The decision by television news producers to rely on political guests and reporter-pundits in their coverage of the recent debt ceiling dispute not only pulled focus away from economic reality, it also gave TV media influencers room to reinforce a key falsehood about the nature of our deficits.
A Media Matters study of 273 cable news segments on the debt ceiling found 55 segments attributing deficits primarily to entitlement program spending, compared to just four segments acknowledging that rising health care costs and the economic collapse are to blame.
Economists are clear about the primary sources of recent deficits -- on top of the Bush tax cuts, the Great Recession triggered massively higher counter-cyclical spending, some of which was automatic for things like jobless benefits and food stamps, and some spending that was newly enacted to buoy a collapsing economy. Middle- and long-term deficit projections are more controversial, but many economists argue that once economic growth catches up to its potential, our fiscal health will depend almost entirely on our ability to control health care costs. This mainstream economist perspective appeared in just 1.4 percent of the debt ceiling segments Media Matters reviewed from a three week period, while over 20 percent of those segments blamed entitlements for the fiscal gloom.
CNBC, Fox News, and Fox Business viewers were far more likely to be told that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are dimming America's fiscal horizon than those who tuned into CNN or MSNBC for their debt ceiling coverage:
The tendency by the most conservative networks to focus on entitlement spending is telling in light of the right's claims about a struggle between "takers" and "makers." For conservative outlets and their mainstream enablers, each successive skirmish over spending and debt is an opportunity to re-focus the conversation on the supposed need to cut entitlement spending.
If economic experts were included in that cable news conversation, they could reveal some key data. For example, conservative proposals for Medicare would likely accelerate the growth of health care costs; minute changes to the payroll tax system could make Social Security solvent for 70 years; and "entitlement" programs spur economic growth for everyone.