PBS and the Poor Pentagon


Does this look like a “crisis”?

The PBS NewsHour (1/29/13) took a look at military spending cuts  in advance of Chuck Hagel‘s confirmation hearings to be Barack Obama’s next secretary of Defense. The segment unfortunately presented a very narrow view of the issue, one that mimics the kind of coverage we see elsewhere in the corporate media.

Host Gwen Ifill set the stage by referring to the “Pentagon’s looming budget crisis.” Yes, there are plans to cut military spending–but calling that a “crisis” adopts the perspective of military contractors and Pentagon officials. Correspondent Kwame Holman followed up by reporting that  “hundreds of thousands of the Pentagon’s civilian employees will face furloughs and reduced paychecks as early as April.”

To discuss the issue, Holman spoke to two sources:  Gordon Adams, a Clinton-era military budget official, and Thomas Donnelly of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who “worked on defense issues for Republican members of Congress. ” Donnelly is very critical of plans to cut military spending, and in fact thinks the size of the military forces is too small.

The problem with these discussions is that, as economist Dean Baker has pointed out, viewers are given no sense of what the cuts mean relative to the size of the military budget in total. As Ifill puts it in the top of the show, the sequester means that “the Defense Department may have to find $52 billion in savings this year and half a trillion dollars over the next decade.”

Those are, you know, really big numbers, right?  But without knowing how big the Pentagon budget is,  you have no way of knowing what those cuts actually mean.

The closest PBS got to explaining any of this was when Holman said this:

Historically, military spending rises during wartime and declines by about 30 percent once the war is over. So spending that went up nearly 70 percent in constant dollars since 2001 is on the way down, as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan and the Iraq war has ended.

That means even if Congress and the president reach a budget deal and avoid automatic spending cuts, the Pentagon’s budget still is going to be reduced significantly, says Adams.

So we know military spending dramatically increased. So are these “crisis” cuts comparable to those increases? Not really. Ifill told viewers that the Pentagon might have to find $500 billion in cuts over the course of the decade. But what viewers should have known is that  they’re planning on spending something like $8 trillion over the same time. So this massive, job killing fiscal “crisis” amounts to maybe 6 or 7 percent of their projected spending.

As the graph below shows, even if the cuts that are set to take effect and the sequestration cuts were to occur (the latter are very much up in the air), the Pentagon would be forced to get by on something like its 2004 or 2006 budget–still well above the Cold War average.

The NewsHour should have done a better job putting these numbers in context–though their history on this issue isn’t very encouraging. As we pointed out last year, one segment on the same issue included as experts Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and  a Pentagon official. If you’re not willing to go and speak to sources outside elite politics, it’s going to be very hard to get a critical take on an issue like this. But that’s exactly what PBS is supposed to do.


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.