Super Cuts! Military Budget, Not Social Spending, Prompts Media Concern

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Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Super Cuts! Military Budget, Not Social Spending, Prompts Media Concern

The failure of the Congressional “supercommittee” to come up with a $1.2 trillion, 10-year deficit reduction plan means that automatic “trigger” cuts might take place in discretionary spending—roughly half of which is supposed to come from the military budget. Corporate media have given extensive time to panicked warnings about the dangerous impact of military cuts, but made little mention of the effects of cutting other spending.

Under the “trigger” plan, the military budget is supposed to be reduced by almost $600 billion over the next decade—a move Republican politicians have vowed to block. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been quoted widely about this “catastrophic” possibility that would “tear a seam in the nation’s defenses,” decrying the reliance on a “crazy doomsday mechanism” and “a goofy meat-ax approach” (Washington Post, 11/4/11).

That message has been heard—and repeated—across the media. A Washington Post editorial (11/7/11) called the potential military cuts “an unconscionable act of political irresponsibility.” ABC correspondent Jack Tapper (11/22/11) talked about “draconian cuts to the Pentagon budget.”

On the CBS Evening News (11/22/11), Pentagon correspondent David Martin discussed Panetta’s dire letter to Congress before reporting that the “across-the-board cuts would, according to the Pentagon, mean the loss of a million or more jobs in the defense industry, increasing unemployment by one percent.” Those jobs figures have been challenged by experts outside the Pentagon (CNN.com, 11/3/11).

ABC pundit Cokie Roberts gushed (This Week, 11/27/11): “[Panetta’s] a former budget director.... For him to say that quite strongly really means something.” It’s not at all surprising, of course, for D.C. officials to oppose cuts to their own departments’ budgets.

These stories generally fail to present the military budget in any meaningful context. The Pentagon’s base budget, which does not include much of the spending for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has increased substantially over the past 10 years—“from $390 billion in FY01 to $540 billion in FY11, a real increase of 38 percent,” according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (3/11/10).

The proposed “draconian” cuts would force the Pentagon to make do with a budget equivalent to what it spent in 2007 (Project on Defense Alternatives, 10/11/11). Military analyst Winslow Wheeler (Center for Defense Information, 8/24/11) points out an annual base budget of this size—$472 billion—is $70 billion more than was spent in 2000, and would still constitute “more than twice the defense spending of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Cuba and any other potential adversary—combined.”

And the proposed cuts are often reported as raw numbers—$800 billion or $1 trillion in total cuts over the next decade. As economist Dean Baker has noted (CEPR, 8/4/11), coverage should explain that over this period the military is scheduled to spend close to $8 trillion.

Claims of catastrophic consequences from military cuts might also have been tempered by reminders that the Pentagon budget declined by close to 25 percent from 1989 to 1994—a historical context missing from most reports.

But what about the other half of the projected cuts—the ones that would affect an array of domestic spending? While there are no details about what is to be cut, media have shown far less interest in even exploring the possibilities, especially when compared to the panic over cutting military spending.

The “trigger” cuts exclude Social Security, Medicaid and some other key mandatory spending programs; they also place a limit on how much Medicare can be cut. The total non-military cuts for 2013 would be something on the order of $54.7 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (11/22/11). According to the Congressional Budget Office (9/12/11), this could means cuts “ranging from 7.8 percent (in 2013) to 5.5 percent (in 2021) in the caps on new discretionary appropriations for nondefense programs.”

Jim Davy of the non-partisan Education Trust (11/20/11) wrote of an 8 percent annual cut in Title I educational funding, which is directed at low-income students. A coalition warned that cuts at the Food and Drug Administration could be “substantial and serious” (Food Safety News, 11/23/11)— somewhere around 7 percent in 2013. And a Kaiser Health News article (11/21/11) laid out an array of areas that could see similar decreases, from public health to medical research to assistance for people living with HIV.

With such an array of spending cuts possible, one might expect more coverage to be devoted to the likely effects. But even reports that seemed designed to do that provided very little insight. On ABC’s Good Morning America (11/21/11), host George Stephanopoulos introduced a segment on what the supercommittee failure “means for all of us”—along with an on-screen graphic that said, “How Will Cuts Affect You?”

But “you” seemed to mostly mean the military. After a passing reference to “automatic cuts that will hit virtually everything,” correspondent Jonathan Karl (see Extra!, 7/11) declared that “the Pentagon will get hit hard,” using Pentagon secretary Panetta for affirmation: “He says that he will be forced to cut the size of American ground forces to the smallest level since 1940.”

On NBC Nightly News (11/21/11), anchor Brian Williams asked, “Do automatic and potentially cruel budget cuts now go into effect?” Reporter Kelly O’Donnell talked about cuts to a “range of domestic programs,” but, like ABC’s Karl, spent more time talking about the military, including a soundbite from Panetta and a warning from Republican Sen. John McCain that the cuts should be blocked.

The New York Times (11/22/11) described the budget battles to come as “likely to be a yearlong political fight over the automatic cuts to a broad range of military and domestic programs that would go into effect starting in 2013.” The corporate media have shown a keen interest in discussing the military cuts. When will they explore what the rest of the budget cuts will mean to the country?

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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