Mainstream media outlets focus on the price tag of Biden’s proposals — then complain the public doesn’t know specifics

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy

Nearly six months ago in an address to Congress, President Joe Biden introduced his plans for major new infrastructure and an expanded social safety net in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But since then, mainstream media outlets have framed the Biden administration’s proposal around the continued internal debates in Congress over the final size of the package, rather than the specific policies that are actually winning public support in the polls.

The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Media outlets say the public knows more about the price tag than the specific proposals — because those media outlets keep talking more about the price tag than any specific proposals.

On Sunday’s edition of CBS’ Face the Nation, this narrative was covered by moderator Margaret Brennan and CBS News elections and surveys director Anthony Salvanto, as they reviewed the network’s poll data that showed the public had greater awareness of the arguments over the price tag than over the specifics. But polling also showed that the specifics are “popular in principle.”

Just to be clear, CBS News had posted an online article just days earlier, “What's in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill?” which discussed “major items in the bill” including free community college, assistance for child care, Medicare expansion, an extended child tax credit, and paid family and medical leave. But these explanations only made their way into this segment in passing references.

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Citation From the October 10, 2021, edition of CBS’ Face the Nation

ANTHONY SALVANTO (CBS NEWS DIRECTOR OF ELECTIONS AND SURVEYS): You have got a majority of people who say they have heard something about that it might be $3.5 trillion in spending. You have got a majority of people who say they have heard something about potential tax increases for higher-income people.

But that really outweighs the number of people who've heard about things like lowering Medicare drug prices or Medicare coverage being expanded to dental and eye and hearing.

Now, there's good news for Democrats in this, too, even though there's this lack of knowledge. And that is that those policy proposals are popular in principle. Where does that all leave you though? Well, there aren’t a majority of people who feel like this bill right now would help them and their family or help the economy. That’s part of that disconnect and that lack of awareness, and this is going to be, I think, the big measure to watch going forward.

Brennan then interviewed Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who in turn discussed some of these specific items.

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Citation From the October 10, 2021, edition of CBS’ Face the Nation

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): I think I hear the same thing, that not enough Americans know what's in this bill. But when they find out, they really applaud what's in it, in particular, expanding Medicare to cover hearing and dental and vision care, lowering prescription drug prices, expanding family and paid medical leave, as well as child care and lifting children out of poverty.

So, the provisions of the bill are hugely popular, but there's been so much fixation on what's the number that the House and Senate are going to agree to? What's the number that Democrats can come together on?

I do think this is a very short-lived problem. We're going to get both of these bills passed. They're going to be enormously important to the economy. And once we do, we're not going to make the mistake I think we did with the Affordable Care Act. We're going to go out and we're going to promote this and let people know how it's directly impacting them.

Brennan then posed a bizarre follow-up point, framed around a both-sides narrative: “When you're doing it only on party lines, it once again looks to people at home like, ‘They can't get along, Washington's not working again.’” (This was especially odd, considering that Schiff was on the program to discuss his new book arguing that Republican loyalty to former President Donald Trump represents a genuine threat to American democracy, in the wake of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But it is also odd considering that the years-long Republican threat of mass obstruction in Congress counts on the public to blame the party in charge for the behavior – an assumption that Brennan leans into without acknowledging.)

“Well, look, we have a Republican Party that is now an autocratic cult around Donald Trump. It is not interested in governing. It's not interested in even maintaining the solvency and the creditworthiness of the country,” Schiff said. He also added, “We’re going to govern. We’re going to have to do it. If we have to do it with our own votes, we will do that. But we need to show that democracy delivers, that it can help people put food on the table, that it can address these huge disparities in income.”

Then on Wednesday’s edition of CNN’s Inside Politics with John King, the panel also went over that network’s own poll results, which found only 25% of respondents saying their families would better off if the package is passed, and 43% saying things would be about the same — which CNN political director David Chalian called “a clear failure to date, to actually sell what it is the Democrats are trying to do, to the American people broadly.”

“There's been so much debate for months now, literally months now, we have heard about top-line numbers going back and forth,” said Chalian. He further added: “When you know you look at other polling, popular items are part of the substance of this. That is not getting through to the American people, quite clearly, our poll says.”

Anchor John King further bemoaned: “So the big fight has been about the price tag, which is incredibly important here in Washington, because you can’t write the policy particulars until you know how much money you have to spend. And yet, they have — the American people out there are listening to all these numbers and they don't understand, well, that means free pre-K, that means free community college, that means help with child care.”

Washington Post White House reporter Seung-Min Kim pointed out that Biden this week would be “launching a new national tour to go out and sell the plan.” However, she also said: “But one problem is that they haven't agreed on a package, so we can't talk, we can’t tell readers what is in the package until the Democrats come to an agreement. So that’s challenge number one.”

Just to be clear, both CNN and The Washington Post have had reports for months on what the $3.5 trillion package actually contained.

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Citation From the October 13, 2021, edition of CNN’s Inside Politics with John King

But a similar complaint was lodged on MSNBC’s MTP Daily, when host Chuck Todd simultaneously complained there was supposedly no economic plan — defining such a goalpost only in terms of a completed piece of legislation — while acknowledging he knew of the policy goals. 

“It’s interesting to me to hear the president wants to go and sell a plan. What plan is there to sell?” Todd said. “And I say this — I know generally what they want to do, but the specifics are getting harder and harder to nail down. And there are, if it goes in one direction there'll be more things to campaign on. If it goes in another direction, there'll be fewer things.”

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Citation From the October 13, 2021, edition of MSNBC’s MTP Daily