At the top of Monday's NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams eagerly parroted Obama administration talking points when it came to blaming the sequester for sporadic flight delays: "The traffic jam starting to build up at our airports. Flight delays just beginning to emerge today as those budget cuts in Washington begin to hit home." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
Later on the broadcast, Williams again declared the delays to be a sign of "the impact of Washington all across this country" and predicted: "Now the American people as a whole just might take further notice because now the sequester is responsible for delaying airline flights across this country."
On the April 18 Nightly News, Williams telegraphed the media hype that was to come over the FAA furloughing air traffic controllers as he proclaimed that the sequester "is going to affect all Americans."
On Tuesday's Today, correspondent Lisa Myers touted "hundreds of delays" and announced: "Now the airlines are warning that if these furloughs continue, one out of every three passengers could see major delays or cancellations during peak travel season." The headline on screen throughout her report blared: "Travel Alert; Flight Delays Mount Over FAA Furloughs."
Continuing to adhere strictly to the White House framing of the story, Myers explained:
It's the first time the public has felt the impact of across-the-board budget cuts from the sequester....The FAA claims it had no choice but to put 15,000 controllers on unpaid furloughs, which means 10% fewer of them working each day. The agency says that could mean delays of three and a half hours in Atlanta, more than two hours in Chicago, and one hour and 20 minutes at LaGuardia.
She even cued up a sound bite of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: "[He] has a message for those who want the controllers back." Lahood pleaded: "Call your member of Congress and tell them to fix sequester and this will go away."
Myers concluded: "Now the administration seems to be saying that it will not accept a solution that merely puts air traffic controllers back to work, that any fix must roll back the entire sequester....that means that for air travelers, the next few months could be a nightmare."
While NBC's coverage simply toed the Obama administration line, both ABC and CBS included skepticism of claims that the sequester was to blame for the furloughs and flight delays.
After Good Morning America's George Stephanopoulos warned of "airport armageddon" on Monday, by Tuesday morning, correspondent Matt Guttman toned down the rhetoric: "We spent 11 hours in airports and didn't really find an airline apocalypse....So far, several hundred flights delayed. Far less than the agency's prediction of 6,700 daily flight delays. But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warns ABC News, we might yet see an airplane apocalypse."
Meanwhile, Tuesday's CBS This Morning actually included Republican push-back on White House sequester hype as co-host Norah O'Donnell reported: "Republicans say you can blame the White House for massive delays at the nation's airports."
Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson concluded her later report by further noting: "Critics point to other areas of the FAA they say could be cut, instead of the air traffic controllers – for example, they'd say $3 billion airport improvement funds that, so far, hasn't been touched by the budget cuts."
Such points were completely absent from NBC News.
Here is a transcript of the April 22 Nightly News coverage:
7:00PM ET TEASE:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The traffic jam starting to build up at our airports. Flight delays just beginning to emerge today as those budget cuts in Washington begin to hit home.
7:10PM ET SEGMENT:
WILLIAMS: Now to the impact of Washington all across this country. We've heard a lot about the so-called sequester budget cuts and cancelled White House tours as a result, and cancelled air shows this summer. But now the American people as a whole just might take further notice because now the sequester is responsible for delaying airline flights across this country. Rehema Ellis is at LaGuardia Airport in New York tonight with this story. Rehema, good evening.
REHEMA ELLIS: Good evening, Brian. Passengers here at LaGuardia and elsewhere are experiencing delays coming and going. One example today, the 8:00 a.m. Washington to New York shuttle was delayed on the runway in Washington and didn't take off until close to 10:00 in the morning. Airline officials say as many of the widespread delays today are likely the result of the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
And why? Well, one way that the FAA is dealing with its share of cutbacks is by furloughing air traffic controllers, saying on any given day 10% of the nation's 15,000 controllers could be on furlough. And with fewer controllers but the same number of flights, the FAA along with the airlines have been warning travelers about the possibility of delays. Up to three and a half hours in Atlanta. More than two hours in Chicago. And an hour and 20 minutes at LaGuardia. And the FAA says as long as the sequester is in effect, the delays could last through the summer, which is the busy travel season. Brian.
WILLIAMS: Rehema Ellis at LaGuardia for us tonight. Rehema, thanks.