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Observation of CBS News transcripts from the time George W. Bush proposed his tax cut plan in January of 2000 as a candidate in the Republican primaries until March 6 of 2001 provides conclusive evidence that Dan Rather and his CBS colleagues have consistently favored opponents of Bush's tax cut proposals, choosing to cite them at a margin of nearly 2-to-1 over Bush's supporters.
In addition, our study found that CBS journalists limited Bush's supporters to largely one argument: that cutting taxes helps the economy while allowing Bush's opponents to list many reasons why his tax plans should be opposed.
RatherBiased.com also found that the CBS anchorman and his fellows would use economic data generated by outspoken liberal groups and experts (never disclosing their political ties) and never once cited a conservative economist, think tank or any other economic expert in support of Bush's across-the-board tax reductions.
Only once during the 14-month period we studied did CBS News ever approach balanced reporting, during the so-called "honeymoon period." At every other time interval this study measured, CBS News aired more soundbites from tax cut opponents and more summaries of their views.
Graph 1 illustrates CBS's unbalanced source citations. The red lines indicate the number of anti-tax cut arguments aired per day, the blue lines indicate the number of pro-tax cut arguments aired per day. Each dot on the thinner lines indicates a day a story was aired. There is a gap on the thin red line because Feb. 5 included an extraordinarily large number of Democratic arguments. Click for larger image.
It has long been supposed by both academic and non-academic analysts that the major news media outlets, largely because of their non-diverse ideological composition, heavily favor left-liberal positions on moral/social issues such as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and racial problems in their reporting. Some, though, have supposed that said outlets favor economic conservatives.
At RatherBiased.com, we decided to test this premise by examining Dan Rather and his colleagues' coverage of the issue of tax cuts. Reducing taxes has always been a priority for those on the Right and so it seemed like an ideal candidate for study.
George W. Bush has brought the issue of tax cuts to the fore during his time on the national political scene, making the subject more frequently discussed on the nightly news broadcasts both during his campaign and afterward. Accordingly, our study focused on CBS News broadcasts from January of 2000 until March 6 of 2001.
Thus far, Bush faced three main opponents of his programs: Arizona Sen. John McCain in the Republican primaries, former vice president Al Gore in the general election, and congressional Democrats upon his becoming president.
During these three different times, our research indicated that CBS News consistently favored Bush's critics in its coverage, giving them more air time and summarizing their arguments more frequently than Bush's supporters.
Summaries and Soundbites
There are two ways in which television journalists relay arguments, the first (much more common) is to summarize the views of the person in question, the second is to run a video clip of the person making his or her case. Bias is defined as an imbalanced combination of sources, from both summaries and soundbites. Source bias occurs when sources from one side of an issue are cited more than the other. The most common instances of bias we observed in our data was that CBS reporters would use relatively equal number of soundbites from tax cutters and their opponents but would then present summaries of Bush's critics' views at a greater frequency. (See Chart 1 above or Chart 2 below.)
Summaries are the bulk of news broadcasts, and consequently, they consisted of the majority of items we found in our transcript searching. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that descriptions of someone's opinions can be made short enough to not consume valuable broadcast time. They need not require additional correspondents other than the anchor, which gives him or her the power to use them more often. The other main purpose summaries serve is to provide a means by which the television journalist can convey the narrative, using video and audio clips to spice things up but leaving summaries to do the heavy-lifting. Because of this, summaries tend to more accurately reflect the views of journalists.
Graph 2 represents the ratio of anti-tax cut (ATC) arguments to pro-tax cut (PTC) arguments on a given day. An ideally balanced story would have equal numbers of arguments in it, putting it on the dotted green axis where y=0.5. Points on the black curve above 0.5 indicate the story favored tax cut opponents. Points below 0.5 indicate the story favored tax cut supporters. Click for larger image.
For this study, a summary was defined as a statement which stands on its own as a recitation of another person's views, implying that the reporter is merely acting as a distributor of information. As such, this study did not count statements in which the reporter fully adopted an argument of someone involved in the dispute. Thus, biased statements such as Dan Rather's Feb. 27 comment, "Where is the U.S. economy headed? Signals are mixed, but today's consumer confidence numbers are down. Enter the president, with a TV pitch for a tax-cut gamble" would not count as a summary, because, while Rather was agreeing with congressional Democrats' views that Bush's tax proposals are risky, he did not quote them as saying so. For compilations of biased statements from Rather and others, see the other sections of the site or use our search engine.
The soundbite is easy for reporters to tally up (our study found that thanks to the "honeymoon" period Bush experienced at the beginning of his term, anti-tax cut (ATC) soundbites outnumbered pro-tax cut (PTC) soundbites by a smaller margin than anti-tax cut summaries did pro-tax cut summaries).
One complaint Republicans have had with Washington journalists is that they do not take their arguments seriously enough or that they do not relay their most powerful ones. In our study, we observed that there is some merit to this complaint.
Each side in a political dispute has its own reasoning. The issue of tax cuts is no different. For Democrats, President Bush's proposals must be opposed because 1) they favor the wealthy, 2) can spark higher interest rates, 3) take away money that could be spent on good programs, or 4) that the U.S. should focus on paying off its debts.
Republicans have their own views in support of Bush's programs including: 1) it is not right for citizens to have 40% of their incomes taken away, 2) government should not take away people's money when they die, 3) cutting taxes can keep a lid on appropriations, or 4) that lowering taxes boosts economic growth.
During the 14 months analyzed in this study, CBS ran soundbites of Bush critics airing a wide range of arguments, the largest percentage of which (30 percent) was the criticism that his plans favor the wealthy. Statements in support of Bush were effectively restricted by the network to one argument: cutting taxes helps the economy. This argument accounted for 59 percent of pro-Bush soundbites aired by CBS.
Bush's tax cut plans did not fare well on the Tiffany network during the 2000 Republican primaries as Rather and his colleagues cited Bush's main opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain's arguments twice as often as they did Bush's. It was during this time as Graph 2 shows that CBS News was least balanced in its coverage.
A fan of the Senator and a supporter of his campaign finance bill, Rather aired one-sided introductions to tax stories:
In the presidential primary campaign, tax cuts and who has the best plan, have emerged as a defining issue among Republicans competing in the New Hampshire presidential primary. John McCain, who criticizes George W. Bush's tax cut plan as a giveaway to the rich, has now weighed in with a tax cut agenda of his own. (Jan. 11)
In the Republican presidential campaign, George W. Bush has launched a negative campaign attack ad against John McCain in New Hampshire. It centers on McCain's proposal for a tax cut which is half as big as the one Bush is proposing. McCain has called the $483 billion Bush plan a giveaway to the rich that doesn't help protect Social Security. (Jan. 19)
Once he defeated McCain, Bush faced Vice President Al Gore for a period of approximately 10 months between February and the 2000 Election. During this time, Rather et al. continuously relayed more statements supportive of Gore's criticisms of the tax cut. CBS ran 10 clips of Gore or his supporters criticizing Bush's proposals and seven of Bush or his surrogates defending them.
Summaries were even more lopsided. Gore clearly had the edge with 15 summaries of his views while Bush was given only 3 for a 5-to-1 ratio.
Some highlights included an Election Night conversation between Rather and reporters Lesley Stahl and Anthony Mason, associating tax cuts with higher interest rates:
STAHL: But also, the stock market--Wall Street's a little worried about those tax cuts, because the tax cuts will inevitably lead to higher interest rates. [...]
MASON: Yeah, Dan. Everything Lesley said is true. There were a lot--there are a lot of concerns on Wall Street about this Bush ta--the possibility of a Bush tax cut. (Nov. 8)
Rather relayed Gore's trip to Michigan:
RATHER: Also in Michigan, Gore talked up his plan to help working families, including specific tax breaks to help them defray expenses for day care. Gore coupled this with more criticism of the Bush tax cut plan. Gore says it doesn't make any sense, and it's a big giveaway to the rich. (Oct. 5)
Soundbites were more balanced including this pair of quotes from a John Roberts report after the veep debates:
CHENEY: Over the course of the next 10 years, we'll collect $25 trillion in revenue. We want to take about 5 percent of that and return that to the American taxpayer in the form of tax relief. [...]
LIEBERMAN: That means we go back down the road to higher interest rates, to higher unemployment, to a kind of stealth tax increase on every American family. (Oct. 6)
Graphs 3 & 4 show how many of each argument relation device (soundbites and summaries) were used in a given day. Graph 3 illustrates how CBS consistently aired more soundbites from opponents of Bush's tax proposals except during Bush's "honeymoon period." Graph 4 shows how CBS continually aired more summaries of tax cut foes' views. The gap in Graph 4 exists because Feb. 5 included an extraordinarily large number of Democratic arguments.
Following Bush around the country, Whitaker ran a lone soundbite from Gore criticizing Bush's budget priorities:
GORE: He does not put one penny into Medicare. He doesn't put one penny into Social Security. He doesn't put one penny into paying down the debt. Again, it does make you wonder. (March 14)
After the marathon coverage on Election Night, the battle over tax cuts took a back seat to the ensuing Florida controversy. No one at CBS's evening news shows mentioned tax cuts in a political connotation until Gore conceded defeat.
Inauguration and Afterward
Many media observers have dubbed the time immediately after a president comes into office as the "honeymoon" period because the opposition party plays nice and the press holds back questioning in hopes of getting in the good graces of new potential sources. George W. Bush's presidency has been no different in this regard: his first weeks in office were the first time in the 14-month period that the PTC position was given more soundbites by CBS News. CBS ran 18 soundbites which supported tax reductions while running 10 opposing them.
Bush's honeymoon period coincided with widespread acceptance of the theory that the economy is starting to show signs of weakness. Bush also received a boost when Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said that he supported cutting taxes and paying down the national debt. The Congressional Democrats even joined in on Jan. 3 saying they would support bigger tax cuts than before in order to help the economy.
The Jan. 25 Evening News carried snippets of Greenspan's testimony:
"We have had a very dramatic slowing down. And indeed, we are probably very close to zero at this particular moment. [...] It is far better, in my judgment, that the surpluses be lowered by tax reductions than by spending increases." (Jan. 25)
As was previously observed, though, summaries remained lopsided (17 ATC arguments and 10 PTC arguments) as Democrats, and CBS, remained steadfastly opposed to Bush's across-the-board-style tax reductions:
John Roberts emphasized Democrats' preferred point of view when dealing with tax cuts, using raw numbers instead of the percentages Republicans prefer and getting some of his numbers from a liberal (though unlabeled by Roberts) economic think-tank:
AL GORE (campaign trail video): And almost half of it would go to the wealthiest one percent.
ROBERTS: The tax cut was roundly criticized during the election campaign for catering to the rich. One analysis calculated the average giveback for the top one percent of earners at $46,000:
(Graphic on screen)
Tax Savings Top 1%
Source: Citizens for Tax Justice
ROBERTS: While another found a single mother of two with an income of $22,000 would get nothing back.
Tax Savings Single Mother of 2
Save $0 (Jan. 25)
Before Greenspan's congressional testimony, Dan Rather adopted the Democrats' view that Bush was unwisely "talking down the economy" and suggested that experts did not believe the economy was heading south:
"President Bush is keeping up his drumbeat of negative talk about the health of the U.S. economy and using that in his efforts to sell Congress on a big tax cut. By most independent assessments, the economy is sending mixed signals. (Jan. 24)
Once January ended, it appeared Bush's honeymoon period with Rather and CBS ended. The month-and-a-half December/January corridor was the closest that CBS News approached parity in its airing of arguments, airing 27 total anti-tax cut arguments and 28 total pro-tax cut arguments.
With the beginning of February, though, Rather and his colleagues resumed their regular pattern of bias against tax reductions, airing 11 ATC soundbites through the first of March to seven PTC clips. Summaries were the worst since the primaries with anti-tax cut soundbites outnumbering pro-tax cut soundbites 31-to-10 including two extremely biased days--Feb. 5, and Feb 8, which accounted for 19 of the 32 ATC summaries and soundbites.
The Fifth (which had to be cropped off Chart 1) featured two reports, one of which was supposed to get the White House's view and the other which was supposed to get congressional Democrats' views. Bob Schieffer succeeded with his second story, fully obtaining the minority party's opinions, but John Roberts's story ended up having more material in it from tax cut foes, including Citizens for Tax Justice:
GEORGE W. BUSH: I want the members of Congress and the American people to hear loud and clear this is the right-sized plan. It is the right approach, and I'm going to defend it mightily.Conclusion
ROBERTS: Democrats, collaborating on a smaller tax-cut proposal, have vowed to fight the Bush plan, targeting it is a budget-buster that caters to the rich.
THOMAS DASCHLE (Minority Leader, D-SD): You know, if you make over $300,000 a year, this tax cut means you get to buy a new Lexus. If you make $ 50,000 a year, you get to buy a muffler on your used
ROBERTS: On the Republican side, Mr. Bush faces a different problem. Already they're talking up adding more tax cuts to his plan. And then there's the lobbyists, who'll wonder why Mr. Bush gave nothing to corporate America. Critics charge the bill could eventually top $3 trillion.
BOB McINTYRE (Citizens for Tax Justice): Well, I'm afraid that we're going to see Congress bidding against each other to try to add things to this tax bill to please favorite contributors or constituencies. If that happens, gee willikers.
ROBERTS: Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice can't forget the last time Congress wanted a tax-cut spree in 1981. America is still paying the bill. And while those magnificent surplus projections make it seem like anything is possible, even the man who took the lid off the tax-cut punch bowl cautions they are only a best guests.
ALAN GREENSPAN (Chairman, Federal Reserve Board): (From Jan. 25) The errors that are being made in these long-term projections are really quite extraordinary.
ROBERTS: The Democratic leadership today criticized the president for trying to lock in a tax cut before he even has a budget, and they also voiced concern that his hands-off philosophy to make suggestions and let Congress work it out may give Republicans a green light for a tax-cut free-for-all. Dan. (Feb. 5)