This week, the Democrats certainly got their fair share of good press as they took control of the Congress. Looking back at the evening newscasts from the first week of January 1995, it’s interesting that the Republicans got fairly positive coverage on January 4, the day they ended 40 years of Democratic control of Congress. “This was the country at its best, making a peaceful political transition while elsewhere in the world men are killing one another in the name of freedom and unity,” ABC’s Peter Jennings optimistically intoned that night.
But the GOP honeymoon was not long-lasting. The very next night, ABC’s World News Tonight featured an interview with President Bill Clinton where Jennings suggested that the Clinton’s problem was that voters were unaware of the fantastic accomplishments of the Democratic administration. And then-ABC reporter Aaron Brown offered a lengthy report designed to rebut the very premise of the Republican platform, arguing that conservative voters don’t appreciate all the wonderful services they receive for their federal tax dollars.
Brown visited Knox County, Tennessee, home to the federal government’s Oak Ridge national laboratories. After several sound bites from voters upset about higher taxes, Brown suggested they were all wrong, as he recited a list of what the county receives for its money. He concluded: “When people in Knox County talk of smaller government and less spending, they may mean it; they probably do. But do they want to lose this bus? Or this highway? Or this tunnel? Do they want to lose this lab? This cop? This teacher? Do they really want to make that choice at all?”
I very much doubt that networks such as ABC will devote their next several newscasts to steadily debunking the grievances of liberal voters and suggesting that the voter unhappiness of the last election was because President Bush’s accomplishments were being disregarded by citizens.
The January 5, 1995 World News Tonight is an excellent example of how the networks worked to prop up the President and undermine the GOP Congress from nearly the very outset. Here are a couple of Jennings’ questions to Clinton:
"I'd like to start, if I may, with what I think you may think is a puzzlement. You've reduced the deficit. You've created jobs. Haiti hasn't been an enormous problem. You've got a crime bill with your assault weapon ban in it. You got NAFTA, you got GATT, and 50 percent of the people don't want you to run again. Where's the disconnect there?"
"In our poll today, the absolute critical items for Congress to address. Number one, cutting the deficit. Number two, health care reform. The two issues which were absolute priorities for two years, and you don't get any credit for them?"
After that, the broadcast moved on to other news (including the O.J. Simpson trial), then back to politics for Brown’s piece, which is perhaps unparalleled in its snobby elitism:
Peter Jennings: “As we mentioned, we have a new ABC News/Washington Post poll tonight. And it also looks at what priorities Americans have for those lawmakers across the street. Fifty-five percent of those we asked say that cutting the federal deficit should be Congress’s most critical concern, with health care reform and a balanced federal budget close behind. But support for a balanced budget drops dramatically when you start adding conditions — namely, cutting popular programs.
“One of the most persistent criticisms of government during the last election campaign — which proved very effective for those politicians who argued it — was that government had become much too expensive. Besides which, there was too much government in our lives. We thought it might be educational to see what that really meant to people on a daily basis. ABC’s Aaron Brown could have gone almost anywhere in the country to test these notions. He went to Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Aaron Brown: “Knox County, Tennessee, population 335,000. In November, it voted Republican, two to one. Then and now, it likes the message of smaller government.”
Older white male: “Less bureaucracy, less control, of every asset of life.”
Younger white male: “We're sending a message: You've forgotten that it's our money that you're spending.”
Brown: “And it's a lot of money. The residents of Knox County paid almost $1.5 billion in federal taxes in 1993 — personal and corporate income taxes, Social Security, estate, gift and excise taxes included.”
Second younger white male: “People are tired of paying taxes and not getting anything in return.”
Brown: “That's a pretty common complaint around here; a pretty common view. It is also dead wrong. In fact, Knox County gets back much more from the federal government than its residents pay in — nearly twice as much. They pay in a billion and a half dollars and the federal government sends Knox County back almost $3 billion. That $3 billion comes back in hundreds of places, in hundreds of ways, most of which people never think about.”
Elderly white female: “Welfare should be cut out. Put them people to work.”
Brown: “They know that welfare and food stamps and medical care for the poor takes a chunk— about $204 million. Nearly 58,000 people get some piece of that. But that is nothing compared to the $655 million for social security and Medicare. Nearly half of what Knox County pays in taxes is paid out to 60,000 residents, most of whom are older than 65, regardless of their income. And that is seen as untouchable.
Older black male: “Because that's ours. We worked for it, put it in, you know. I think we should have it.”
Brown: “And that's just the biggest piece of the pie. Here is a smaller piece — a tunnel.”
Mayor Victor Ashe (at a press conference): “It will make traffic flow better and more smoothly for those people who work day in and day out in our downtown area.”
Brown: “True, but it costs $9 million federal tax dollars to build, part of the $40 million Knox County got for transportation. Money that doesn't just buy cement, it pays wages, which buys food at Ingles Grocery, clothes at Proffitt's department store and mortgages at the bank, in some cases, federally guaranteed mortgages. Outsiders may see the tunnel as pork. Here, it has a better name.”
Professor Bill Lyons, Political Scientist: “People see pork as the other guy's pork and as their valuable projects and their jobs.”
Brown: “Here's another piece of the pie. Knoxville is home to the University of Tennessee and home to 49 million federal dollars last year. One example — graduate students are working to design a robot to do work humans can't, clean up nuclear waste dumps. Cost: $100,000 a year. No $100,000, no robot.”
Professor William Hamel, Mechanical Engineering Department: “We really can't do the research. So it basically would shut us down.”
Brown: “$100,000 becomes $49 million quickly — $5,000 to promote the opera and musical theater, $64,000 for animal disease research, $852,000 in space program research grants, $2 million for the math department, and more. The university is dependent on federal money.”
Professor Lyons: “You would have a massive impact on the budget. You would have lots of offices, lots of programs, lots of institutes that would be either shut down or have to scale back drastically.”
Brown: “And on it goes — $13 million for Knox County's public schools. Handicapped children get teachers, hungry children get breakfast.”
Phil Clear, Food Service Coordinator: “Across the county, in Knox County, we feed close to 9,500 and 10,000 for breakfast.”
Brown: “Knoxville and Knox County government get another $12 million, which among other things will put eight to 10 police officers on Knoxville streets.”
Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith: “They will be used in our high crime areas; areas that we're trying to re-establish control of the neighborhoods.
Brown: “Add up all the entitlements, throw in those teachers and police officers, tack on university research and those highways, and you get roughly $1.3 billion. Then add $1.7 billion to pay for this — the Oak Ridge National Lab — a huge federal complex that provides more than 7,000 people here with steady work. But even without Oak Ridge, Knox County would break just about even with the federal government, the same amount going out as coming in. So in effect, Knox County gets Oak Ridge for free. It also gets the Army, National Parks, federal prisons for free.
“When people in Knox County talk of smaller government and less spending, they may mean it; they probably do. But do they want to lose this bus? Or this highway? Or this tunnel? Do they want to lose this lab? This cop? This teacher? Do they really want to make that choice at all? Aaron Brown, ABC News, Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Jennings: “It's complicated. Back in a moment.”