A Democratic Congress and a Democratic President just combined to pass a massive $1.9 trillion spending bill sold as a solution to the economic woes caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to a compliant media, they had an easy job of it: Instead of scrutinizing the bill’s spending choices, the broadcast networks built their coverage around its most popular provision as well as sympathetic anecdotes about those in need.
From the day President Biden unveiled his plan (January 22) through the final day of Senate debate (March 5), the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts discussed the “American Rescue Plan” in a total of 68 stories, which combined for 69 minutes, 27 seconds of airtime. ABC’s World News Tonight aired significantly more coverage (32 minutes, 31 seconds) than either the CBS Evening News (18 minutes, 16 seconds) and the NBC Nightly News (18 minutes, 40 seconds).
■ Dissecting this coverage, the networks mainly directed viewers to think about the $1,400 checks to individuals, mentioning this singularly popular line item in about three-fifths of all stories (40). That was twice as often as they talked about the money that would be spent on vaccines and testing to fight the pandemic itself (20 stories). Other top topics: additional unemployment benefits (20 stories), the $15 minimum wage, later scrubbed (19 stories), funding for schools (12 stories) and help to small businesses (12 stories).
■ What viewers never heard about on these newscasts: How more than $1 trillion in funds previously allocated by Congress had yet to be distributed, and how the much-claimed shortfall in state and local government tax revenues had failed to materialize.
According to the New York Times (March 1): “New data shows that a year after the pandemic wrought economic devastation around the country, forcing states to revise their revenue forecasts and prepare for the worst, for many the worst didn’t come....By some measures, the states ended up collecting nearly as much revenue in 2020 as they did in 2019.”
That would seem to undercut the urgency of distributing another $350 billion in aid to those not-so-impoverished states.
While the newscasts did air soundbites from Republicans saying the bill contained spending unrelated to pandemic, reporters never once let viewers know the embarrassing specifics. The House bill, for example, included $141 million in funding for a San Francisco subway project, plus $1.5 million for a bridge connecting New York and Canada.
While both of these projects were dropped in the Senate bill, it probably wasn’t due to adverse publicity — the Democrats’ attempt to fund these favored projects didn’t earn a second of coverage on any of the evening newscasts.
■ Instead of scrutinizing the bill’s spending choices, the networks built their coverage around sympathetic anecdotes. On the January 22 Nightly News, for example, anchor Lester Holt set up a piece by intoning how “you don’t have to go far from the White House to find the economic pain of the pandemic.”
A couple of weeks later, on February 4, CBS’s Ed O’Keefe reported on an unemployed woman who fretted: “If they don’t extend the unemployment benefits, that would put me in a very scary situation.”
On February 20, ABC’s MaryAlice Parks highlighted a Seattle woman of whom, she said, “a relief check could help keep a roof over her head.” Arianna Laureano told ABC: “I’m probably gonna be homeless in a month or two. I have, like, $300 in savings that I can combine with my disability check, now that I’ve lost my job.”
Altogether, a dozen of the stories (18%) utilized anecdotes such as these to build sympathy for the third gargantuan “emergency” spending bill in less than a year.
Putting aside the fact that the $1,400 direct payments would go to both the fully employed who do not need it as well as the unemployed who do need help, the individual checks and the enhanced unemployment benefits combined amount to less than 40% of the overall price tag.
During the Trump years, the establishment liberal media championed themselves as truth-tellers who would hold his administration accountable. In covering the first major initiative of the Biden administration, the networks executed a full flip-flop — abandoning any pretense of hostility in favor of providing aid and comfort for a massive spending bill that goes far beyond what’s necessary to help those who are actually in need.