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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.