The beltway-media complex

Wriston, Walter B.


The beltway-media complex

The beltway-media complex


President Eisenhower, preparing to leave office, warned the country in a farewell address to beware of the "military-industrial complex," which he feared was acquiring too much power. He was using "complex" in the dictionary sense of "an intricate or complicated association," and so it has proved to be. Today we face a new and potentially damaging complex spawned by the Information Age: the Beltway-media complex.

According to the surveys, most Americans get the bulk of their news from television, and day after day the newscasters relay the latest Washington Beltway wisdom, which often is the "newspeak" that George Orwell wrote about.

Examples abound: We hear over and over that President Reagan made deep cuts in social spending. But any cub reporter could easily determine that the spending by the federal government on almost all social programs was higher when President Reagan left office than when he was first inaugurated. According to the official "Historical Tables, Budget of the United States, 1990," non-defense spending in 1980 was $456,925,000 and grew to an estimated $838,775,000 in 1989. This huge growth in non-defense spending is described on the evening news as a "deep cut."

Night after night we hear about the many ills brought on by the crisis of the deficit -- that the huge deficit causes inflation, for example. That the deficit as a percentage of gross national product more than doubled during the 1980s, while inflation fell by almost one-third, is almost never mentioned.

Since there are many, many able men and women in the media and within the Beltway who have dedicated themselves to exposing any untruth that passes the lips of a politician from the opposing party or a corporate executive, how can this clear inversion of the truth happen? Perhaps it can be explained only by that eminent mathematics professor at Oxford, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

When faced with a somewhat similar definitional problem, Dodgson -- better known as Lewis Carroll -- had his character Humpty Dumpty say in "rather a scornful tone," "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." In the case of the Beltway-media complex, this permits tax and tax, spend and spend to go on under the rubric of save and cut.

A choice bit of conventional wisdom endlessly repeated on the evening news and in newspaper and magazine headlines is that the "rich" do not pay their fair share of taxes and, indeed, that the Reagan tax cuts reduced the amount of tax revenues collected from that sector of society. The great echo chamber of the complex resonates with this untruth nightly, and the noise fills the august halls of Congress. That this lie is given currency is a clear and present danger to the republic, since wrong numbers produce bad policy.

When the media are not a check on the veracity of the Beltway, but join it, inevitably the danger of producing bad policy is increased. It is no secret, nor is it hard to prove, that while the top 1% of taxpayers supplied 7% of the total income taxes collected by the federal government in 1981, their share grew to 14% in 1986. If one makes the same calculation for the top 2% of taxpayers, their share increased to 34% in 1986 from 26% in 1981. The share paid by those citizens whose incomes fall below the median declined 1%.

Lawrence Lindsey, a Harvard economist before he became an aide to President Bush, has thoroughly documented this data in his book "The Growth Experiment." As he dryly puts it: "The rules of arithmetic dictate that if the rich ended up paying a bigger share of taxes, everyone else must have taken a bigger tax cut than the rich." The Beltway-media complex ignores this data -- the validity of which is not in doubt -- and continues to propagate false information day after day.

In the early days of our republic, newspapers were often openly partisan. Indeed, the name of the political party the paper touted was often part of its very name. Historian Richard Brown, in his study "The Diffusion of Information in Early America," has written that "to subscribe became a statement of political preference." The concept of "equal time" and "full and fair" news presentations came relatively late in historical terms.

Today most would agree that one role of the media must be to act as a sanity check on the pronouncements of political and business figures. Today journalists' wastebaskets are filled with unread press releases, and the day of the "investigative reporter" both electronic and print has arrived. This is as it should be. When, however, the media join the Beltway politicians and become part of a cabal to convince Americans that "more" is really "less" and that "up" is really "down," we have a problem.

Americans have always been wary of any concentration of power, and with good reason. Any government-private complex tends to increase the concentration of power, and its formation should be a fire bell in the night. When that complex persists in its newspeak and others have trouble getting a word in edgewise, we have on a national scale what Lincoln warned of in 1854: "If a man will stand up and assert and repeat, and re-assert that two and two do not make four, I know of nothing in the power of argument that can stop him."

Mr. Wriston is former chairman of Citicorp.

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