Sep 1 2011

Deficit-Obsessed Media Misinform on Causes

Nightly network news fumbles reasons for debt

At a time when the federal budget deficit is so prominently featured in the news, with pundits and “experts” (falsely) touting it as a leading concern of the U.S. public (FAIR Blog, 1/21/11), you might think corporate journalists would be well-practiced in explaining the chief causes of the deficit.

Causes of DeficitsUnfortunately, if you rely on network nightly news programs for your information about the economy, you are likely to be misinformed about the main causes of the current deficit—in order of importance, the economic downturn, the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without the recession and these policy changes, the deficit would barely exist (Economic Policy Institute, 5/18/11).

The economic crisis has been a huge contribution to the deficit; less economic activity means less tax revenue and increased social service costs like unemployment insurance. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP, 5/10/11) estimates that 34 percent of the 2010 deficit and 28 percent of the 2011 deficit can be attributed to the economic downturn.

The Bush tax cuts dwarf all other policy changes, costing the country an estimated $375 billion this year, or 24 percent of the deficit, according to CBPP. Newsweek (8/1/10) acknowledged their overwhelming contribution; in comparison to other policies, like the prescription drug bill and war spending, “the tax cuts were by far the largest, adding up to $2.3 trillion over 10 years.” Forty percent of the tax cuts’ benefits went to people earning over $500,000 (Salon, 8/2/10).

With cumulative spending of over $1.2 trillion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Congressional Research Service, 3/29/11), the post-9/11 military escalation rounds out the list of top deficit culprits at 14 percent, CBPP found. (The cost could reach up to $4 trillion, including future veterans’ expenses—Brown University, 6/11.)

But you wouldn’t know this from the 69 nightly news segments in which the budget deficit was discussed during the first half of the year. FAIR looked at six months (1/1/11-6/30/11) of ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News (including weekend news editions), analyzing segments that included the words “budget” and “deficit.” Fifteen ABC reports included these words, as did 31 CBS segments and 23 from NBC.

Only three of these 69 segments named any of the three main causes of the deficit: ABC (1/25/11) said the “slow economy” contributed to the deficit, and later (6/26/11), illustrating the contribution of the wars to the deficit, noted that the “U.S. spends more than $20 billion a year” just on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan. NBC (1/26/11) explained that “The [deficit] estimate was raised after tax cuts were extended last month.”

In three quarters of the segments, no cause was mentioned, and 12 identified inaccurate or misleading causes. CBS was the most frequent misleader, discussing causes eight times and pinning the blame in seven of them on the cost of Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. ABC twice blamed those three programs, and twice mentioned Social Security as the deficit’s cause.

Actually, Social Security and Medicare contribute nothing to the deficit; they have their own dedicated revenue streams, which since 1987 have taken in $3 trillion more than they have paid out in order to build up a trust fund for when the Baby Boomers retire (Social Security and Medicare Trustees Report Summary, 5/5/11).

Social Security and Medicare’s surpluses have been invested in U.S. Treasury bonds, and these will sooner or later need to be paid back; if they are not, trillions of dollars will have been extracted from U.S. workers under false pretenses. When these debts are paid back, though, U.S. taxpayers are not paying for the retirement programs a second time—rather, they are paying for the programs (and tax cuts) that the Treasury borrowed the money from the retirement programs to pay for in the first place. Thinking of these bond repayments as Social Security and Medicare adding to the deficit is like imagining that the Chinese are contributing to the deficit by building highways with the proceeds of their investments in T-bills.

But TV journalists have frequently given the public the false impression that Social Security and Medicare are responsible for the deficit. On CBS (6/17/11), Scott Pelley reported: “Social Security consumes 20 percent of the federal budget, so it’s part of the debate over how to manage America’s $14 trillion debt. When countries don’t manage debt, the trouble reaches far and wide.”

A few months earlier, CBS reporter Chip Reid (2/20/11) said, “The elephant in the room, so far largely ignored, is entitlements, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which make up more than 40 percent of the budget.”

ABC (2/15/11) also contributed to these claims when Jake Tapper reported, “Entitlements, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs, have ballooned to a full 57 percent of the budget today.”

Even in the sole segment that mentioned tax cuts as a contribution to the deficit, NBC anchor Brian Williams (1/26/11) still added to the ongoing confusion, reporting, “And Social Security now projected to run a deficit of $45 billion this year.”

The FAIR findings show that little has changed since Janine Jackson weighed in on causes of the deficit in these pages (4/10), where she found the media coverage of the policy change that contributed most to the deficit, the Bush tax cuts, was “tenuous at best.” From December 2, 2009, through March 2, 2010, the Washington Post and New York Times had only mentioned the Bush tax cuts in 12 of 44 stories on the deficit, or 27 percent. In the first half of 2011, with the deficit debate more heated than ever and most Republicans refusing to consider any tax increases, the network news mentioned the tax cuts in a single story out of 69, utterly failing to give proper context to the discussion.