Given the news media's obsession with the federal budget deficit, it is a little strange that they freak out so quickly whenever anyone raises the possibility of higher taxes or lower defense spending. But what is really strange is that they can't stop worrying about tax hikes and defense cuts even when faced with proposals to cut taxes for most Americans and to increase defense spending.
Last month, we saw the media rush to portray President Obama's tax proposals as tax increases, even though the proposals would cut taxes for the vast majority of Americans. The media's focus on the higher taxes that people making more than $200,000 a year would pay was absurd, but it wasn't new: The elite media have long behaved as though the only part of tax policy that matters is the part that affects the wealthy.
This week, the media brought a similar lack of perspective to their coverage of the defense budget proposed by the Obama administration. The plan, outlined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday, would increase defense spending from $513 billion to $534 billion.
I better go ahead and repeat that, because it probably isn't something you've heard much this week: The proposed budget would increase defense spending from $513 billion to $534 billion.
And yet, just about everywhere you turned this week, news reports suggested that the Obama administration proposed a drastic reduction in defense spending -- cuts so severe, the Army would soon consist of a small band of volunteers using slingshots and sharpened sticks to keep us safe.
How common was the suggestion that Gates is proposing a cut in overall defense spending? So common that two different reporters with the same name made that suggestion on the same day in the same newspaper.
The April 7 edition of The Washington Post featured a piece by Dana Milbank headlined "Pentagon Chief Calls for Cuts; Congress Opens Fire," in which Milbank wrote: "[T]he understated delivery obscured the boldness of what Gates was attempting: Calmly and methodically, he posed a direct challenge to the military-industrial complex." Though he detailed several specific program cuts Gates has proposed, Milbank gave not so much as a hint that the overall defense budget would increase. Readers were left with precisely the opposite impression.
And that was the less misleading of the two reports. That same edition of the Post also carried an article by Dana Hedgpeth, who wrote:
Overall, the budget Gates proposed calls for major cuts to the weapons programs of some of the largest contractors. But Wall Street appeared to mostly take it in stride, bidding up defense-company stocks because the cuts were not as deep as some had feared.
Well, no. Overall, the budget Gates proposed calls for an increase in defense spending. Some specific portions of the budget will be cut, but overall it will increase.
Meanwhile, Post reporter Paul Kane held an online discussion on the paper's website in which he portrayed the budget proposal as a 4 percent cut in defense spending, rather than the 4 percent increase it actually is. Incredibly, he did so in response to a question that correctly pointed out that "the overall budget is increasing by 4%." The false storyline that the Obama administration is trying to cut the defense budget is so ingrained in reporters' minds they keep getting it wrong -- even when someone directly gives them the correct information.
The New York Times wasn't much better. Multiple Times articles focused on "deep cuts" in Gates' budget. One reported that a "military expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that it was hard to tell how much Mr. Gates was reducing spending over all." In fact, Gates has proposed increasing spending overall -- a fact that has never appeared in a New York Times news report. Not once.
Even reports that did indicate that the defense budget would increase tended to give the impression of an overall decrease by focusing much more heavily on programs that would be cut than on those that would see funding increases, or on the overall increase.
USA Today, for example, ran an article that noted, "Some programs would grow under Gates' budget, which is up from $515 billion this year." But that sentence came near the end of the article -- after several paragraphs about spending cuts. The article began with three sentences that essentially portrayed Gates' budget as a wash that would shift money from program to program. Next came 180 words about cuts in the budget, followed by a sentence about Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) offering general praise for the budget. Only then was there mention of spending increases -- and there was still more about cuts to come. Finally readers learned near the end of the article that the budget is an overall increase in defense spending, by which time they had already been bombarded with details about spending cuts.
Then there's television.
All week, CNN viewers kept hearing about the Obama administration's proposed defense cuts. Sometimes it was a passing mention, as in CNN correspondent Dan Simon's reference to Sarah Palin:
Keep in mind: The administration doesn't have a proposal to cut defense spending. It has a proposal to increase defense spending, which is different. Very different. The opposite, actually.
Anchor Tony Harris introduced one report about the defense budget by announcing, "The Pentagon fighting to cut its budget."
No, it isn't. A $21 billion increase is not a "cut."
A battle in Congress? Sure. But the defense chief doesn't have a plan to "slash military spending and jobs." He does have a plan to increase military spending.
CNN's Louise Schiavone then spent more than 300 words on a report focused entirely on specific defense cuts -- no mention of increases, and no mention of the fact that, overall, the defense budget goes up. Schiavone included clips of two representatives of right-wing organizations criticizing the budget but didn't include any comment from a progressive or anyone praising the budget.
It went on like that for days, as CNN reporters warned of "sweeping cuts" and "Pentagon spending slashed" and reported: "The Defense secretary takes an ax to some key Pentagon programs." Sure, from time to time, someone would note that funding for some programs would increase, or even that the overall budget would go up. But such disclosures were buried as CNN focused on programs Gates has proposed cutting.
On MSNBC, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward described Gates' budget proposal as "a sneak attack" and Gates himself as "acting as his own improvised explosive device, going to the Pentagon and ... really canceling all of these modern, or many of the modern exotic weapons systems." Woodward's metaphor was questionable at best, but his conclusion was almost spot-on: "The industrial, military-industrial complex is going to have a cardiac arrest." (Video available at TPM, where Brian Beutler has been all over this topic.)
It's tempting to chalk up the media's treatment of the defense budget "cuts" and the "tax increases" to sloppiness, innumeracy, and an inability to see the forest for the trees. But it's hard not to notice that in both cases, the flawed reporting benefits the wealthy and powerful who make up the Establishment.
Maybe that shouldn't be surprising. Big name reporters like Charlie Gibson and Wolf Blitzer would see their taxes go up under Obama's tax plan, which may explain why they act like everyone else's would, too. Meanwhile, the "military-industrial complex" Woodward mentioned owns the very cable channel on which he made his comments, and the media tends to rely on military "analysts" who are really defense contractors.