Citing Biased Sources, Networks Exaggerate Threats to U.S. Infrastructure

America’s infrastructure isn’t as bad as networks news broadcasts, politicians and interest groups clamoring for more taxpayer dollars would have you believe.

In spite of statements from then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who claimed “America is one big pothole,” Chris Edwards of Cato said  in The National Review the government data shows a very different picture. He found that the number of “structurally deficient” bridges that belong to the National Highway System fell steadily between 1992 and 2011 to 4.6 percent.

But the Obama administration is after infrastructure money again. His new infrastructure plan, the GROW AMERICA Act, would open the doors to steep tolls on interstate highways, according to FoxNews.com. Time magazine reported that the four-year plan would cost $300 billion. Calls for more infrastructure spending have been frequent during Obama’s time in office, beginning with his massive $787 billion stimulus bill, which was sold to the American people with promises of fixing “roads and bridges” and creating “shovel ready jobs.” Only about 3 percent of it was actually allotted to those roads and bridges.

Unsurprisingly, the three broadcast networks have spent years pushing for infrastructure spending. From Jan. 1, 2005, when infrastructure became a regular topic in the news, through May 1, 2014, the networks have repeatedly turned to the pro-spending American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in infrastructure stories. ABC, CBS and NBC interviewed ASCE experts in 53 stories morning and evening show programs. No opposing viewers were presented in those reports.

However, that group does lobby and even The Washington Post has pointed out “It’s hardly surprising that an engineering group is in favor of trillions in additional spending on civil-engineering projects.” The Post’s Brad Plumer pointed out that “the ASCE always gives U.S. infrastructure poor grades.”

The networks hyped “lethal thoroughfares” and “crumbling” infrastructure, all while consulting ASCE experts who promoted higher taxes, fees and government spending. The way the networks talk about the nation’s infrastructure, catastrophe must be happening on a daily basis. The numbers tell a different story. Since 2000, only three bridges have collapsed due to structural flaws.

On May 10, 2008, CBS’ Saturday Early Show host Chris Wragge asserted, “You don’t need an engineer to tell you that Americans roads—America’s roads, bridges, railways and airports need some major help. Our infrastructure is crumbling and it could cost $1.5 trillion over the next five years to head off a crisis.”

There were other proponents of infrastructure on the networks too. On July 30, 2013, Former Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell told NBC’s “Today Show” that the nation’s poor infrastructure was a known fact, saying, “Everyone says our infrastructure is crumbling and we need to do something about it.” Rendell is also coincidentally the founder of Building America’s Future (BAF) a pro-infrastructure spending group.

By continually presenting just one side and using biased sources that would benefit from infrastructure spending, the networks hyped the dangerous condition of America’s infrastructure.

Journalists or Lobbyists?

Besides sensationalist journalism, reporters frequently acted as lobbyists for greater infrastructure spending.

On NBC’s Today Show, June 18, 2008, Meredith Vieira asked why there wasn’t more money spent on infrastructure, while talking with an army engineer about a levee that failed. Vieira bemoaned that “no money was allocated for it by the federal government. We have a lot of problems with infrastructure in this country. We’ve seen it with bridges. Do we have the same problem with levees?” She pushed further, “But then why has it been ignored, do you think, General? You’ve asked for federal money.”

Reporters have used a few tragedies of failed bridges or levees in order to attack the GOP, to blame Republicans for not giving enough money to the Department of Transportation, or to call for higher taxes.

Jim Avila on Good Morning America July 31, 2013, blamed Republicans for working against Obama’s plan to create jobs by investing in infrastructure.

He said, “President Obama’s proposal would cut corporate tax rates and, perhaps, even collect more money by closing multibillion-dollar loopholes. But instead of giving that new revenue back to individual taxpayers, as Republicans demand, the president wants to spend it on government programs to train workers, build new bridges and roads, he says, to put the middle class back to work. That is a no-go for the GOP.”

The networks have been in lockstep with Obama. In his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, 2013, Obama claimed that infrastructure had “deteriorated” when in fact it has been improving in recent years.

On Sep. 16, 2013, the president gave another economic speech reiterating the need for more government spending on infrastructure. He mentioned infrastructure three times in that speech on the economy.

ABC, CBS and NBC Experts Vested In Infrastructure Spending

In 53 separate stories, the networks turned to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) when discussing U.S. infrastructure. It’s no surprise that, as an engineering group that also lobbies for its cause, the ASCE benefits directly from increased government spending on infrastructure. Yet in those 53 stories, ASCE experts were unopposed -- no one was interviewed with other views.

Every four years, the ASCE releases a “report card” to grade the “physical condition and needed fiscal investments for improvement” on the nation’s infrastructure and the environment. The ASCE assigned its 2013 report card a terrifying “D+” grade. The report card includes sectors such as planes, bridges, dams, inland waterways, levees, ports, railways, roads and metro transit.

Yet as Plumer pointed out, the ASCE’s dismal grades on infrastructure promote their own self-interest and that the 2013 report card grade was higher than the previous D grade.

In 2011, Charles Lane, also of The Washington Post, mentioned the ASCE’s vested interest in promoting government spending on infrastructure which gives more jobs to engineers.

While groups like the ASCE and BAF give the U.S.’s infrastructure failing grades, the government’s own data provide some necessary perspective.

Cato’s Chris Edwards wrote in The National Review that government data actually shows roads and highways have improved substantially in the past 20 years. For example, in 1992 the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) reported that 8.7 percent of U.S. bridges in the National Highway System were rated as “structurally deficient.” That number was cut nearly in half by 2011 (4.6 percent).

Our highways have become significantly smoother since 1989 according to the International Roughness Index grading system as well, Edwards said.

Forbes writer Paul Roderick Gregory also found the media have exaggerated American infrastructure flaws. According to Gregory, the U.S. spends more per capita than European countries on our infrastructure.

Between 2001 and 2011, the United States spent 3.3 percent of its GDP on infrastructure. Comparatively, other developed nations invest between 2 and 3.5 percent of GDP on infrastructure.

Methodology: The MRC’s Business and Media Institute examined broadcast network morning and evening news show transcripts from Jan. 1, 2005, and May 1, 2014, for mentions of “roads and bridges,” as well as “infrastructure.” Stories mentioning ASCE were tallied and analyzed for an opposing view.

Kristine Marsh
Kristine Marsh
Kristine Marsh is a staff writer/analyst for the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute.