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Rich Media, Poor Debates

by Jamison Foser

During last night's [Jan. 31st] Democratic presidential debate, the journalists conducting the questioning asked Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton about how they would "pay for" their health care proposals.Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus began the discussion by asking:

McMANUS: Senator Obama, one other thing both of your health insurance proposals have in common is they would cost billions of dollars in new spending, and both of you have proposed raising taxes on a lot of Americans to pay for that and for other proposals. Well, now, you know what's going to happen this fall in the general election campaign. The Republicans are going to call you "tax-and-spend" liberal Democrats, and that's a charge that's been effective in the past. How are you going to counter that charge?

Obama responded: "I don't think the Republicans are going to be in a real strong position to argue fiscal responsibility, when they've added $4 or $5 trillion worth of national debt. You know, I am happy to have that argument."

Indeed, one wonders why debate moderators don't ask the Republican candidates how they will respond to Democratic charges that they have run up massive deficits through grotesque fiscal mismanagement.

Obama then said that his health-care plan would be "paid for by rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent" and explained that "I will give tax cuts to people making $75,000 a year or less by offsetting their payroll tax."

CNN's Wolf Blitzer then followed up by asking Clinton: "Senator Clinton, your health-care plan is estimated it will cost $110 billion annually. You want to tax the rich to pay for that; is that what you're saying?" Clinton responded: "Well, let me say that the way I would pay for this is to take the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire on people making more than $250,000 a year."

When Clinton was finished, Blitzer followed up: "I just want to be precise. When you let -- if you become president, either one of you -- let the Bush tax cuts lapse, there will be effectively tax increases on millions of Americans."

Blitzer said, "I just want to be precise" -- but he was the opposite of precise. Clinton and Obama had given precise answers; Blitzer then restated their positions in less precise terms.

Here, let's look at all three statements again, in the order in which they were made:

OBAMA: "Part of it is paid for by rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent."

CLINTON: "Well, let me say that the way I would pay for this is to take the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire on people making more than $250,000 a year."

BLITZER: "I just want to be precise. When you let -- if you become president, either one of you -- let the Bush tax cuts lapse, there will be effectively tax increases on millions of Americans."

Both Obama and Clinton had been precise about their plans: Obama spoke specifically of "rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent" and Clinton spoke specifically of allowing the "Bush tax cuts" for "people making more than $250,000 a year" to expire. Both candidates were precise in their descriptions of who would lose their tax cuts; both candidates precisely described those people.

Wolf Blitzer, claiming to want to bring precision to the discussion, then characterized the candidates' positions in more vague language -- vague language that just happens to mirror the likely conservative attacks on the candidates that McManus had previewed: "[T]here will be effectively tax increases on millions of Americans." That is a less precise formulation than Clinton and Obama offered: Blitzer didn't specify who the "millions of Americans" are. Many viewers watching Blitzer likely assumed they would be among the "millions of Americans" Blitzer was talking about.

Claiming to "want to be precise," Blitzer restated the candidates' positions in less precise terms. He essentially adopted the Republican National Committee's preferred (but less accurate) description of the candidates' proposals, and, in doing so, made the candidates' positions less clear and misled his audience.

McManus had begun the line of questioning by telling Obama: "[Y]ou know what's going to happen this fall in the general election campaign. The Republicans are going to call you 'tax-and-spend' liberal Democrats, and that's a charge that's been effective in the past."

But the Republicans won't have to; not when they have Wolf Blitzer doing the job for them.

Blitzer's misleading performance came just a few weeks after ABC's Charlie Gibson similarly bungled a question about taxes during the Democratic debate he moderated in New Hampshire.

"You're all talking about letting some of the Bush tax cuts lapse," Gibson told the Democratic candidates. When Clinton interrupted to point out that the candidates were, in fact, talking about "the tax cuts on the wealthiest of Americans; not the middle-class tax cuts," Gibson responded: "If you take a family of two professors, here at Saint Anselm, they're going to be in the $200,000 category that you're talking about lifting the taxes on."

At that point, the audience laughed at Charlie Gibson. He was so wrong -- so out of touch -- that the audience laughed at him. And for good reason: As Media Matters documented, a full professor at St. Anselm has an average salary of about $77,000 -- meaning that Gibson inflated the average salary of two such professors by 30 percent.

After John Edwards responded to the crowd's laughter by telling Gibson, "Oh, I don't think they agree with you," the ABC News anchor tried to recover: "Two public schoolteachers in New York?"

No.

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher in the state of New York makes about $57,000 a year. Charlie Gibson thought two public school teachers in New York make a combined $200,000; in fact, it would take four teachers earning the state average to reach that level. Even in affluent Westchester County, home to the highest public school teacher salaries in the state, teachers earn an average of about $81,000 -- significantly less than Gibson thought. (And that data isn't from the NEA; it's from a website dedicated to the notion that teachers make too much money.)

But Gibson wasn't really talking about professors at St. Anselm or public school teachers in New York. As wrong and out of touch as he was on those specific examples, his broader implication -- that the typical American family would see their taxes go up under the Democrats' plan to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire -- was even more wrong and even more out of touch.

As Media Matters for America documented, fewer than four percent of U.S. households have annual incomes of $200,000 or more. The median household income is less than $50,000, and the mean is $65,000.

Fewer than four out of every 100 households have the kind of income that Charlie Gibson suggested was common.

You have to wonder how media stars like Blitzer and Gibson have lost touch with their viewers so badly that they think $200,000 incomes are typical.

Charlie Gibson reportedly makes $8 million a year and is paid less than his counterparts at CBS and NBC.

Might that have something to do with his lack of perspective? How could it not?

Charlie Gibson would see his taxes go up under the Democrats' plan. So would Wolf Blitzer. And, coincidentally, they suggest that their viewers' taxes would go up, too -- even though for the vast majority of viewers, that isn't true.

When the Republicans debate and promise to make Bush's tax cuts permanent and cut various other taxes, the star reporters who moderate those debates rarely ask the GOP candidates a simple question: What government services would you cut to pay for those tax cuts?

The double standard is so glaring, it's hard not to wonder if it has something to do with the fact that, while Charlie Gibson would likely see his taxes go up under the Democrats' plans and down under the Republicans', he probably already has health insurance. Whatever programs the Republicans would cut to pay for tax cuts for rich people like Charlie Gibson probably won't directly affect rich people like Charlie Gibson.

Over the past year, as journalists mocked John Edwards for getting an expensive haircut and having a big house, they constantly justified their behavior by claiming Edwards is a "hypocrite" for being rich while pursuing policies that would help those who aren't. This is total nonsense, of course. As an Altercation reader noted this week, asking how Edwards can care about the poor while being rich is like asking a doctor: "How can you care about sick people when you're so healthy?"

And yet, again and again, journalists justified their relentless focus on Edwards' wealth by pointing to his policy positions.

And they ignore -- absolutely ignore -- the personal wealth of conservative candidates who pursue policies that would line their own pockets.

For all the news reports you saw about Edwards' supposed hypocrisy, how many have you seen that tell you how big a tax cut Mitt Romney or John McCain or Rudy Giuliani -- wealthy men all -- would get if their policies became law? Probably somewhere around "none."

This is not merely an obvious double-standard; it's a completely backwards double-standard: one that rewards politicians who pursue policies that are consistent with their narrow self-interest at the expense of the greater good; one that penalizes politicians who act out of concern for the greater good rather than narrow self-interest.

It's a media double-standard that greatly undermined Edwards' presidential campaign. And it continues to undermine progressive economic policies. It continues to play out in debates and interviews and news reports. Conservative proponents of tax cuts that primarily benefit the rich are not asked how they would pay for those tax cuts. Progressive proponents of universal health care are accused of planning to raise taxes broadly, even after they specifically say that they would only repeal tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 or $250,000.

When media coverage of economic issues is so skewed in favor of conservative candidates and policies that favor the wealthy, it's hard not to wonder how much someone like Charlie Gibson would benefit from those policies.

Jamison Foser has extensive experience in progressive research, communications, and strategy, having worked for nearly a decade in national politics. Most recently he served as Research Director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for the 2002 cycle. Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.

© 2008 Media Matters for America

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