REPORT: Despite warnings from many economists that stimulus may be too small, network news rarely raised the issue

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

A Media Matters review of the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news programs from January 25 through February 15 found that of the 59 broadcasts that addressed the economic stimulus package and debate in Congress during the three-week period leading up to and immediately following its passage, only three of those broadcasts included discussion of whether that package was big enough, despite statements from many economists that it may not be.

A Media Matters for America review of the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news programs from January 25 through February 15 found that of the 59 broadcasts that addressed the economic stimulus package and debate in Congress during the three-week period leading up to and immediately following its passage, only three of those broadcasts -- one on each network -- included discussion of whether that package was big enough, despite statements from many economists that it may not be and may have to be followed by additional measures. Although the size of the stimulus package was referenced during at least 48 of the broadcasts that addressed it -- with anchors and reporters, in many cases, characterizing the bill as "massive," "enormous," or "giant" -- rarely was the concern raised that the package's size may not have been adequate.

Indeed, The Washington Post reported on February 17, "[A]s big as it is, the final bill is smaller than what initially passed in the House and Senate, and it falls well short of filling the $2 trillion gap in demand that many economists foresee." Economist Mark Zandi wrote in an op-ed on February 15, "[M]y most significant criticism of the current stimulus plan is that it is too small." He added: "Our struggling economy will produce nearly $1 trillion less than it is capable of this year and will underperform again by at least as much in 2010. The $789 billion in spending and tax cuts to be distributed over those two years is not going to fill this expected hole in the economy. I would thus not be surprised if policymakers are forced to consider a second stimulus plan soon." (Zandi added, "Nonetheless, when combined with other aggressive policy steps, including efforts to shore up the financial system and stem foreclosures, this fiscal-stimulus plan will go a long way toward relieving the current economic crisis.") Zandi was not alone. Other economists -- including Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, James Galbraith, Eileen Appelbaum, and J. Bradford DeLong -- also assessed the stimulus package as too small.

In documenting the references to the size of the stimulus package during the evening news broadcasts, Media Matters included any questions or statements that referred to the overall size of the package with descriptions such as "huge," "enormous," "massive," "billions and billions of dollars," or provided a price tag for the total package -- for example "$825 billion" or "a trillion." Many of these examples are below:

ABC's World News

January 25:

DAN HARRIS (anchor): Good evening. President Obama promised a new tone in Washington, but just five days after he took office, the new Washington is looking a lot like the old Washington. It became very clear today that Republicans are really digging in their heels on Obama's $825 billion plan to rescue the economy. This is a huge early test for Obama, who wants to not only fix the economy, but do so with large bipartisan majorities.

[...]

HARRIS: So we clearly have a debate here between Republicans who want tax cuts and Democrats who are pushing a massive government spending program.

January 27:

CHARLES GIBSON (anchor): Good evening. President Obama wants his economic stimulus package passed and passed quickly. The new president also wants Republican support for the package. So, today, he went the extra mile, and personally went to Capitol Hill to try and sell his plan to Republicans. He presents them with a problem. Do they support a popular new Democratic president who is proposing a massive $800 billion plan or do they rise in opposition?

January 28:

GIBSON: President Obama's giant $825 billion economic stimulus package cleared its first hurdle today.

Also from January 28:

BETSY STARK (ABC News business correspondent): Yeah, Charlie, it's not just politicians who are arguing over the particulars of this stimulus bill. Economists are also debating which parts of this massive package are really stimulus, which are social policy, and which will do the best job of creating jobs in spending as quickly as possible.

February 1:

HARRIS: I'm Dan Harris. Tonight on World News: rescue plan or spending spree? As the massive stimulus bill moves to the Senate, there are signs of compromise tonight, but many Republicans remain reluctant. Should we be spending millions on the arts, they ask?

Also from February 1:

HARRIS: Coming off a week when companies from Caterpillar to Starbucks cut nearly 100,000 jobs, the Senate is gonna start debating the massive economic stimulus plan tomorrow. The stakes could not be higher for millions of Americans in pain, and for our new president who campaigned on the promise of bipartisanship.

February 2:

GIBSON: Good evening. President Obama wants to sign the enormous economic stimulus plan on Presidents Day, two weeks from today. Time enough if, and it's a big if, differences over the bill can be worked out by then.

February 3:

GIBSON: And we did talk to the president about his giant economic stimulus package now before the Congress. We'll get to that in just a moment.

Also from February 3:

GIBSON: As I mentioned, we did talk with the president about his economic stimulus plan. Despite his plea for bipartisan support, many Senate Republicans today said they do not feel his plan will really help the economy. And some offered their own $445 billion alternative stimulus plan. About half the cost of the president's. So, I asked the president if his proposal might be too ambitious. You said from the get-go that you wanted a very big stimulus package, and you wanted it quickly.

[...]

GIBSON: And so, within days, an $800 plus billion bill was written. Did haste make waste?

February 5:

GIBSON: Well, to Washington. The Senate is nearing a final vote on the giant economic stimulus package. The price tag on the Senate bill has actually grown. It's now over $900 billion. Moderates from both parties have been trying to hammer out a compromise that would cut that number down. But the calls for cooperation and bipartisanship are being drowned out by some very strident rhetoric.

February 6:

GIBSON: Welcome to World News. Tonight, a breakthrough. Senators reach tentative agreement on a giant economic stimulus plan, and leaders believe it will get enough votes to pass.

February 7:

DAVID MUIR (ABC News anchor): We turn now to Washington this evening, where the Senate held a rare Saturday session to debate President Obama's massive plan to rescue the economy. Tonight, the deal has been struck, but the partisan divide is wide and deep.

February 8:

HARRIS: We are, as we said at the top of the program, heading into a hectic and hugely consequential week in the debate over that massive stimulus bill. There is a lot on the line for the new president and for the entire American economy.

February 11:

GIBSON: Good evening. It may seem like the debate over the economic stimulus plan has been going on forever. But the fact is, the $789 billion bill agreed on today by congressional leaders, the biggest spending bill of its kind ever has been before Congress for just 17 days. Getting agreement in the Congress for anything, much less something this large, so quickly, is remarkable.

[...]

GIBSON: George, when you look at all this, this massive bill, as I said, the largest of its kind ever, at $789 billion, then you add the money that was already put out for fixing the financial system, $700 billion, and more may be needed there, these are massive amounts of money coming out of Congress.

February 13:

GIBSON: President Obama is on his way to a major victory tonight as Congress is giving final approval to the giant $787 billion economic stimulus plan and he will sign it next week.

February 14:

MUIR: We're gonna turn now this evening to Washington, where a bitterly divided Congress has given President Obama his first big legislative victory, passing that gigantic plan to rescue the economy.

February 15:

HARRIS: And now to the economy. President Obama has said that his massive stimulus package is just one leg of the stool when it comes to saving the economy.

NBC's Nightly News

January 26:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): The numbers these days become staggering after awhile, 300 billion worth of a bailout, a trillion dollars worth of stimulus, give or take. But today, when the bad news came out on jobs, it was again very bad, more than 50,000 of our fellow Americans, people with families and car payments, mortgages and rent. When the president and others talk about this bad economy, this is what they mean.

Also from January 26:

CHUCK TODD (NBC News White House correspondent): In addition to the financial bailout and expected housing relief, the Obama economic team is pushing the administration's massive stimulus package. Intending to build bipartisan support for the package, Obama makes his first visit to Capitol Hill as president on Tuesday to meet only with Republicans.

January 28:

WILLIAMS: Big money. A crucial vote on the president's massive stimulus plan as the massive debate continues.

Also from January 28:

KELLY O'DONNELL (NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent): And both parties agree that there's an urgent need to fix the economy, to create jobs, but how to do it is falling on party lines.

[...]

O'DONNELL: Meaning House Democrats, who have strength in numbers here, get the biggest say in how the giant stimulus plan shapes up and are quick to say Republicans already had their chance.

January 30:

WILLIAMS: And what should folks know about the status of this massive stimulus package we've heard so much talk about again as we head into another weekend?

February 3:

WILLIAMS: Mr. President, how do you make the case to American families who are losing jobs today, right now ... and hurting, and those who aren't are worried, that you've got something for them? That a big, enormous stimulus package is either going to save their job, get them a job, or generally help their lot in life. And meantime, they see the federal government buying up bad banks.

[...]

WILLIAMS: For all the provisions you just chose to outline, there are others, like the one Senator McConnell was mocking today, a subsidy for Hollywood filmmakers. Is it tougher to make the case that this enormous package is more like a million little things, is it getting pecked to death as you watch?

February 5:

WILLIAMS: Across town in Washington to Capitol Hill next, where the struggle to get President Obama's top priority through Congress has been anything but smooth sailing. The huge economic stimulus package is before the Senate tonight. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell on the story with us from Capitol Hill. Kelly, good evening.

O'DONNELL: Good evening, Brian. And because this is so big, the most expensive bill in the country's history, all day senators have been trying to find ways to trim the cost. They say they're hearing lots of loud concerns and complaints from back home. People worried, "Is there too much waste, and will it work to improve the economy?"

February 6:

WILLIAMS: On our broadcast tonight, down to the wire. First, there's the political fight over this massive plan to fix the economy. Then, there's the question: will it work?

Also from February 6:

WILLIAMS: And our lead story comes from Washington tonight. The big vote there on what President Obama wants badly to avert what he calls a catastrophe. The White House is lobbying for votes in the Senate, one by one, on this massive amount of money to stimulate the economy. We begin with our own Kelly O'Donnell on Capitol Hill.

[...]

O'DONNELL: After repeatedly and personally courting Republican support for the massive stimulus bill only to get GOP resistance, today President Obama returned to a campaign style message.

February 7:

LESTER HOLT (anchor): This was no day off for the U.S. Senate today, still debating that staggering stimulus package meant to jump-start the US economy. For his part, President Obama, battered but not bruised from this week's partisan collision, has left town for the weekend, confident he now has enough votes for the Senate to pass the bill. Moderates from both sides of the aisle managed last night to shave 100 billion or so off the price tag, but it is still an eye-watering $800 billion and change, and the president has plenty of campaigning ahead to convince Americans it will be money well spent.

February 10:

WILLIAMS: The president went to Florida today; where, during his travels, he was interrupted by news from home in Washington both good and bad. First, the Senate -- behind us here on Capitol Hill -- had passed his stimulus bill, the big money the president says is needed to avoid catastrophe.

February 12:

WILLIAMS: And now to this stimulus package. A vote's on track, and now the scrutiny begins over what's buried in the fine print. Kelly O'Donnell with us from Capitol Hill tonight with what we're learning about what's inside this huge piece of legislation. Kelly, good evening.

O'DONNELL: Brian, it took all day and all last night to simply get this written and ready for the final stage. Now, we've been talking about big infrastructure projects and financial aid to states. But some of the proposed changes are more personal and geared toward families. Everything about this is big. With unemployment at a 35-year high and home values falling 16 percent over one year, Congress is poised to spend more of your money than ever in U.S. history, $790 billion to try to revive the economy.

February 13:

WILLIAMS: Major hurdle. It comes down to tonight for that huge economic recovery plan in a deeply divided Congress.

Also from February 13:

WILLIAMS: Now to the other major story we've been following here every night all week, the slow march to a final vote on a massive collection of spending called the stimulus package. Tonight, it's the Senate's turn. A vote that sends it to the White House where it will be signed by the president on Monday.

[...]

O'DONNELL: The overall price tag dropped a fraction today, recalculated to a still massive $787 billion.

February 14:

HOLT: President Obama is spending this holiday weekend back home in Chicago after winning his first showdown with Congress with passage of that massive stimulus plan. NBC's John Yang is in Chicago now with the latest on that.

[...]

JOHN YANG (NBC News correspondent): The $787 billion package of spending increases and tax cuts is the most expensive bill ever. Mr. Obama says he wants to make sure the money isn't wasted.

[...]

YANG: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that 74 percent of the money will be pumped into the economy in the next 18 months. The massive legislation, which the president's to sign into law early next week, changed right up until the final hours, with last-minute edits made by hand.

CBS Evening News

January 28:

KATIE COURIC (anchor): Tonight, it's President Obama's first major piece of legislation. The House votes on the massive economic stimulus bill.

February 5:

CHIP REID (CBS News chief White House correspondent): But as the two parties point fingers, the size of the bill has soared in the Senate, with both parties voting overwhelmingly to add 69 billion to protect the middle class from the alternative minimum tax, 11 billion in tax credits for car buyers, and 19 billion in tax breaks for home buyers, bringing the total to more than $900 billion.

February 6:

COURIC: There's breaking news from Washington tonight. The Senate has reached tentative agreement on an economic stimulus package. Price tag: $780 billion trimmed down from more than 900 billion. The compromise followed more dismal economic news. We'll have more about that in a moment. But first, our chief White House correspondent Chip Reid has the latest on the stimulus deal. Chip:

REID: Well, Katie, you know, the price of the stimulus deal has done nothing but go up and up and up. It was up around $930 billion. A lot of people said there's no way they'll get it down to the target of $800 billion. They exceeded that, really extraordinary by congressional standards. They're now -- they now have a tentative deal for $780 billion. We're told a lot of the cuts are from aid to the states, especially spending for education.

By contrast, in only three broadcasts was the possibility of the bill's being too small even raised:

ABC's World News

February 8:

HARRIS: We are entering a pivotal week in the titanic battle over the economic stimulus bill. But after all the fighting, some are now arguing that $800 billion-plus is too small.

Also from February 8:

JOHN HENDREN (ABC News correspondent): The Senate and House must still reconcile their two different versions of the spending bill. The Senate would spend $827 billion, and the House, $819 billion. But some economists say both versions are too small.

ZANDI: It's possible that this won't be enough to jumpstart the economy, that, in fact, policymakers will have to come back and provide more help to the economy before all is said and done.

Also from February 8:

HARRIS: We are, as we said at the top of the program, heading into a hectic and hugely consequential week in the debate over that massive stimulus bill. There is a lot on the line for the new president and for the entire American economy. We have with us tonight Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, and ABC News analyst George Will. Paul, let me start with you. The Republicans are saying that this stimulus bill is a tired old liberal wish list. You, however, are arguing that the bill is too small. Explain.

KRUGMAN: Yeah. I mean, we have a very, very serious economic crisis. This bill is supposed to prop up demands. Now, if we look at the scale of the problem, the Congressional Budget Office says that we're gonna have a hole in the economy, insufficient spending to the tune of $2.9 trillion over the next three years. And we've got a sort of $800 billion plan to cope with it. It's actually quite a bit on the low side.

NBC's Nightly News

February 12:

WILLIAMS: Now, what about this country? We have these two separate tracks. We've got the stimulus package and we've got this bank bailout. What's the chance neither one is big enough?

DAVID FABER (CNBC anchor): We don't know on the stimulus. I mean, you know, we're just going to be trying to guess there in terms of how quickly -- you heard an economist in one of the earlier pieces talk about maybe job losses will slow by the end of the year. And yet Jim Owens, who runs Caterpillar, said he's going to lay off more people before he starts hiring.

WILLIAMS: Right.

FABER: It's a guessing game at this point, but many people expect that ultimately it's going to have a positive effect. Whether it's big enough or too big, who knows.

CBS Evening News

February 11:

COURIC: They have been very busy back there at the Capitol. And late today negotiators announced the House and Senate have reached a compromise on an economic stimulus package. Price tag: $789 billion, down from the more than 800 billion both Houses had approved. And here's how it breaks down: 65 percent spending, 35 percent tax cuts, all aimed at giving the economy a boost and saving or creating more than three million jobs. Chip Reid is at the White House tonight.

And, Chip, did the president get what he wanted?

REID: Well, Katie, he certainly did not get everything he wanted. For example, the bill falls short by billions on health care and education, but in the end the president decided it's much more important to get this bill passed quickly and put people back to work than to get it exactly right.

Methodology

Media Matters reviewed all ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news broadcasts between January 25 and February 15 for which there was a Nexis or Factiva transcript available. Only broadcasts in which there was a report about or discussion of the stimulus were included in the study. Media Matters documented instances in which individuals discussed the issue of whether the stimulus package was big enough -- either by questioning whether the overall size of the stimulus package is large enough, claiming that the total package is too small, or citing or airing statements by others raising questions about whether the stimulus is large enough or stating that it is not. Media Matters counted references to the size of the total stimulus package, including any questions or statements that referred to the overall size of the package with descriptions such as "huge," "enormous," "massive," "billions and billions of dollars," or that provided a price tag for the total package -- for example "$825 billion" or "a trillion."

Posted In
Economy
Network/Outlet
CBS, NBC, ABC Entertainment
Show/Publication
CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, World News with Charles Gibson
Stories/Interests
Economic Recovery Plan
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