West Virginia’s Democrats were trapped in a most undemocratic predicament in Tuesday’s presidential primary election: They had to vote without being told of a significant news development about the most exciting Democrat in the race.
What we have here is not another tale about a dirty-tricks campaign conspiracy. But it is a case in which our media watchdogs watched — but failed to bark. Even though at least one famous watchdog did chase its tale around in circles for a couple of days.
Here’s the news that most of West Virginia’s Democrats, among the nation’s most centrist and even conservative, never got to know before casting their ballots and giving Sen. Bernie Sanders a landslide victory over Hillary Clinton.
Sanders’ national health insurance proposal and his various other domestic program reforms would add $18 trillion to the national debt over a decade — even after the wealthiest Americans pay the increased taxes the Vermont populist has proposed to finance his programs, according to new studies by two respected nonpartisan Washington think tanks.
The analysis, jointly released on Monday by the Urban Institute and the Tax Policy Center (a project of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute), calculated that Sanders’ programs would cost $33 trillion over a decade. But the tax increases Sanders has proposed in order to finance his programs would raise just $15 trillion, thus adding $18 trillion to the national deficit, the analysts said. (Sanders’s policy director, Warren Gunnels, issued a rebutting statement, saying: “This study significantly underestimates the savings in administration, paperwork, and prescription drug prices that every major country on earth has successfully achieved by adopting a universal health care program.”)
News of the experts’ findings hit Washington with a decibel wallop that registered little more than the sound of silence. The news appeared on the pages of The Washington Post on Wednesday, the day after the West Virginia primary. And it got there only barely, and in an exceedingly roundabout fashion. Wednesday’s news story was printed at the bottom of page A15 under this newsy headline: “Studies fault Sanders on policy costs” and this sub-headline: “$18 trillion gap looms even if the rich pay more, researchers say.” But further digging showed the identical story originally appeared online two days earlier, in the Post’s Monday Wonkblog — under this bloggy, chatty headline: “Sorry, Bernie fans. His health care plan is short $17,000,000,000,000.” And in fact, all this insider news biz stuff becomes more wacky than wonky — for the Post’s newsprint pages actually did cover the think tank analysis before West Virginia’s vote — but not in a news story. On Tuesday, the Post’s editorial page gave its analysis of the news the paper hadn’t yet printed, in an editorial headlined: “Too good to be true” followed by this sub-head: “New reports show the economic dangers of Mr. Sanders’s plans.”
Time out! We need to reflect here on the dirty little reality about how our national news gets made and how the national news media’s agenda gets set. If a news development is displayed prominently on the front page of The Washington Post or The New York Times, the all-news cable networks (CNN, Fox, MSNBC) tend to discuss it among the chattering-heads that morning, midday and night. (Unfortunately, similar news ripples don’t usually result if the same excellent story is identically displayed on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and so on.)
Had America’s news agenda focused on that $18 trillion deficit newsbreak Monday and Tuesday, West Virginia’s voters would have been far more knowledgeable when they were casting their ballots. But, since we are being honest here, we need to add all that new knowledge probably wouldn’t have made an election-changing difference. This doesn’t seem to be a year when facts and issues dominate citizen decision-making.
But at least we can end with a helpful media-baiting tip for all of you who are think-tank experts and crave attention for your wonky reports. Try using this press-agent’s template: “An analysis of the policies of Bernie Sanders, who was recently seen talking with a much-photographed blonde, shows his proposals could add $18 trillion to America’s deficit in the next decade.”
A day later, you can simply explain you’d seen Sanders debating his presidential opponent.
(c)2016 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected]