President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan was the most expensive bill in history. Still, it received strong media support - blazing the way for the controversial bill to pass. Network journalists didn't just back the bill during that debate. Once it had passed, ABC, NBC and CBS spent nearly a year promoting "President Obama's stimulus cavalry," as NBC's Lisa Myers put it.
That much money was supposed to enter the economy through many different channels. Typically, where stimulus dollars went, journalists followed. They roamed the nation looking for proof the stimulus was succeeding, and sometimes proof it wasn't.
The Business & Media Institute analyzed 172 stories about the stimulus from Feb. 17, 2009, when the bill was signed, to Jan. 31, 2010. In those stories, the three evening news shows turned to proponents nearly three times as often as opponents of the plan (269 to just 111). Reporters called the Obama program or its many offshoots "good news," or turned to others whose positive views on the stimulus went further, with one calling the program a "lifesaver."
"It's the government that`s going to have to pull us out of this recession," Anthony Mason of CBS "Evening News" said on March 6. That was a consistent theme for the journalists involved. With the economy beaten down by the Great Recession, Americans needed Obama and the government to fix things and boost employment.
Anchor Katie Couric added to that theme when she introduced the story. "In a moment, we'll be telling you about all the jobs the stimulus plan is creating, but first why those jobs are so desperately needed."
That pro-stimulus approach impacted the reporting. All three broadcast networks promoted the stimulus prior to the vote. The same news media that backed Barack Obama during the election then turned to his "bold" push for a stimulus plan. Two broadcast networks - ABC and NBC - showed particularly strong support for the president by relying on pro-stimulus voices by a more-than 2-to-1 ratio (139 to 56). As reporter Scott Cohn told the NBC "Nightly News" audience about a struggling Indiana community. "Economic stimulus isn't just a political debate around here. It could be a matter of survival."
In the year following the passage of the stimulus package, network journalists embraced both the spending and the programs that went along with it. Story after story detailed how a few hundred thousand dollars or a few million dollars would aid essential programs and, in Obama's words, "save or create" millions of jobs.
That was what viewers of ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson," CBS "Evening News" and NBC "Nightly News" heard for almost a year. Those three favored pro-stimulus speakers 71 percent to 29 percent (269 to just 111).
NBC was the worst of the three networks. It relied on stimulus supporters in its stories by more than a factor of 3-to-1 (110 supporters to just 31 critics). At the same time, NBC only included any sort of criticism of the $787 billion plan in 43 percent of its stories.
While CBS included some criticism of the stimulus in three fourths of its stories (30 out of 40), the network still found several ways to boost the president. During an April 29 broadcast, Anthony Mason described Obama in laudatory terms. "As he's tried to lead the country through the crisis, President Obama has offered both caution and hope."
Another CBS story celebrated how D.C. had turned into a new financial capital. Mason told viewers about "matchmaking sessions to link them with government agencies giving out stimulus money." He even quoted Washington power broker and "King of K Street" Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. who seemed thrilled that the "total pie is way over $2 trillion" to grab for clients. As Mason added, "Government officials like these at the Transportation Department can't give it out fast enough."
That report included only mild criticism of the feeding frenzy.
ABC's coverage of the stimulus also ignored critics more than half the time, but lacked CBS's blatantly positive comments about the plan or the president who promoted it.
Even when reporters showed some of the obvious flaws of the stimulus program, they still depicted it as "working." NBC's Lisa Myers pointed out one of the marketing angles of the Obama bill including signs crediting new work to the government. "At this road project in Maryland a sign tells all who pass by that the money for repaving came from the stimulus package." She went on to say that the Obama administration has urged states to put up such signs, even though they "can cost as much as $1,200."
But Myers then followed with a more typical report including three people, two supporting the program and just one opposed.
The pro-stimulus position of the three networks was almost identical to the one taken leading up to the passage of the bill. Then both ABC and NBC showed particularly strong support for the president by relying on pro-stimulus voices by a more-than 2-to-1 ratio (139 to 56). That 71 percent total was the same percentage of pro-stimulus voices these two networks used throughout the year (183 positive to just 74 critics).
Let a thousand programs bloom
During the year, it seemed nearly every stimulus program found its time in the sun. Media reports bounced from Baltimore to recession hot spot Elkhart, Ind., to Puget Sound near Seattle. Every story used an almost identical template. Here was a school/environmental concern/business/police department that would just collapse without more funding from Uncle Sam.
Government was "replacing this crumbling bridge over the Osage River," went a May 28 story. NBC's Myers first acknowledged critics who said it was "a bridge to the middle of nowhere." Then she totally undercut them: "But in struggling Miller County, that $8.5 million bridge means jobs."
ABC's Bill Weir profiled how programs around the nation were using stimulus money to buy hybrid buses at $700,000 a piece. Weir did his own salesmanship for the buses in his April 13 broadcast. "Well, the next time you ride any bus, consider how many sets of American hands went into making it. It comes to life as a steel skeleton at this plant in Riverside, California, but then all the parts that get added on are built in manufacturing plants across the country," he enthused.
The price tag: $115 million for 15 communities. Weir interviewed four different people for the piece and every one of them liked the idea. As Nick Golzynski, a bus manufacturing employee, put it, "If the stimulus package didn't go through, we'd probably be laying off." Weir didn't find any critics or any unhappy taxpayers to vent.
Chris Bury, also from ABC, waved the flag with an April 8 stimulus story about Filipino veterans. Anchor Charles Gibson introduced the segment: "Now, finally, the U.S. government is making a long overdue payment to some of the survivors [of the Bataan Death March.]" Naturally, they had the stimulus bill to thank. "Tucked away in President Obama's stimulus package is a measure that fulfills at least some of President Roosevelt's promise" to pay the veterans.
When they weren't citing patriotism, network reporters turned to saving the children or helping the environment as rationales for the stimulus. CBS's Randall Pinkston said the money would help save young lives in his Oct. 7 story. "The Justice Department is pledging $16 million to boost school security around the country, a half million for Chicago. The city is also using $30 million in federal stimulus funds to identify and help 1,200 children who are most at risk of getting shot. The students from 38 schools will be selected based on poor academic performance, family environment, and location, focusing on areas where other deaths have occurred."
Over at NBC, Rehema Ellis defended nearly $100 million in educational expenses. "For Baltimore, Maryland, an older city with inner city problems, its $95 million in federal education stimulus money will be more than a help to its school system of 193 schools, almost 6,000 teachers and 82,000 students," she told viewers Aug 24. Her story included a clip of Dr. Andreas Alonso, who made sure the audience understood how necessary the stimulus had been. "It's been a lifesaver," he said.
Even a piece on environmental groups paying to "retrieve abandoned fishing nets" received favorable coverage. "The cleanup might have taken 15 years, but with the stimulus money, 90 percent of the nets will be removed in just 18 months, employing nearly 40 fishermen," Lee Cowan, of NBC, said Sept. 29.
Good Reporting, Too
For all of the positive spin, each network had some intelligent coverage of the pricey stimulus programs put in place. Several reporters distinguished themselves with solid reporting from the field. CBS's Chip Reid and Sharyl Attkisson and ABC's Jake Tapper and Jonathan Karl each showed some of the problems with the stimulus plan that the networks otherwise missed. NBC's overall positive reporting downplayed criticism too much for any one reporter to stand out.
Atkisson and Karl did noteworthy work underlining the many difficulties with the stimulus package. A typical Atkisson piece showed the excesses of the $787 billion expenditures. "A half million dollars in stimulus funds came to the rescue in financially strapped Pawtucket, Rhode Island. But it didn't help with their deficits, layoffs, or unpaid school bills. Instead the town built this - a brand new skate park," went a Dec. 10 story.
She added other excesses from a "water taxi service to a dilapidated beach town in Connecticut" to bike racks in the affluent Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. "And your tax dollars were spent to fight homelessness in Union, New York, where nobody asked for the money and they don't have a homeless problem," her piece continued.
A Nov. 17 report by Karl highlighted errors in stimulus job accounting. "Moore's Shoes in Campbellsville, Kentucky claims nine jobs were created from a single $890 grant for nine pair of work boots for the Army Corps of Engineers," explained Karl. "Head Start of August, Georgia claimed 317 jobs with a $790,000 grant. But it was really just a one-time pay raise to its 317 employees," he continued.
A report from the previous day had detailed the many mistakes with the stimulus Web site. Karl noted that the Web site "says 30 jobs were created and over $700,000 spent in Arizona's 15th congressional district." "The problem," he added "the state has only eight congressional districts."
Another Karl story focused on a report by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., highlighting 10 stimulus projects he considered wasteful, including $3.4 million to build an eco-tunnel in Florida for wildlife to cross Route 27.
White House correspondent Reid showed the other side of the stimulus as well, talking about an analysis of the spending. "Well, Katie, that report is going to claim that the stimulus has already created or saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, but if the administration's first effort at counting stimulus jobs is any guide, tomorrow's numbers could be hard to believe."
The Business & Media Institute tracked every stimulus story on ABC, NBC and CBS from Feb. 13, 2009 to Jan. 31, 2010. All stories that were totally or significantly covering the $787 billion stimulus bill. Casual mentions or stories about other types of stimulus - foreign stimulus plans, private stimulus plans, etc. - were excluded. Tallies did include the government's Cash for Clunkers program which, while not included in the initial stimulus bill, "was funded with money diverted from the stimulus," according to the Sept. 11, 2009, Washington Post.