By focusing on earmarks -- less than 2 percent of spending bill -- media allow bill's opponents to dictate debate

››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS, LILY YAN & NATHAN TABAK

Numerous media outlets have devoted significant coverage to the earmarks contained in the pending omnibus appropriations bill, even though, according to most estimates, earmarks constitute less than 2 percent of the total spending in the bill. In many instances, the media have allowed attacks by Sen. John McCain and other opponents of the omnibus bill to dominate their coverage of the legislation -- at times themselves characterizing the bill as laden with "pork."

In reporting on the pending omnibus appropriations bill, numerous media outlets have devoted significant coverage to the earmarks contained in the bill, even though -- according to most estimates -- earmarks constitute less than 2 percent of the total spending in the bill. For instance, several media outlets have highlighted attacks by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and others on what McCain says are the "porkiest projects" in the bill. Beyond highlighting these attacks, in many instances the media have allowed these attacks to dominate their coverage of the legislation, in some cases even adopting opponents' characterization of the bill as laden with "pork."

For example, on the March 8 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host David Gregory stated: "I want to get to an important debate this week, and that's about this spending bill, this omnibus spending bill that's full of pork, full of pet projects." Gregory then aired a clip of McCain decrying the "9,000 earmarks" in the bill and, while Gregory did note that the earmarks were bipartisan, he did not note that earmarks represent less than 2 percent of spending in the bill.

Similarly, outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press described the bill as "laden with earmarks" and "contain[ing] more than 8,500 earmarks with an estimated price tag of $7.7 billion," respectively, without noting the cost of the earmarks in comparison to the overall bill, which totals an estimated $410 billion. Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates earmarks in the bill total $7.7 billion -- or 1.9 percent of the total bill -- while Democrats estimate the number is $3.8 billion -- or 0.9 percent -- and the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee estimate the number is $5.5 billion -- or 1.3 percent.

In many other instances, the media have reported on the number or cost of earmarks in the bill or characterized the bill as "stuffed" or "laden" with earmarks without noting the cost of the earmarks as a percentage of the overall spending bill. For example:

  • In a March 9 Washington Post article, staff writer Scott Wilson reported that McCain "challenged Obama to veto a stopgap spending bill that contains about 8,000 earmarks, which are projects requested by individual lawmakers, usually for their states or districts" and that "[a]dministration officials have argued that the earmarks, which McCain estimated add up to $8 billion, have been carried over from last year's budget process" without noting the total cost of the bill or the cost of the earmarks as a percentage of the overall spending bill.
  • In a March 9 Los Angeles Times article, staff writer Janet Hook wrote that the "the bill is laden with earmarks" without noting the overall cost of the earmarks or the cost as a percentage of what she noted was a "$410-billion spending bill."
  • In a March 8 Houston Chronicle article, Chronicle Washington bureau chief Rick Dunham and staff writer Stewart M. Powell reported that Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) "blasted his fellow House Republicans, former President George W. Bush and, most vociferously, House Democrats for covertly devoting billions of dollars to earmarks" without mentioning the total cost of the earmarks or their cost as a percentage of the overall spending bill.
  • In a March 8 Wall Street Journal article, staff reporter Christopher Conkey reported on "Senate Republicans ... block[ing] a $410 billion bill that would fund government operations through September, objecting to some 8,500 earmarks it contains" without mentioning the cost of the earmarks or their percentage of the total "$410 billion bill."
  • In a March 7 Washington Times article, staff writers David R. Sands and S.A. Miller reported on "the more than 9,000 member-directed earmarks in the omnibus bill" but never provided the total cost of the earmarks or their cost as a percentage of what they noted was a "$410 billion spending package."
  • In a March 4 New York Times article, staff writer Jeff Zeleny wrote that McCain "strongly criticized the president as failing to follow through on a campaign promise to oppose a spending bill that contains billions of dollars in legislative earmarks for special projects" but never provided the total cost of the earmarks as a percentage of the overall spending bill.
  • In a March 4 Associated Press article, AP writer Henry C. Jackson reported that the omnibus bill "contains more than 8,500 earmarks with an estimated price tag of $7.7 billion" as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) stating, "We've got 9,000 earmarks that the House passed last week, $7.7 billion. 4,000 of those earmarks are from Republicans." But the AP never noted the overall cost of the bill or the percentage of the cost represented by earmarks.
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