Media Beat, Feb. 16, 1994
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Decoding the Rich Pundits: Who Do They Mean By "We"?

Journalists are supposed to expose secrets, not keep them. But when it comes to the salaries of national TV anchors and pundits, those secrets are well-guarded.

TV networks are mum on the subject -- while news anchors claim to be in touch with average Americans, and pundits speak for "the middle class" and the necessity of "sacrifices."

Such pretensions might be hard to swallow if the public comprehended the enormous earnings of the talking heads. Some TV anchors get paid more in a few months than most of us earn in 40 years of work.

This month [February 1994] a bidding war broke out for Diane Sawyer. The New Yorker magazine says that Sawyer rejected ABC's salary offer of $4 million per year to keep her at that network, holding out for more than $8 million.

CBS offered her over $4 million annually to jump networks, and recruited its boardmember Henry Kissinger -- a pal from when Sawyer worked for the Nixon White House -- to help persuade her. NBC and Fox TV each made offers.

But when the smoke cleared, Sawyer had agreed to stay put at ABC -- for a reported $7 million per year.

Multimillion-dollar raises in superstar salaries are part of a network trend of journalistic decline, staff layoffs and news bureau closings. That same money could pay for dozens of reporters, producers and researchers.

And what about the economic biases of the TV news stars? In theory, super-rich anchors and pundits might still be able to relate to poor or working-class Americans. In practice, they seem clueless about how most Americans live.

Sawyer, for example, has crusaded against "welfare cheats" who "gouge the taxpayers." One of Sawyer's cheaters was "Mary," a single mother with a four-year-old child who secretly worked two low-pay, part-time jobs to supplement her monthly welfare check of $600. Thanks to Mary's "fraud" -- working off the books -- her income totaled $16,700. "You know people say," Sawyer lectured her, "you shouldn't have children if you can't support them."

Or take the case of Patrick Buchanan, the TV pundit who ran for president as an "America First" populist -- although campaign filings showed that the Mercedes-driving candidate made well over $800,000 in 1991.

Who is the "we" Buchanan spoke for recently when he proclaimed that "we have just begun to pay the biggest tax hike in history"? (Actually, other tax hikes have been bigger.)

If, by "we," Buchanan is referring to himself and others in the top 1 percent income bracket, he's not far from the truth. Families making more than $200,000 are paying 80 percent of the tax hike in the current budget.

If, on the other hand, Buchanan deploys "we" to refer to the broad American public, he's engaging in demagoguery. More than 98 percent of the public is not getting any income tax increase; working families earning less than $30,000 got their taxes cut.

It's not just Sawyer and Buchanan who are detached from the economic realities of average Americans. So are most TV anchors and pundits. And because of the elite bias of mass media discourse, basic economic facts are obscured.

Tax hikes on the wealthy are popular among the public, but not the pundits. In a 1992 speech, David Brinkley (estimated $1 million yearly income) attacked Bill Clinton's proposal to raise taxes on the rich as a "sick, stupid joke." Since there are so few wealthy, claimed Brinkley, such taxes "will soak the middle class." Rush Limbaugh (estimated $15 million) constantly makes the same charge. Ted Koppel (estimated $5 million) asserted on Nightline that high taxes on the wealthy in the 1970s "created a tremendous economic problem.... It didn't work."

FACT: Wealthy Americans are among the lowest taxed in the industrial world. From 1978 to 1992, tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of the population -- average yearly income $567,000 -- added more than a trillion dollars to the national debt. In 1992 alone, these tax breaks cost the public $140 billion.

Cokie Roberts (estimated $700,000), George Will ($1.5 million) and other pundits encourage cuts in Social Security.

FACT: Social Security is the main sustenance of most elderly Americans; it's all that keeps a third of them out of poverty.

Pundits scapegoat labor unions and high wages for a lack of U.S. "competitiveness."

FACT: Real hourly wages have dropped 16 percent during the last 20 years. In 1973, U.S. manufacturing jobs were the highest compensated in the world; now a dozen countries have passed us.

Robert Novak (estimated $1 million) denounces proposals for universal health coverage as "socialized medicine," while Limbaugh denies there's a health care crisis in our country.

No crisis? Maybe Limbaugh is so rich he figures -- in a pinch -- he can simply buy himself a little hospital.

Whether conservative or centrist, whether residing inside the Beltway or in Manhattan, the millionaires of TV punditry are members of an elite, insular club.

The next time you hear one of them pontificating about what "we" must do to spur the economy or close the deficit, listen skeptically -- and wrap your hands securely around your pocketbook.

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