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19 August 1999

Our current howler (part III): Where were they?

Synopsis: Last month, the press corps clarified the surplus debate. Where were they in ’95-96?

Commentary by Tim Russert, Sandra from Tennessee
Russert, CNBC, 12/12/95

“Tell Newt to Shut Up”
David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, Touchstone, 1996

How badly was the American public misled in the 1995 Medicare discourse? Quite badly, as we will soon see. Speaker Gingrich and the GOP leaders had recited two parts of a three-number story. They said they would spend $6700 per Medicare recipient in the year 2002. And they mentioned the $4800 per person then being spent. Their future spending proposal had sounded pretty good, compared to that $4800.

But they had neglected to mention the kicker. Their own CBO was estimating that, in 2002, it would cost $8000 per recipient to maintain the existing Medicare program—far more than the GOP proposed spending. Their proposed future spending fell far short of what the existing program would cost. But the public was given only the first two numbers, and that created a misleading impression. Listen to a caller to Tim Russert's CNBC show, offering comments often heard on programs:

RUSSERT: Let's go to the phones. Tennessee, Sandra, you have a question?

SANDRA: Yes. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, the majority of people, when asked, thought the Republicans were actually cutting Medicare. When they were informed that Medicare was rising by 47%, they indicated that they thought—by 60%, that they thought that was too much. When is the press going to start telling the American people what's really happening? And if they don't, how can they say we are having fair elections?

The caller was expressing the Medicare picture lodged in the Speaker's presentation. She seemed to believe that the 47% "rise" in dollar spending (over seven years) was actually a rise in Medicare services; she was saying the increase in Medicare services was more than she wanted or needed. In fact, it was not at all clear that the GOP could maintain existing services for the spending they proposed. But citizens, misled by the Speaker's presentation, were now telling the nation they were willing to give part of their "Medicare rise" back.

That's the confusion that resulted from the Speaker's pitch—and from the press corps' unrelenting failure to clarify the two-year debate. For two full years, the GOP made its two-part presentation—and the press failed to cite the third number. Maraniss and Weisskopf cited the CBO projection in their invaluable book, "Tell Newt to Shut Up." But all through 1996, we never saw it cited again. Many citizens kept thinking the GOP had promised an increase in Medicare services. Gail Wilensky's recent report on effects of the modest 1997 adjustments began to show how mistaken that view had been (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/18/99).

We thought back to the remarkable Medicare discourse in the wake of the recent budget surplus discussion, when the press corps acted so quickly and competently to clarify a new fiscal matter. Once again, the public was given a cheerful budget presentation—and the presentation was profoundly misleading. But this time, the Washington Post (and others) acted swiftly and deftly to point out problems with the surplus projections. Why was the press corps so competent now, and so hapless in 1996?

We're sorry now that we raised the topic, because it takes us right to the question of motive, a place we generally try to avoid here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters. In fact, our brilliantly-trained analysts often complain when journalists tell us why someone did something. Obviously, it's one thing to say what a public figure has done, and quite another to say why he did it.

The truth is, we can't tell you with certainty why the press corps failed back then—or why it has done its job so much better now. But there is one obvious explanation. Let's call it the triumph of politics.

In 1995, the newly-ascendant GOP wanted to have the Medicare tale told their way. And the Congressional elections of 1994 had given the GOP new cachet—and new power. A powerful new Speaker was publicly bullying journalists about the way they described the Republican plan. And behind the scenes, a major GOP effort was underway to influence a timorous press corps.

In "Tell Newt to Shut Up", Maraniss and Weisskopf described GOP efforts to shape coverage of their Medicare proposal. In early 1995, polling showed that the public was disturbed to hear the GOP was "cutting" Medicare. In response, Republican pollster Linda DiVall conducted extensive focus group sessions, looking for ways to describe the plan that would be less upsetting to voters. After her sessions, she made several recommendations to GOP leaders. Above all else, she told the leaders, the GOP must never use the troubling word "cut" in describing its proposal for Medicare.

An extensive effort was made by the leadership to influence the national press corps:

MARANISS AND WEISSKOPF: [Kasich] pounded away on the issue, calling reporters late at night or early in the morning to warn them off the dreaded word. "I worked them over," he said. [RNC chairman Haley] Barbour was equally vigilant. He called the anchorman at ABC and NBC and a correspondent at CBS and chided them for using the word. He held breakfasts and lunches with reporters at his conference table at the RNC to go over the difference between cuts and slowing the rate of growth.

In short, a concerted effort was under way to make sure that the story was reported a certain way. Unfortunately, it led to coverage that misled the public about the implications of both parties' Medicare proposals.

It's quite different in today's budget discourse. In today's ongoing budget discussion, both major parties are involved in promoting the "illusory" projected federal surplus. The GOP wants to use the projected surplus for tax cuts; the White House wants to use the projected money in several ways, including a prescription drug program for Medicare. But since both parties claim the projections are sound, there is no partisan content to challenging the claim. And there is certainly no aggressive effort under way to influence reporting on the subject, as there was in 1995 and 1996 concerning the GOP Medicare plan.

We do believe it's important to note how the parties can influence reporting. Next week, we'll look again at the deference sometimes paid to silly spin from RNC fax machines. But the 1995-96 Medicare coverage was the press corps debacle of the decade. And why did the mainstream press corps' skills fade like the dew in its Medicare coverage? To all appearances, the press corps succumbed to powerful influence. The confusion voiced by Russert's caller was the price paid when the press took a dive.


Tomorrow: No. We don't think CelebCorps has done enough about the problems with the projected budget surplus.

Also tomorrow—DO NOT MISS: Field trip! A visit to our incomparable companion site, the long-dormant SOCRATES READS! We will offer links to three position papers, written in 1996, which examined the ongoing Medicare discourse. How did we obtain these remarkable papers? Without question, that will one day stand as the greatest story in the musty annals of world publishing history. This makes Shadow look like a car wash leaflet! We strongly advise—do not miss!