Time to audit the media

Posted: Sep 24, 2002 12:00 AM
The prospects of war dominate the current focus of political news, and Democrats are looking for a way out. They want to change the issue agenda back to domestic and economic issues, where they feel they have the natural advantage in offering compassionate subsidies for whatever ails you. By contrast, those domestic issues currently fill gutless Republicans with anxiety and dread. You can understand their matching senses of comfort and angst when you take a look at how the TV networks cover the economy. During the summer months, Democrats decided to make a major push against -- which is to say, make political hay out of -- corporate corruption. It was all the GOP's fault. Network reporters picked up the talking points and repeated them. The opposing view was either boiled in skepticism or ignored. A major Media Research Center review of economic coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox documented how the network news stars organized their stories almost entirely around liberal themes and arguments. (No surprise: The Fox News Channel was the exception to the rule.) For example, as the stock indexes plunged, most reporters presented tough, new government regulations as the only way to "restore confidence" after the scandals came to light. CNN's Aaron Brown suggested that President Bush's "credibility" was in doubt unless he embraced liberalism with all his heart. In a span of less than four hours on July 15, ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN all repeated the Tom Daschle spin, contrasting the liberal Paul Sarbanes bill as the gold standard, threatened by a "weaker" bill passed by the House. They all ignored the point made by CNBC financial reporter Ron Insana a few days earlier on the "Today" show, that "professional investors are getting scared that the climate could turn inordinately hostile and chill the economy and the business environment." Network reporters also fussed and furrowed their brows about the returning federal deficit. But that didn't stop them from assembling little advertisements for another permanent entitlement program -- a prescription drug subsidy for millions of elderly people in the Medicare program. Instead of exploring the potential fiscal black hole of paying for the rapidly growing prescriptions by a rapidly growing elderly population, journalists could only stage little dramas of impoverished senior citizens in dire straits. ABC's Linda Douglass cued the violins: "As she watched the debate, Frieda Moss's hopes for prescription drug coverage faded once again. ... Frieda spends $500 a month on medicine for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart trouble. The drug bills eat up her entire Social Security check. She has little money for anything else." There's never a zero-sum game, in which Frieda Moss is taking money away from young parents with kids. Watching the TV news, you might think money just comes off a Washington printing press instead of out of other people's pockets. In the liberal media formulation, deficits are not caused by piling on the social program benefits but by passing a tiny tax cut that sent $300 checks across America. Even before most of the Bush tax cut has left the starting gate, network stars campaigned to crush it. NBC "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert, who normally leads the pack with balance and good homework that can crack the conventional wisdom, has campaigned against tax cuts like a Democratic whip. He asked 40 questions lobbying to delay or repeal tax reduction but never once asked about jump-starting the economy by accelerating the trend. The depressing act of reviewing this summer of skewed news inspires three pieces of advice for any network news producer who cares about balance and fairness. First, reporters should resist their temptation to present liberal theories and assumptions about taxing and spending and statism as unassailable fact. (That's why "we report, you decide" is a resonating motto. If only the networks weren't always trying to indoctrinate instead of moderate.) Second, fairness demands that interviewers shouldn't throw conservative experts 100-mile-per-hour beanballs and then set up the tee for the liberals. Third, if the policy debate is intellectual combat, couldn't we invited more free-market advocates to the battlefield and less hanky-wringing anecdotes about starving Friedas? The headlines are understandably dominated by huge bankruptcies and fraudulent accounting statements. It's not the "what" in the media's coverage that's problematic; it's the "why." A look at their record shows the media require an audit every bit as much as these other corporations. They're cooking the books in their own way, making themselves look less like market watchdogs and more like snake-oil salesmen of liberalism.