Those who oppose
across-the-board tax reforms and cuts in the capital gains tax often
say that such reforms would be too beneficial to the wealthy. As the
tax debate heated up this summer, many opponents of reform repeated
How did the networks report
on it? Did they put it into context by telling viewers the share of
the tax burden currently shouldered by the wealthy? To find out,
Media Research Center analysts reviewed all of the coverage of taxes
in federal budget stories between June 1 and August 31 on ABC’s
World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News.
There were 36 federal tax stories on these shows. Eleven, almost
one-third, included the Democrats’ claim that the Republican
proposal favored the wealthy.
"The president thinks [the
GOP’s] tax cuts are too generous to the wealthy," claimed ABC’s John
Cochran on the June 9 World News Tonight. NBC’s David Bloom,
on the June 16 Nightly News, added that "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." Paula Zahn, on the June 30 CBS Evening News,
said President Clinton "disagrees with key parts of the tax cut
bills passed by the House and Senate because they give too many
breaks to the wealthy and not enough to middle-income Americans."
Beyond the fact that these
reporters didn’t allow Republicans to dispute Democrats’ claims
about their tax bill, none of the summer’s tax stories put these
claims in any context, failing to provide basic facts about who pays
taxes and how tax rates affect the distribution of the tax burden.
"According to IRS data,"
writes Daniel J. Mitchell, an economist at the Heritage Foundation,
"the top one percent of income earners pay nearly 29 percent of the
income tax burden, the top 10 percent pay more than 59 percent, and
the top 20 percent pay more than 74 percent. The bottom 50 percent
of income earners, on the other hand, pay less than five percent of
Mitchell also calls a myth
the claim that lower tax rates necessarily mean the rich will pay
less. "This outcome depends on how much tax rates are reduced," he
"History indicates that the
revenue-maximizing rate is less than 30 percent. In other words,
when marginal rates are higher than 30 percent, the rich probably
will pay more if rates are lowered. The reason: Because incentives
to hide, shelter, and underreport income are reduced."
Mitchell points out that in
the 1920s, the 1960s, and again in the 1980s, the wealthiest
taxpayers shouldered more of the tax burden as their tax rates fell.
For instance: "President John F. Kennedy slashed the top tax rate
from 91 percent to 70 percent. In the ensuing three years, those
making more than $50,000 annually saw their tax payments rise by 57
percent, and their share of the tax burden climbed from 11.6 percent
to 15.1 percent."
In addition, Mitchell says,
the Reagan years "saw the top rate fall from 70 percent in 1980 to
28 percent in 1988. What happened to the rich? The top one percent
went from shouldering 17.6 percent of the income tax burden in 1981
to paying 27.5 percent of the total in 1988. The top 10 percent saw
their share of the burden climb from 48 percent in 1981 to over 57
percent in 1988."
Despite the large amount of
time devoted to the tax issue this summer, none of the network
stories went into enough depth to provide basic information to
viewers about the wealthy and taxes.