plan would have on individual taxpayers, demonstrating that Bush's proposal offered greater tax reductions to lower and middle-income families. "Under the McCain plan," Whitaker reported, "a family of four earning $35,000 would see their taxes cut by $1,200. Earning $75,000, they'd get a $1,700 tax cut. At $150,000 in earnings, McCain would slash their taxes by $4,500. Bush, by comparison, would cut $1,500 from the lower wage taxes, $2,100 from the middle income family and $4,300 from the higher wage bracket." All of these figures were displayed in an on-screen chart.8

When it came to the McCain plan, however, no experts were either shown on any evening news broadcast or paraphrased by network reporters. This meant news audiences wouldn't hear the views of conservative tax experts who argue that tax cuts are preferable to either debt reduction or reinforcing the existing Social Security system. But unlike with Bush, the only critics of McCain's approach who made it on TV were his rivals for the Republican nomination, not the sort of impartial sources who are likely to sway viewers.9

The "Big" Bush Tax Cut

Particularly with the Bush tax cut, reporters tried to characterize the scope of each plan in an effort to provide context for viewers. (However, no network story told viewers that federal tax receipts totaled more than $1.8 trillion during the 1999 fiscal year, a fact that would have gone a long way towards putting the proposed cuts into context.) Bush's plan, for instance, was identified as "$483 billion" four times and "$480 billion" once, while McCain's was twice described as "$237 billion." Oddly enough, on December 1 NBC's David Bloom said Bush had proposed "more than $1 trillion [in] tax cuts," while ABC's Dean Reynolds said the Texas governor had promised a "half a billion dollar tax cut." Reynolds obviously meant to say "half a trillion," while Bloom was apparently projecting the size of the cuts over a ten-year period.

Beyond the statistics, however, reporters used adjectives to define each plan. Bush's plan was called "major," "sweeping," "huge" (3 times) and "big" (6 times). McCain's was once termed "modest," but was usually described in terms relative to the Bush proposal: "half as big," "more modest," "only half," "half the size," "smaller," "half as large," and "tilts less toward the wealthy."

Reporters' use of these terms helped frame the overall debate as one between an outsized tax cut and one that was portrayed as prudent. Intentionally or not, the networks thus bolstered McCain's argument that "it's fiscally irresponsible to promise a huge tax cut that is based on a surplus that we may not have."10 With reporters echoing McCain's rhetoric about "a huge tax cut," it was difficult for Bush to convincingly argue that his proposal wasn't a budget buster.

Bush's task was made even more difficult by the fact that all three of the networks chose to quote Democratic criticisms of Bush's tax plan. On the day the plan was announced, ABC's Jack Ford quoted Al Gore, "It's astonishing that Governor Bush can't keep himself from using up the budget surplus,"11 a complaint that made its way onto all three networks in one form or another. In contrast, no Democrat was ever quoted on the evening news complaining about the McCain plan.12

Finally, Bush was hobbled by the notion that the benefits of his tax cut were disproportionately skewed in favor of the wealthy. CBS anchor Dan Rather frequently repeated that charge, using the same phrasing each time. On January 5, he said that "McCain's charge, among others, [is] that the big Bush tax-cut plan is, in fact, a giveaway to the rich." Six days later, Rather repeated the mantra: "John McCain, who criticizes George W. Bush's tax cut plan as a giveaway to the rich, has now weighed in with a tax cut agenda of his own." Then on January 19, Rather once again stated that "McCain has called the $483 billion Bush plan a giveaway to the rich that doesn't help protect Social Security." Neither Bush nor any surrogate was permitted to respond to the "giveaway to the rich" charge on the Evening News.

This aspect of the tax debate would have benefitted if journalists had interviewed free market economists. According to the Heritage Foundation's Dan Mitchell, the top 10 percent of taxpayers currently pay 62 percent of all income taxes, a fact which makes it virtually impossible to construct a meaningful tax relief package that doesn't benefit this group. Further, Mitchell notes that "when marginal rates are higher than 30 percent, the rich probably will pay more if rates are lowered, because the incentives to hide, shelter and underreport their income will be reduced."13 These facts, and the perspective they represent, however, were completely absent from the three evening news broadcasts coverage of the GOP tax debate.

Saving Social Security First

Bush's main arguments on behalf of his tax cut plan were that Americans were paying a historically high proportion of their earnings in taxes, that high marginal rates made it more difficult for the working poor to join the middle class, and that tax cuts would stimulate more entrepreneurship and job creation. Thus, the key provisions of his plan: lower marginal rates for all taxpayers, doubling the child credit to $1,000 and elimination of the federal inheritance tax.14

McCain's plan called for 62 percent of the non-Social Security surplus to be shifted to Social Security, a decision he said would preserve the solvency of the system for an additional 11 years; a net tax cut of $86 billion over five years, or 23 percent of the surplus; $118 billion diverted to Medicare, to extend that program's solvency until 2018; and $59 billion in debt reduction over the next ten years.15 "The reality is that Governor Bush wants to take all of the surplus and use it for tax cuts," McCain said on January 4. "I want the surplus put into Social Security."16

For his part, Bush refused to accept McCain's arithmetic: "There's enough money to take care of Social Security. There's enough money to meet the basic needs of our government. And there is enough money to give the American people a substantial tax cut, and that's exactly what I'm going to do," he said on January 7.17

As it was shown on the evening news, the debate seemed to be about whether Bush's plan cut federal revenues too much, creating the possibility of future deficits. According to this framework, McCain's approach seemed prudent, and Bush's seemed risky. The fact that reporters themselves often echoed the same concern's about Bush's plan gave McCain an advantage in that debate.

For example, no network correspondent asked whether McCain was being overly pessimistic in his estimations, even after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) dramatically revised its estimation of future surpluses. On January 25, just one week before the primary, CBO analysts predicted that the federal government would receive an additional $1 trillion over the next ten years, essentially doubling the amount of money available for either tax cuts or increased government spending.18

Nor did any network reporter acknowledge that the revised CBO forecast meant that Bush's assertion that there was enough money for both "a substantial tax cut" and to "take care of Social Security" had been bolstered, and that McCain's insistence that Bush-sized tax cuts would jeopardize Social Security had been undermined.

Empower America's Chief Economist, Lawrence Hunter, notes that the CBO has been forced to increase its revenue projections for each of the last several years. "CBO's projections are usually biased against tax cuts," Hunter argues, "in part, because the economic model from which they derive is biased against economic growth above 2.3 percent a year."19 Since federal revenues grow as the economy grows, and since the economy grows as tax rates are cut, this would indicate that a tax cut even larger than that advocated by Bush would be both feasible and desirable.

Economist Bruce Bartlett, a fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, made this point soon after Bush unveiled his tax package in December. "Lowballing growth may be justified when making spending projections, but it is very inappropriate when making revenue estimates," Bartlett wrote in the Washington Times. "Assuming no change in growth from a tax cut or tax increase makes it appear the government will lose more revenue than it actually will from the former and raise more from the latter. This creates a bias against tax cuts and in favor of tax increases."20

None of these conservative arguments made it onto the networks as the Republican candidates debated tax policy in New Hampshire. Thus, McCain's assertion that Bush's tax cuts were a threat to the future of Social Security went essentially unchallenged on the evening news, and voters went to the polls without hearing the whole story from network reporters.

Conclusion: Voters Deserve More Information

Exit pollsters asked New Hampshire voters which they thought was the higher priority, tax cuts or Social Security. According to CNN's exit polls, those who participated in the Republican primary were exactly split, as 46 percent chose each option. Of those who believed that Social Security was more important, McCain won in a landslide: 62 percent, vs. 24 percent for Bush and 8 percent for Forbes.21 That's hardly surprising, however, since McCain was the only GOP candidate who himself said that preserving Social Security was more important to him than tax cuts.

Those who placed a premium on tax cuts voted for Bush, though barely. Less than four in ten (38%) chose the Texas governor, compared with 36 percent who chose McCain and 18 percent who chose Forbes.22 The fact that this group preferred McCain over Forbes by a two-to-one margin is surprising, since McCain had downplayed the importance of tax cuts while Forbes had made it the centerpiece of his New Hampshire campaign.

But those results are more understandable after one reviews the networks' portrayal of the GOP tax debate. Forbes's tax plan was barely mentioned on the evening news, while McCain's was given virtually equal billing with Bush's. So despite the fact that, because of his advertising and local media coverage, Forbes's plan was well known to New Hampshire voters, primary voters were well aware of the fact that the national media did not regard Forbes as a viable contender for the GOP nomination. It is safe to conclude that national media portrayals of a two-man GOP race are at least partly responsible for the fact that many pro-tax cut voters apparently shied away from supporting the candidate with the most ambitious tax-cutting proposal.

Similarly, at the same time that McCain's plan was presented as "more modest" than Bush's, the networks failed to interview any experts who disagreed with the notion that substantial tax cuts were incompatible with preserving Social Security, even after CBO vastly increased its estimates of the size of the future federal budget surpluses. Instead, network reporters focused on the daily tracking polls and fleeting controversies that have become the staple of network campaign news.

For years, the networks have been criticized for ignoring policy issues while stressing the strategy and tactics of each campaign. In this case, it's clear that that long-standing bias kept reporters from asking the questions and seeking out the experts who would have been able to contribute vital information and context at the time when Republican voters were weighing the various candidates and their tax proposals.

Whether those voters would have made different choices if they had been better informed is, of course, unknown. But that doesn't mitigate the networks' obligation to provide them with as much information as possible, so that voters can make the final decisions.

___________________________

Notes

Stories were identified using the Media Research Center's News Tracking System (NTS), a comprehensive data base of network news programs categorized by story topic. The results of the NTS search were compared with a Lexis-Nexis search of ABC, CBS and NBC news transcripts, using keywords "Bush," "McCain," "Forbes," "Keyes," "Bauer," "Hatch," and "tax" to ensure that no stories were omitted from the sample. Duplicate stories were discarded. 
CBS Evening News, November 15, 1999. 
CBS Evening News, December 1, 1999. 
ABC's World News Tonight, December 1, 1999. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, December 1, 1999. 
"21st Century Family Security Plan," Sen. John McCain, January 11, 2000. 
CBS Evening News, January 11, 2000. 
Experts and other sources who are presented by reporters as both knowledgeable and non-partisan have great effect at changing viewers' opinions on public policy issues, while politicians and other partisans are frequently discounted. See "What Moves Public Opinion," Benjamin I. Page, Robert Y. Shapiro and Glenn R. Dempsey, in the American Political Science Review 81, No. 1, March 1987. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, January 16, 2000. 
Quoted on ABC's World News Tonight, December 1, 1999. 
However, at least one prominent Democrat has voiced some support for McCain's plan. "He's got it about right," President Bill Clinton told an interviewer from BusinessWeek. "He and Gore can argue about the details." See "New Hampshire, According to Bill," by Lee Walczak, in BusinessWeek, February 14, 2000. 
"Taxes: Reforming the System to Make It Simple and Fair," by Daniel J. Mitchell, published by the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. 
"A Tax Cut With a Purpose," speech by George W. Bush to the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, December 1, 1999. 
"21st Century Family Security Plan," Sen. John McCain, January 11, 2000. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, January 4, 2000. 
Quoted on NBC Nightly News, January 8, 2000. 
"Surplus Projections Balloon; Possible $1 Trillion Extra Widens Tax, Spending Choices," by Eric Pianin and John F. Harris, in the Washington Post, January 26, 2000. 
"The Case For A $Trillion+ Tax Cut," by Lawrence A. Hunter, published by the Institute for Policy Innovation. 
"Skipping the Obvious With Tax Cut Ideas," by Bruce Bartlett, in the Washington Times, December 8, 1999. 
CNN Exit Poll of New Hampshire Republican Primary Voters, February 1, 2000. 
Ibid.

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