The Actual Human Stakes of the Reconciliation Bill Are Being Ignored in Favor of “Left vs Moderate’ Horse Race Coverage

The public is left with vague reporting about a “$3.5 trillion” “price tag” that should be “slimmed down,” with no sense of what would actually be gutted or who would be harmed if it is.

After weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of the “$3.5 trillion” reconciliation bill (or more accurately, $350 billion a year over 10 years), the average media consumer could not be blamed for not knowing what is actually in the bill or, more importantly, the human stakes of attempts to gut the bill by so-called “moderates.'' Little sense is given at all that the bill provides, over the course of 10 years, $75 billion for Housing Choice Vouchers to help alleviate America’s homelessness crisis; $450 billion in universal pre-K for three and four year olds; $85 billion to repair run-down schools; $35 billion in child nutrition programs to allow an additional 9 million kids to receive free school lunch; $111 billion for two years of tuition-free community college; expanded eligibility for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients; the expansion of Medicare to include dental, hearing, and vision benefits; the lowering of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60, guaranteeing healthcare to millions more seniors; and $150 billion in clean energy incentives to combat climate chaos. 

While the bill is far from complete (nor do its climate change provisions come close to meeting the scientific reality of the carbon emission economy), it would be a massive improvement to the lives of millions of poor, elderly, Black and Brown, homeless, and vulnerable communities. But one would not know any of this watching television coverage of the “showdown” over the bill between “progressives and moderates.” 

A survey of news reports on CBS News, NBC News, ABC Sinclair affiliates, and CNN over the past week shows a TV media largely uninterested in what is actually in the bill or what is likely to be cut in the event that the bill is “slimmed down” to the counter offer proposed by Senator Joe Manchin of “$1.5 trillion” ($150 billion annually). Instead, these outlets are interested in the political melodrama of “progressives” facing off against “moderates” Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.

Watch, for example, this 6 minute report on the Reconciliation Bill discussed on Jake Tapper’s The Lead. Tapper is joined by CNN White House correspondent Jeremy Diamond and CNN congressional correspondent Lauren Fox to discuss the status of the legislation. Other than a single vague reference to “social safety net” spending, none of them actually mention anything that is actually in the bill

They discuss the matter for six whole minutes without mentioning Pell Grants, housing vouchers, community college tuition, dental and hearing coverage for seniors, expanded medicare coverage, repairing run-down schools, school lunch for poor children, or universal pre-K. The bill is just an abstraction—a vague “social program” being pushed by left-wingers, the substance of which is incidental. In lieu of examination of content, we get six minutes of horse race and speculation about the near-term political stakes and vague reference to “moderates” being “uncomfortable” with the “high price tag.” 

The average media consumer would come away from this report no more informed about the substance of the bill than if they had simply stared at a blank wall. If anything, staring at a blank wall for six minutes would have been more intellectually nutritious since they wouldn’t have been misinformed by the repeated fear mongering over big, scary “trillion dollar” figures—with no mention from Tapper, Fox, or Diamond that the figure is over a 10-year period. 

The primary stakes in this CNN report, as with all of these examples, is “Joe Biden’s agenda” and the political fortune of Democrats’ prospects in 2022. It’s a horse race with four thoroughbreds—”moderates,” “the Biden White House,” “progressives,” and “Republicans” all jockeying for first place. The seniors who will go without healthcare, dental coverage, and hearing aids are incidental and not worth mentioning. The low-income families eager for child tax credits, or for the ability to afford community college, don’t even register. 

CNN will platform the occasional progressive who will, in the time they’re provided, try to jam in what’s at stake. And it is important to note that a report on The Lead on Sept 30 by Phil Mattingly did briefly—for ten seconds of screen time—mention some of the actual items in the bill. But most of CNN’s straight reporting on the reconciliation bill this week rarely gives any sense of what is actually being pushed for by progressives and, most importantly, what “moderates” seek to gut. 

CNN isn’t alone. In all of the following examples, aside from vague reference to “social spending” or “healthcare,” the viewer comes away with zero idea of what is actually in the bill and what is on the chopping block. 

A CBS Evening News report from this week editorializes the “social safety” bill as “enormous” and “massive,” incredulously saying the word “TRILLIONS'' three times without once naming what is actually in the reconciliation bill or who it will actually benefit. Only horse race.

NBC Nightly News, too, makes vague reference to a “social and climate policy” bill with no indication of what that means or what specifically is at stake. 

Another NBC Nightly News report from Oct 4 again vaguely mentions a “climate and social policy” bill without noting anything that’s actually in it or who can benefit from it. Again, just more horse race: Biden said this, Republicans say that. The report did find a large chunk of air time to detail bathroom-gate, an event at the Arizona State University where students followed Senator Sinema into the restroom as she tried to duck their questions. 

A Sinclair ABC News affiliate report on the reconciliation bill negotiations from Oct 1 mentions in passing “climate and safety net programs” over an image of money being printed (1:04) followed by a huge scary “$3.5 trillion” figure on screen, with three different mentions of “large” or “much larger” “price tags.”

A CBS Miami report, also from Oct 1, ignores what’s at stake as well, making only a single reference to a vague “larger social spending bill”—again, like the ABC Sinclair affiliate—over the image of money being printed (0:51):

It’s just liberals printing money: The “$3.5T” isn’t over images of seniors, poor children, college students, or any human faces related to the stakes at hand—just your “tax dollars” being literally printed by spend-happy Democrats.

CNN’s parent corporation AT&T is part of a broader coalition of corporations called the RATE Coalition that is aggressively lobbying congress to gut the Build Back Better bill over its corporate tax increase. So there is little institutional incentive to go beyond horse race politics to convey the human stakes of torpedoing the “progressive agenda.”

In terms of basic viewer literacy, what’s more important than what’s in the bill is the specific human cost of what is on the chopping block. That cost is systematically  glossed over—in what are euphemistically referred to as proposals to  “slim down” the legislation. In none of these reports does anyone press Senators Sinema or Manchin about what programs, exactly, they want to see gone, outside of vague reference to “means testing.” Their concerns are an abstraction—a good faith need to get it down to an arbitrary number of “$1.5 trillion” (or $150 billion a year, or $40 billion less than Jeff Bezos personal worth of $191 billion.)

Would CNN’s senior viewers like to know that the stakes go beyond Manchin’s “concerns” about “deficits,” and that a slimming down would actually, in reality, materially result in them not having access to hearing aids and dental care? Would NBC News’ low-income viewers with children in middle school maybe benefit from knowing their children could potentially receive two years of free community college? Could the children of undocumented Americans watching CBS News perhaps like to know that gutting the DACA provisions means they will remain ineligible for Pell Grants? Progressive “wish lists” have real humans stakes with real human suffering in their absence. Just because those who would benefit from these programs have little standing—much less, purchase—on corporate TV doesn’t make their welfare any less important. Perhaps those with the tremendous privilege of broadcasting information into millions of homes on a daily basis can step away from the horse race and spell out who will actually suffer in the event a “compromise is reached” and the “cost is brought down.” The world exists outside of “Biden’s legislative agenda” and “Democrats’ 2022 prospects.” On the other end of these “massive” and “enormous” “price tags” are poor and precarious human beings who stand to gain a modicum of relief. Perhaps we should mention them and what they have to lose once in a while. 

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