As the debt ceiling drama reaches its potential climax this month, liberal journalists say this is the wrong time for a debate about the government’s massive spending. “Raising the debt limit, of course, has to do with paying off debt that has already been accrued,” ABC correspondent Mary Bruce instructed on World News Tonight on April 26. “This does not authorize new spending.”
“We’re talking about raising the debt limit, so the government can pay for spending that has already been approved,” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson echoed on MSNBC on May 2. “This is not for future spending. So, it is the height of irresponsibility, not to raise the debt ceiling.”
But a new Media Research Center study finds broadcast network reporters never criticized the size of the most massive spending bills (more than $1 trillion) passed by the Congress going back to 2018. Instead, reporters usually echoed the politicians promoting this spending by repeatedly listing the benefits of each bill, without discussing how the spending would affect the national debt or deficits.
■ The coverage included three times as many complaints that these enormous spending bills were too small or omitted too much (63) than observations that they were too big or too expensive (20 statements, all from Republicans).
■ Viewers heard 301 statements recounting the benefits provided by these various spending bills, vs. just five statements (again, all from Republicans) about their impact on the budget deficit or national debt.
These results show the language of reporters, who are supposed to be watchdogs on alert against government excesses, has become indistinguishable from liberal politicians — excited about the promised benefits of big government spending plans without concern for the effects of an out-of-control national debt.
Details: There have been eight pieces of legislation with official price tags greater than $1 trillion, all since March 2018. Four were omnibus spending bills ranging from $1.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion that funded large swaths of the government — usually at the last minute and with too many pages to be read.
Three were new spending initiatives: The initial COVID relief package ($2.0 trillion) called the “CARES Act” passed in March 2020, the $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” passed by Democrats in March 2021, and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that became law later in 2021.
An eighth bill, passed in December 2020, combined a large COVID bill with an enormous year-end spending package. At an estimated $2.3 trillion, this was the most expensive single piece of legislation ever passed by a U.S. Congress (at least so far).
This study looked at ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage of the final phases of each of these eight pieces of legislation, after the negotiations were complete and the bills were in the process of being passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President. Sometimes this was a period as short as two days; in the case of the 2021 infrastructure bill, the Senate passed the final version of the legislation in early August, but the House did not act until November, a three-month time frame.
If journalists regarded these bills as dangerously expensive, it would be expected that this would be a significant element of news coverage as these bills passed into law. Yet our study found no reporter ever criticized any of these massive bills as excessive or irresponsible.
■ March 2018: On March 22, 2018, the House and Senate passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir touted would “avert a government shutdown.” He ticked off the programs funded: “$1.6 billion for border security and fencing, $700 billion for the military, $600 million for election security, and $50 million in grants for school safety.”
Total coverage of this huge bill was less than four minutes (93 seconds on ABC’s World News Tonight, 123 seconds on the CBS Evening News, and just 20 seconds on the NBC Nightly News). And most of that came on March 23, after President Trump briefly threatened to kill the bill; the only suggestion that the price tag was excessive came when NBC’s Peter Alexander summarized Trump as “complaining the trillion-dollar six month spending plan cost too much without giving Americans enough in return.”
But the bill became law later that day, with Trump vowing: “I will never sign another bill like this again.”
■ December 2019: Congress reached agreement on a $1.4 trillion spending bill on December 15, 2019 and passed it later that week. But that was also the week that the House of Representatives impeached President Trump over charges related to Ukraine, so none of the evening newscasts found it worth mentioning as the House and Senate voted.
When Trump signed the bill into law on December 21, NBC Nightly News was the only evening newscasts to even mention it; correspondent Kelly O’Donnell gave it just 30 seconds as part of a broader round-up of Trump news: “Among the highlights: a 3.1 percent military pay raise; $1.4 billion for border fending, a Trump priority; $25 million for gun violence research, important for Democrats.” The coverage included no criticism of the size of the bill, nor any suggestion that the amount was at all controversial.
■ March 2020: Congressional leaders reached a deal March 25, 2020 on the $2.0 trillion CARES act, the first of the major COVID relief bills. It was signed into law two days later on March 27. Despite its unprecedented price tag, reporters never criticized it as too large, although CBS’s Norah O’Donnell on March 25 did remark about its size: “It’s massive, I mean, roughly half the entire federal budget.” But CBS wasn’t objecting; moments later, correspondent Nancy Cordes lauded the money as “CPR for a critically ill economy,” and the network’s financial analyst Jill Schlesinger argued: “This bill is a start. We’ll see if it’s enough.”
That same night on NBC, anchor Lester Holt also suggested the massive expenditure might be too small: “That new stimulus package includes hundreds of billions of dollars for small businesses, but will that be enough?”
Network stories routinely ticked off the list of handouts, starting with the $1,200 direct cash payments to most adult Americans, plus $500 for each child. Given the urgency of the moment, it’s understandable the lack of criticism of the bill’s size, but in more than 14 minutes of coverage, there wasn’t even a single reference to how the massive expenditure would inevitably balloon the deficit and the national debt.
■ December 2020: The most expensive single piece of legislation in U.S. history, this $2.3 trillion bill fused an omnibus $1.4 trillion appropriations bill with an additional $900 billion in COVID relief. But after the House and Senate reached agreement on December 20, the network news coverage amplified those complaining that the bill was too stingy.
One provision was to send direct payments of $600 to most adults, with another $600 for each child. “$600 is nothing,” one woman complained on ABC’s World News Tonight on December 20. “It’s like a slap in our face.”
“It’s already drawing fire as too little, too late,” CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell derided the next night. In the subsequent report, an unemployed mother (pictured) scoffed: “It’s embarrassing... $600 is the amount of money that rich people think poor people think is a lot of money.”
President Trump added his voice on December 23, asking for the size of the payments to be increased to $2,000; he ultimately signed the bill without changes on December 28. Overall, viewers heard 55 complaints about the supposed insufficiency of this bill, vs. just two statements (both attributed to Republicans) that the legislation already cost too much. There were no comments about the impact of this spending on the debt and deficit.
■ March 2021: Less than three months after that $2.3 trillion law was signed, Congress passed another $1.9 trillion in a spending package dubbed by advocates “The American Rescue Plan.” The final deal was reached on March 6, with President Biden signing the measure on March 11.
Most of the coverage consisted of a repetitive laundry list of its benefits — “billions of dollars in aid for states, schools and small businesses, plus direct $1,400 payments to many Americans,” ABC’s MaryAlice Parks announced on March 6.
“Analysts say the bill, which passed without a single Republican vote, will also dramatically cut poverty nationwide, funding programs for food aid and housing assistance and offering tax credits for children,” CBS’s Norah O’Donnell promised on March 10.
Viewers heard 73 statements about the various goodies being funded in the bill, vs. just 15 statements — all attributed to Republicans — that it cost too much. “It passed without a single Republican vote, GOP lawmakers saying it’s just too expensive,” ABC’s Mary Bruce told viewers on March 11 — a single sentence tucked into a two-and-a-half minute report on what Bruce herself touted as “much-needed relief to millions of Americans.”
Coverage over those six days totalled more than 35 minutes, yet there were only three explicit references to the debt and deficit (all attributed to the GOP). “[Republicans] argued this bill balloons the deficit and spends too much on non-COVID related items,” NBC’s Kristen Welker explained the night Biden signed the bill into law.
■ August-November 2021: The Senate reached a deal August 7, 2021 on the final outlines of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, passing the measure on August 10. The legislation then sat on a shelf until it was passed by the House on November 5 and signed by President Biden ten days later.
As with the “American Rescue Plan,” most of the “news” coverage amounted to advertising the benefits in the bill, with barely any concern about the price tag. In just over 32 minutes of coverage, there were only two references to the impact on the debt and deficit, both quoting Republican critics.
“A trillion dollars is an astronomical number, and our children are going to have to pay for it,” CBS Weekend News viewers heard in a clip of Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) on August 7.
In contrast, there were 71 statements listing off the benefits that Americans would enjoy once the bill became law. “The bill funnels billions to upgrade public transit, improve water supply, and expand broadband Internet to rural communities,” ABC’s Rachel Scott touted on November 8, adding: “It aims to put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work.”
■ March 2022: There was little interest on the evening newscasts when Congress passed a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill in March 2022: Just 10 seconds on the March 12 CBS Weekend News, 11 seconds on the March 15 ABC World News Tonight, and 13 seconds on the March 11 NBC Nightly News.
There wasn’t any concern about the price tag, either, or the impact on the national debt or deficit. One item that was mentioned in all three brief reports: a provision sending “nearly $14 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine, to help refugees and to restock the country with more badly needed military equipment,” as NBC’s Peter Alexander explained March 11.
■ December 2022: Evening news viewers heard no criticism of the price tag when Congress passed a $1.7 trillion year-end spending bill, as all three networks commended how the bill “averts a government shutdown.” Only ABC’s World News Tonight called the bill “massive” — once on December 22 after Senate passage, and again on December 23 after the House passed the same legislation. None of the networks mentioned the debt or deficits.
Massive as it was, the bill was also played as a minor news story: ABC spent just 81 seconds on the legislation over two nights (December 22-23), while NBC only bothered with 22 seconds on December 22 (after it passed the Senate). The CBS Evening News was even stingier with airtime, giving it just 19 seconds on December 23, after the House vote. None of the three networks bothered to cover it on their December 30 evening news, the day President Biden signed it into law.
You’ve already heard the media slam Republicans for using this moment as an opportunity to push for restraint on future spending. The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell popped up on CNN to spout the traditional cliche of Republicans “negotiat[ing] with a gun to the head of the global economy, right, to take the debt limit hostage,” while MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough ridiculously hyped that the GOP’s proposed spending outline would be “absolutely catastrophic” and make Americans’ lives “more difficult, more dangerous.”
But a close look at how we achieved the current $31.4 trillion national debt shows that the media have been as irresponsible as the big spenders in Congress — cheering the benefits of trillions of dollars in new spending, without raising a peep about the negative consequences of all of that new debt.
Journalists often purport to be watchdogs ready to blow the whistle on irresponsible politicians. This study shows that, when it comes to government spending, they’re simply not doing their jobs.