For all the tea party’s complaints about the so-called liberal media, one of the movement’s central rallying cries–the looming threat posed by the country’s deficit–is one that always gets a warm media reception. In fact, turn on your TV or pick up your newspaper, and you’ll be hard pressed to find much of a difference between the media line and the tea party’s angle on the deficit.

Unfortunately, both of them tend to ignore one of the biggest causes of the deficit–George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Sometimes acknowledged in editorials or op-eds, the cuts generally only make it into news reports as assertions from the White House or Democrats, rather than as an established and relevant economic fact.

Big newspapers lately issue near daily alarms on the deficit–“gargantuan,” “unprecedented,” “unimaginable a few years ago.” Virtually all accounts speak portentously of the costs of benefit programs like Social Security, often described as “the main cause for expanding federal spending and deficits” or “the major factor behind projections of unsustainably high deficits”–and sometimes, dismayingly, as “goodies.” Those newspapers guide the national debate on the subject, as their characterizations filter down and are picked up by local papers as well as television and radio.

But even the most discerning reader might not suspect that, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, “just two policies dating from the Bush administration–tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…will account for almost $7 trillion in deficits in 2009 through 2019,” impacts that “easily dwarf the stimulus and financial rescues.”

Consider a Washington Post article published on December 14. It identified the current brouhaha as a strategy of “Republicans seeking to make growing federal deficits a focal point of the 2010 elections.” That awareness is missing from most of the Post’s reporting on the subject, which still has room for such things as former Sen. Alan Simpson’s lament: “How did we get to a point in America where you get to a certain age in life, regardless of net worth or income, and you’re ‘entitled’? The word itself is killing us.”

When the Post‘s reporters and editorialists do mention Bush-era contributions to the present deficit, it’s mostly in the form of quotes from presumably interested parties like Obama or White House budget director Peter Orszag. Meanwhile, references to the need to curtail the White House’s “lavish aspirations” or “the massive federal entitlement programs–including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security–that threaten to drive the nation’s debt to levels not seen since World War II” get delivered in reporters’ own voices.

The New York Times knows that a debate on the deficit that omits mention of Bush’s cuts is disingenuous, as editorials like “The Truth about the Deficit” attest. This knowledge remains hermetically sealed in the paper’s editorial department, however, and MIA where it might be useful — for instance, following a statement about how “a deficit at $1.6 trillion” is a strong reason why “leading Republicans…argued that Mr. Obama could hardly claim credit for improvements in the economy.”

A January 27 article in the Times ended with the phrase, “much of the nation’s debt is the result of spending and tax cuts during the years up to 2007 when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress.” To date, no articles have begun that way.

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Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin.

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