Media Dust Off 1995 Shutdown Playbook of Cliches to Cover Current Budget Fight

As a potential government shutdown looms the liberal media are filling their programs with stories about dire consequences of deep cuts that will lead to troops not getting paid, closed national parks, and late tax refunds. However, a review of MRC's coverage of the 1995 budget fight reveals the media are simply rerunning their tired old arguments from the last shutdown.

On this Wednesday's edition of ABC's Good Morning America, Jonathan Karl tallied the services that could be at risk this time around, as he warned: "If they don't reach a deal and get it passed by then, American troops, including those on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq, may not get their paychecks. And smack in the middle of tax season, that refund you've been counting on, well, you may have to wait." Karl went on to alert travelers that: "Treasures like Old Faithful and Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Yosemite's half dome, will be closed to visitors. And if you don't already have a passport, don't even think about leaving the country. Last time the government shut down, 200,000 passport applications were stopped in their tracks."

However Karl and others, as quotes from 1995 show, are simply dusting off the old media playbook to blame Republicans, not Democrats, for a shutdown, as they focus on high profile federal projects like national parks in an attempt to frighten the American people into opposing prudent fiscal decision-making.

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Back in 1995, CNN World News anchor Kathleen Kennedy, on November 13, warned: "the echoes of a government shutdown would be felt from coast to coast. The gates of Lady Liberty at New York would be closed. The same will happen at many other tourist attractions, including the Washington Monument, Bunker Hill, and many national parks. A lot of tourist plans will have to be changed if a shutdown occurs."

Another theme advanced by the media in 1995 was how a shutdown would hurt federal workers. ABC reporter Jack Smith, on the December 22 World News Tonight of that year even featured a sob story of two government workers who were going to have a rough holiday season: "And the shutdown now has a human face. Joe Skattleberry and his wife Lisa both work for the government. Both have been furloughed. They can't afford a Christmas tree."

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On November 18, NBC's John Palmer relayed the following horror story: "To Tony Chapello and his pregnant wife Kelly, both furloughed by the Social Security office in Kansas City, the shutdown is more than an inconvenience." Palmer then aired a clip of Kelly telling viewers: "I worry about the medical bills, and I want to do the baby's room."

On the January 2, 1996 edition of CBS Evening News Scott Pelley perhaps overdramatized the impact of the shutdown when he opened his story this way: "In April, terrorists tried to kill them. Today politicians stopped their paychecks. In Oklahoma City's Social Security office, they're being ordered to work for nothing."

Fast forward to Wednesday's edition of CBS's Early Show and Nancy Cordes actually pointed out that those federal workers did get paid as she noted that after the last shutdown: "The government ended up having to pay out about $400 million in back wages to workers who didn't work for three weeks," but then ominously observed that "this time around" Congress "might decide not to pay those workers."


In addition to federal workers, the media found other victims of the shutdown like veterans and even little kids as then-CBS correspondent Linda Douglass (who would later go on to work for President Obama) told viewers on the November 16 CBS Evening News, "The shutdown has pushed the Veterans Administration to the brink of a crisis. Tens of thousands of new claims are piling up daily, veterans of war, now caught in political cross fire," and then later in her segment added: "in the rest of the government, problems are worsening. Imported Christmas toys, which could be unsafe, are not being examined by safety inspectors."

Jumping forward to just this past Friday and MSNBC's Contessa Brewer, in an interview with Mike Pence, played the familiar victim card as she scolded the Republican Congressman: "The last time it shut down, 800,000 federal workers got furloughed. The OMB said it cost more than $1.25 billion in 1995 when Newt Gingrich led a government shutdown. Those furloughed workers go home. They don't get paychecks. But you do."

Brewer even claimed the GOP was out to hurt women and the environment as she railed against a proposal to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency: "What it does not respect are women's rights, what it does not respect is the environment. Is it going to undermine potential success here if you force social issues on to the budget table?"

On Wednesday's ABC World News Jake Tapper advanced the notion that a shutdown would be catastrophic for those relying on medical breakthroughs: "The shutdown will stop new funding for medical research and hope for desperate patients....Doctors at the National Institutes of Health would be forced to stop seven new clinical trials, four involving children, next week."

In 1995 anchors and reporters were also more likely to blame Republicans for the budget impasse than Democrats, such as when Dan Rather, on the November 16 CBS Evening News passed along: "Republicans were still pumping out a stopgap budget certain to draw another presidential veto, a bill containing what President Clinton called tonight, quote, critical cuts in Medicare and other programs." On the November 17 NBC Nightly News, Lisa Myers put forward then President Bill Clinton's excuse to veto a GOP bill "because of what he calls extreme cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment."

Now in 2011, NBC's Matt Lauer is drawing rave reviews from Democrats like Chuck Schumer for also focusing blame on the GOP and Tea Party as seen in the following exchange from Wednesday's Today show:

MATT LAUER: And when you look at some of the things the Tea Party and others on the far right are asking for – no funding for Planned Parenthood, no funding for climate control, public broadcasting – does it seem to you, Senator, that this is less about a fiscal debate or an economic policy debate and they are making an ideological stand here?

CHUCK SCHUMER: That's exactly right, Matt. You've hit the nail on the head. Even in the cuts they want to make, we can find other cuts that don't cut into the muscle. That don't prevent students who deserve to go to college from going to college.

If the last couple of days' coverage of the current budget fight is any indication of the media's overall strategy in covering a potential shutdown, viewers should expect more recycling of 1995 story lines of not just government workers but average Americans being victimized by an out of control GOP/Tea Party.

—Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.