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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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July 1997


Issue Analysis: Coverage of the Tax Reform Debate
Accepting the Democrats' Tax Math

Most media observers would agree that one of the essential elements of a balanced story is that it include the best arguments from both sides of an issue. And when one side introduces highly charged rhetoric, balance demands allowing the other side to respond.

These basic components of balance were in short supply on network television news shows as the tax debate on Capitol Hill heated up in June. The best arguments of the Democrats were made part of most of the stories about tax reform, while the best arguments of the Republicans were usually omitted. And when Democrats accused the Republican tax plan of favoring the wealthy, Republicans were almost never given a chance to respond.

Media Research Center analysts reviewed all of the stories about tax reform on the CBS Evening News, CNN's The World Today, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News Tonight during the month of June. There were 22 tax stories on these four news shows.

Who Benefits?

Thirteen of these stories included the Democrats' argument that the Republican tax plan favored "the wealthy." Only one story mentioned the Republican counter-argument that most of the benefits in their plan go to middle-class families.

Most network stories simply repeated the Democrats' claim about the GOP plan. ABC's John Cochran, on the June 9 World News Tonight, declared that "the President thinks [the GOP's] tax cuts are too generous to the wealthy" without presenting the other side. NBC's David Bloom, on the June 16 Nightly News, was more specific: "A preliminary analysis by Mr. Clinton's Treasury Department concludes that if you divide taxpayers into five groups, the top 20 percent, with family incomes over $93,000, get two-thirds of the tax cuts under the Republican plan." Bloom also didn't allow the GOP to respond to this charge.

Others at the networks also simply assumed that the GOP plan favored the wealthy, while President Clinton's helped the middle class. "Last week lawmakers in the House and Senate passed legislation that would hand Americans their largest tax cut in 16 years," announced Linden Soles on the June 29 The World Today. "On Monday, President Clinton will unveil his own tax relief plan, one that targets middle-class families."

No network reporter investigated how the Clinton Treasury Department's "preliminary analysis" arrived at the conclusion that mainly the wealthy would benefit from the GOP tax cuts. Many things other than income were included, including "imputed rent," or the rent a person would pay for his house if he didn't own it. And no reporter gave viewers the basic fact that the top 20 percent of income-earners already pay 63 percent of all taxes, a bit of context necessary to evaluate tax cut claims.

Only one network reporter told viewers of how the Republicans characterized their own plan. On the June 27 Nightly News, NBC's John Palmer reported that "today Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, defended the tax cut plans in a letter to the President, saying, '71 percent of our tax relief goes to those who make between $20,000 and $75,000 a year.'" No other reporter viewed Archer's response to President Clinton's criticism as newsworthy.

Tax Cuts and the Deficit

Five stories mentioned President Clinton's claim that indexing the tax on capital gains as Republicans had proposed to do would increase the deficit in the future. For instance, on the June 27 CBS Evening News, Sharyl Attkisson reported that the GOP plan "would also figure inflation into capital gains, so-called indexing. That, warns the White House, would break the bank, and could provoke a veto."

Other network reporters took their cue from Attkisson. CNN's John King, on the June 29 The World Today, said that "Mr. Clinton wouldn't index capital gains taxes for inflation, a key demand of House Republicans. The President says that's too expensive." He then ran a soundbite from Clinton: "We want a tax cut bill that does not explode in the out years, that does not bring back the bad old days of the deficit."

None mentioned the conservative argument that cutting the capital gains tax rate would most likely bring in more revenues by stimulating economic growth. Or that entitlement spending is what is really set to explode in the off years, and this is the root of future deficit problems, not letting people keep more of their money.

Tax Credits as Welfare

On one issue, Republican arguments were given a full hearing. Sixteen of the network tax stories brought up the Clinton administration's argument that the $500 tax credit for children should go to poor families which pay no income tax. Thirteen of these stories also mentioned the Republican claim that giving such a "tax credit" to someone who doesn't pay taxes amounts to welfare.

Some of the stories, particularly on CBS, only brought up Clinton's argument. Dan Rather, on the June 13 CBS Evening News, said, "President Clinton says [the GOP tax credit] is unacceptable because it does not apply fully to working women, especially poor women who take a tax deduction for child care." And Bob Schieffer, on the June 18 CBS Evening News, reported that "the President and his people don't like this plan. They wanted more benefits to go to lower-income people." Rather and Schieffer didn't give the GOP response to this critique.

But on this issue, most reporters presented the Republican view. CNN's Louise Schiavonne, on the June 21 The World Today, reported: "One of the most contentious issues a Democratic proposal to extend a $500 per child tax credit to the working poor. They'd get a sort of refund check from the IRS for taxes they never paid." She then ran a soundbite from Congressman Bill Archer, who said, "We committed to giving middle-income taxpayers relief in this bill. They're the forgotten Americans. We did not commit to give tax relief to people who don't pay taxes."

And, after profiling a low-income worker who wouldn't qualify for the Republican tax credit on the June 16 World News Tonight, ABC's John Cochran gave the Republican argument: "Republicans argue she is getting enough help. Under an existing program for low-income workers, she pays no federal taxes on what she earns now. So why, they say, should she get a tax credit?" He then ran a soundbite from Newt Gingrich: "When you give people money they have not earned, that's welfare."


To the networks, the tax-reform story was mainly about politics, not economics. The sources reporters interviewed for soundbites were overwhelmingly political. Of the 47 soundbites in tax stories, 41 were from politicians, 4 were from people on the street, one was from a representative of a business association, and one was from an economist.

Perhaps for this reason, many prominent issues in the debate didn't make it into network tax-reform stories. An economist, for instance, could have spoken to the issue of whether or not tax credits for college students would lead to increased tuition costs. An economist could also have made the case that both the GOP plan and the President's plan made the tax code more complex and harder for citizens to obey. These issues were not addressed.

The fact that many network reporters presented the Republican argument that tax relief for non-taxpayers amounts to welfare shows they can understand conservative views. Why then they ignored conservative views on so many other elements of the tax debate and ignored economists almost completely is a mystery.


Rich Noyes


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