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 programfar 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
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 thoughtby 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 pitchand
from the press corps' unrelenting failure to clarify the two-year
debate. For two full years, the GOP made its two-part presentationand
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 presentationand
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 thenor why it has done its job so much better
now. But there is one obvious explanation. Let's call it the triumph
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 cachetand 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 tomorrowDO 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 advisedo not miss!