Right-wing media have used questioning by CBS' Steve Kroft of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to accuse her of a "conflict of interest" based on an investment in Visa, ignoring her shepherding of historic credit card reform. Kroft's questioning will air on tonight's 60 Minutes, which was reportedly based on a forthcoming book by Peter Schweizer, the editor in chief of one of Andrew Breitbart's websites. Schweizer has worked on behalf of President Bush, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, and drew criticism for a previous false attack on Pelosi.
A young Democrat is elected President on a theme of hope and change, does some of the things he was elected to do, Republicans howl and win control of Congress in a landslide mid-term election, and the media becomes infatuated with a new crop of Republican governors who are trying to dramatically reconfigure state budgets.
That's a reasonable summary of the current state of affairs, but it also describes the first few years of Bill Clinton's presidency. But it isn't the similarity that's striking: After all, there's a reason the phrase "history has a way of repeating itself" exists. Or, perhaps more appropriately: "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." See, what's really striking about the current situation is how few reporters seem to remember what happened in the 1990s.
Most notably, the past few weeks have seen massive media attention paid to state budget deficits, and attempts by Republican governors like Chris Christie to blame out-of-control pension obligations for those deficits (even as they pursue deficit-increasing tax cuts.) A Google News search for the words "state budget pension deficit" in the past month yields 3,680 hits. News organizations like the Washington Post feature "States in crisis" special reports playing up "pension liabilities" as the source of the problem. And of course conservatives are eager to make that case, as Bill O'Reilly does in his latest column:
Many states cannot pay health and pension benefits because the tax revenue is not nearly enough to cover expenses.
Given how common that refrain is, and how many news stories there have been about New Jersey's pension system and its role in budget shortfalls, it's amazing how rarely Christine Whitman's name comes up.
Whitman was one of those star Republican governors of the early 1990s. Like so many other Republican governors who win media attention for innovative approaches, she made her name through the not-so-innovative strategy of cutting taxes. Since she had to offset those tax cuts in order to balance New Jersey's budget, she reduced payments into the state's pension system. And that, as the New York Times noted last August, "contributed to the growth of the unfunded liability" that is now widely blamed for New Jersey's budget shortfall.
Did Chris Cristie's speechwriters script this CBS report on state budget deficits? It certainly reads that way.
In 2,600 words about state deficits, you won't find the phrase "tax cuts." Instead, CBS adopts the Republican framing that deficits are all about spending -- frequently with loaded phrasing like "gold-plated retirement and health care packages." And throughout the report, CBS allows Christie, New Jersey's Republican governor, to launch attacks on unions and make unsupported claims about budget problems, all without ever challenging his assertions and without including substantive disagreement from Christie critics.
CBS quotes Christie declaring: "We have a benefit problem. … It's not an income problem from the state. It's a benefit problem. And so we gotta change those benefits." No contrary view is included.
Then there's this passage:
Then there's New Jersey. It has the highest taxes in the country, a $10 billion deficit and a depressed economy when first-year Governor Chris Christie took office. But after looking at the books, he decided to walk away from a long-planned and much-needed project with New York and the federal government to build a rail tunnel into Manhattan. It would have helped the economy and given employment to 6,000 construction workers.
Gov. Christie acknowledged that's a lot of jobs. "I canceled it. I mean, listen, the bottom line is I don't have the money. And you know what? I can't pay people for those jobs if I don't have the money to pay them. Where am I getting the money? I don't have it. I literally don't have it."
You'd never know from CBS's handling of the tunnel that there are people, like Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who argue that the tunnel would have had a stimulative effect on the economy, and that killing it was therefore shortsighted, as a stimulated economy produces more tax revenue. No, CBS simply presented Christie's opposition to the tunnel as gospel.
And here's how CBS addressed New Jersey's pension problems:
It's also the truth that some of the responsibility for New Jersey's pension woes lie at the doorstep of the governor's mansion. Christie and his predecessors have failed to contribute to the state's share of its pension obligation in 13 of the last 17 years, one of the reasons the fund is going broke. Christie says it's ancient history.
"We spent too much on everything. We spent too much. We spent money we didn't have. We borrowed money just crazily. The credit cards maxed out, and it's over. It's over. We now have to get to the business of climbin' out of the hole. We've been diggin' it for a decade or more. We've gotta climb now, and a climb is harder. Gotta do it," he said.
You'd never know from CBS' report that a big part of the reason that "Christie and his predecessors" failed to make required contributions to the pension fund is that they decided to use the money for tax cuts instead. (Like I said, the CBS report takes the GOP-friendly stance that deficits are all about spending, not revenue.)
As the New York Times noted on August 19:
Christine Todd Whitman became governor in 1994, and to balance out her deep tax cuts, she reduced the payments to the state's pension funds. That contributed to the growth of the unfunded liability.
If Christie didn't get a producer credit on the 60 Minutes segment, he should have.
And remember: This was CBS, not CNS. The fact that news organizations like CBS routinely produce reports that adopt conservative framing, particularly on economic issues, is yet another reminder that right-wing claims of "liberal bias" are absurd.
UPDATE: AFSCME blasts CBS:
Last night on 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft's segment correctly noted that many of our state and local governments are struggling to close looming budget gaps. But his one-sided report failed to identify the root causes of this crisis, or barely recognize the sacrifices that public employees have made to help to address these deficits since our financial system nearly collapsed more than two years ago. During these difficult times, public employees have helped bring budgets back into balance by sacrificing pay and benefits. However, the 60 Minutes report relied too heavily on testimony by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie which falsely blamed public employees and unions for the fiscal challenges that have arisen because of the irresponsible behavior of Wall Street and Christie's predecessors.
From the September 26 edition of CBS News' 60 Minutes:
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On his radio show, Bill O'Reilly falsely claimed that during interviews conducted by 60 Minutes, Sen. John McCain was asked about the financial crisis on Wall Street while Sen. Barack Obama was not. In fact, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft asked Obama several questions about the financial crisis, including, "What caused it? Who's to blame?" and "Do you think that Secretary of the Treasury [Henry] Paulson has done the right thing?"
During interviews with Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft characterized Obama's economic agenda as "ambitious and expensive," citing the costs of Obama's infrastructure, alternative energy, and health care plans, but there was no similar characterization of McCain's tax agenda by correspondent Scott Pelley, who interviewed McCain, even though, according to the Tax Policy Center, McCain's tax plan would likely add $1.5 trillion more to the federal deficit over 10 years than Obama's tax plan.
In recent interviews with President Bush, Jim Lehrer and Scott Pelley did not challenge several false or misleading claims that President Bush made about Iraq.
During a profile of "scary smart," " 'girly' and fun" Condoleezza Rice, broadcast on 60 Minutes, Katie Couric let Rice make, without challenge, a series of false and misleading statements about the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq and its use of prewar intelligence, as well as the war's effect on global instability. Couric tossed Rice softball questions, such as, "Is it hard for you to have a social life?" "[H]ow does one go about asking the secretary of state out on a date?"