60 Minutes' one-sided, GOP-friendly report on state budgets

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.


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.