CNN’s Attention Deficit

Does CNN understand the difference between the deficit and the national debt? Doesn’t look like it.

Check out this exchange which took place yesterday on Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room”:

BLITZER: On our Political Ticker, two time presidential candidate Ross Perot says the national debt is out of control and he’s going online to make his point.

Let’s go to Abbi — what’s going on?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, remember this? These are the charts laying out the national debt that Ross Perot paraded on television during his 1992 presidential bid. Now it’s 2008 and they’re getting a facelift.

Citing an economic crisis, Perot launched, a Web site highlighting the $9 trillion budget deficit and informing the public of what that looks like as only Ross Perot can.


ROSS PEROT, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you could take the dollars bills end on end from the Earth to the moon and back, it would take just over 1,900 round trips to pay off the debt.


TATTON: There are pages of charts here on government spending. The 77-year-old Perot is not running this time around and the site is not affiliated with a political party. But he is calling on voters to urge their representatives to act — Wolf.

BLITZER: He’s back and we’ll watch him. Thanks very much, Abbi.

So: Does Perot’s website highlight the national debt—the amount of money owed by the U.S. government to creditors, such as foreign countries? Or does it highlight the deficit—the difference between the amount of money the government spends, and the amount it takes in through taxation? From CNN’s confused “report”, there’s no way to know.

As it turns out, the site draws attention to both problems (as well as a few others that, Perot believes, add up to a long-term economic crisis). But whether out of ignorance, laziness, or a patronizing belief that viewers won’t care about the details, CNN elides the distinction between two entirely separate issues.

When this is how the news media covers these problems, it’s no wonder we can’t seem to fix them.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.