NYT Hits Deficit Panic Button (Again)

Big news in the New York Times today (1/21/11): According to their new poll, Americans overwhelmingly support slashing military spending.

Wait–that’s not the news.

According to the story by Jackie Calmes and Dalia Sussman (headlined “Poll Finds Willingness to Cut Spending, Just Not Medicare or Social Security”), the real story is that people don’t like the idea of cutting these entitlement programs, but arereally worried about the budget deficit:

While Americans are near-unanimous in calling deficits a problem–a “very serious” problem, say 7 out of 10–a majority believes it should not be necessary for them to pay higher taxes to bridge the shortfall between what the government spends and what it takes in.

The Times has tried to tell us this story about the deficit before (though at other times they’ve told us the opposite).

If you read far enough into today’s piece, the Times alludes to a different way of gauging public sentiment–one that finds people don’t feel very strongly about the deficit:

Asked what Congress should focus on, 43 percent of Americans say job creation; healthcare is a distant second, cited by 18 percent, followed by deficit reduction, war and illegal immigration.

And elsewhere in the poll (but not in the Times story) they ask people to name the most important problem facing the country. The deficit garnered 6 percent support.

In other words, it’s not at all clear that people overwhelmingly worry about the deficit. They do seem far more willing, though, to cut the military budget:

And asked to choose among cuts to Medicare, Social Security or the nation’s third-largest spending program–the military–a majority by a large margin said cut the Pentagon.

Which leaves one to wonder why the headline wasn’t “Poll Finds Broad Support for Military Cuts.”

The other main lesson of the Times poll is that Americans don’t support tax increases. The Times notes that the “antitax sentiment reflected in the poll is in line with Republicans’ mantra that spending, not taxes, is the problem for the federal budget.” So the public doesn’t want higher taxes, and doesn’t want spending cuts–which the Times writes up this way: “Americans’ sometimes contradictory impulses on spending and taxes suggest the political crosscurrents facing both parties.”

But the tax questions in the poll mostly ask whether respondents want to raise taxes on “people like you.” Obviously many people aren’t going to like that much. The Times posed one question that included a menu of tax options: increasing the gasoline tax, reducing the mortgage interest deduction, and so on. But they should have posed other options–raising taxes on the wealthy (i.e., people who mostly aren’t “like you”), or a Wall Street financial speculation tax.

The story the Times wants to tell is a familiar one: The public wants to have it both ways (no spending cuts and no tax increases either). But reality’s a little different.The public wants action on jobs much more than on the deficit. As far as the deficit is concerned, they’re overwhelmingly ready to cut military spending. And, as some other polls have found, they’re more than OK with raising taxes on the wealthy. As one Bloomberg survey found (12/10/10):

While they say they strongly support balancing the budget over the next 20 years, when offered a list of more than a dozen possible spending cuts or tax increases, majorities opposed every one of them except imposing a bigger burden on the rich.

But that is clearly a story that New York Times does not want told.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. 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). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.