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How the Media’s Framing of the Budget Debate Favors the Right

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On NPR the other morning, one of the reporters referred to the Democrats’ “$3.5 trillion spending bill.” I don’t even remember who it was, and I don’t mean to single this person out. Everybody does it. Heck, I’ve done it. But the way the media presents this information to the public is terribly misleading, and it’s dangerous, because the framing favors the conservative argument.

The phrase has three constituent elements—$3.5 trillion, spending, and bill. What the Democrats in Congress are working on is indeed a bill, so I have no quarrel with that part. But the $3.5 trillion, in journalistic shorthand, makes it sound like the Democrats want to go out there and spend it all immediately on every loopy cause under the sun.

In fact, it will be parceled out over a decade. This 10-year window is a convention of the budgeting process, so it’s not that it’s wrong to talk about it this way, and to be sure, sometimes the 10-year time frame is mentioned. But usually not. So it would be more accurate to refer to this $3.5 trillion as $350 billion a year.

Now, that’s still a lot of money, I’ll grant that. But compared to what? Do you know the total size of the federal budget? I had a rough idea—a few trillion—but I had to Google it myself. In 2020, the government spent $6.55 trillion. So $350 billion is around 5.3 percent. You can call that significant, I guess. But it isn’t insane. If you decided to spend 5 percent more a year on maintaining........

© New Republic

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