The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Media Bias or Media Accuracy?

Posted on | December 10, 2010 | 7 Comments

When I was an assistant national editor at The Washington Times, one of my pet peeves was when reporters in our Capitol Hill bureau would write about the budget with the idea that they were writing about the government’s money, rather than the taxpayer’s money.

This would typically come up when, discussing proposals to reduce tax rates, reporters would describe how legislators proposed to “pay for” the tax cut, which would be said to “cost” however many dollars.

Wrong, wrong, WRONG.

Knowing the supply-side lessons of the Reagan years — that when tax rates were reduced, government revenue actually increased due to private-sector economic growth — I knew that the projected revenue loss from tax cuts was a mere accounting fiction. If the reporter wished to talk about “offsets” (proposed spending cuts), that was OK with me, but if I was editing a budget story, you weren’t going to get away with talking about “paying for” the “cost” of tax cuts.

This made me rather obnoxious in the eyes of our Capitol Hill bureau staff, who viewed me as a rigid ideologue. Capitol Hill reporters were (and are) usually 20-somethings and, it seemed to me, excessively herd-oriented. The young reporters at our conservative paper wanted to report the story the same way their press-corps peers in the liberal media were reporting it, and my job was to prevent their stories from mirroring their biases of their peers.

Now, I relate that history for two reasons, the first of which is related to how the recent tax compromise is being reported. The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama-McConnell tax compromise will cost $858 billion over the next 10 years, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

And here’s the Bloomberg headline:

Senate to Consider Tax-Cut Bill That
Would Add $857 Billion to U.S. Debt

You see what I’m talking about? I don’t want to argue with the green-eyeshade guys at the CBO, but I object to the flat assertion that this deal — which is not a tax cut, by the way — would “cost” such-and-such an amount and automatically add that amount to the national debt. Historic fact argues otherwise.

Meanwhile, everybody has been beating up on Bill Sammon, Washington managing editor for Fox News, because he sent out a 2009 memo to Fox personnel telling them to use the phrase “government option” rather than “public option” when discussing the Democrats’ health-care plan.

And the objection to this is . . .?

“Public” has positive connotations — “public library,” “public park,” “public school” — while “government” has rather different connotations. And Sammon clearly saw that reporters, in using the phrase “public option,” were engaged in a subtle form of advocacy.

Nothing wrong with advocacy, you understand, but when you’re collecting a paycheck from what is the de facto Republican TV network, you can’t be smuggling Democratic Party talking points into your reportage, OK?

During the Bush administration, when Bill was White House correspondent for The Washington Times, I occasionally edited his stories. He evidently saw his job as an opportunity to do reporting that counter-balanced the anti-Bush agenda of much of the rest of White House press corps. Sometimes perhaps Bill went a bit overboard in that regard — “President Bush scored another stunning triumph Tuesday . . .” — but there’s no need to rehash those old arguments at this late date, eh?

The reality of liberal bias in the media is that much of this bias involves simple word choices — the “cost” of tax cuts, etc. — which, repeated over time, exercise a usually unnoticed influence over public opinion.

Bill Sammon was justified in his attempt to counterbalance that bias. Now, if he can just get Fox News reporters to exorcise this nonsense about how much tax cuts will “cost” . . .

My pet peeves are still my pet peeves.


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