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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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April 1998


Reporters Ignore Arguments for Reform
Facts Exempt in Network Tax Stories

As part of everything from last yearís budget deal, to hearings into abuses at the Internal Revenue Service, to proposals for cigarette tax increases this year, tax issues have been prominent in the news over the past 12 months. To see how they were covered, the Media Research Centerís Free Market Project reviewed all of the stories involving taxes from March 15, 1997 through March 14, 1998 on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News. The MRCís researchers found that conservative arguments for cutting taxes were largely omitted from reporting, which led to many common debatable themes in reports across the networks, such as:

Tax cuts mainly help the wealthy.
The liberal claim that tax cuts mainly help the wealthy was mentioned in 13 stories, mostly during debate over efforts to cut the capital gains tax as part of last yearís budget deal. On the June 9 World News Tonight, for instance, ABCís John Cochran told viewers that House Ways and Means Committee "Chairman [Bill] Archer wants to give a big tax cut to those who invest in capital gains ...the President thinks those tax cuts are too generous to the wealthy." CBS reporters Paula Zahn and Rita Braver outlined President Clintonís objections to the GOP plan on the June 30 Evening News, also without bothering to give any Republican arguments. "Clinton weighed in today with his version of a tax cut plan," Zahn reported. "He said he 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." Braver added that Clinton "attacked the congressional plans for catering to the rich."

And NBCís John Palmer concluded his May 3 Nightly News story by pointing out that the "budget agreement is only a framework. Congress still has to vote on the actual appropriations that will directly affect peopleís lives. And there could be trouble from those who worry that the budget is weighted too much in favor of the rich at the expense of the poor."

While reporters had a responsibility to present White House arguments against the capital gains tax cut, few felt they needed to tell viewers of GOP arguments for the cut. Only four stories brought up the conservative argument that a capital gains tax cut would help more than just the wealthy. According to ABCís Bob Jamieson, for example, on the July 29 World News Tonight, many middle class people are excited about the capital gains tax cut, too. He noted that "in the last five years, as stock prices have nearly tripled, the number of people invested in the market has doubled. Half of all investors today never graduated from college. Thirty five percent are middle class or blue collar workers." And while "critics argue that this is a tax cut for the elite because most stock is still owned by the richest six percent of Americans," these "new, less wealthy investors argue it is just as important to them." But Jamiesonís report was unusual. Most ignored the rise of the middle class stockholder, as well as arguments that a capital gains tax cut would help homeowners who wanted to sell and the economy as a whole.

Tax relief should not be only for taxpayers.
There were 18 stories about the debate over whether to extend the child tax credit in last yearís budget deal to the non-taxpaying working poor. But again, conservative arguments were largely left out of reports. Only six of the 18 reports mentioned the conservative argument that such an extension constituted welfare instead of tax relief.

According to Dan Rather, on the June 13 CBS Evening News, the Republican proposal was unacceptable to Clinton "because it does not apply fully to working women and especially poor women who take a tax deduction for child care." On the June 19 World News Tonight, ABCís John Cochran reported that "House Democrats sent out women members to trash Republican tax cuts which offer nothing to low-income workers, who pay Social Security taxes, but no federal income taxes." (He failed to point out the flaw in the argument that the credit was a refund on Social Security taxes paid; namely, if it was, then recipientsí future Social Security income should be lowered to reflect the change, but wasnít.)

Over at NBC, on the July 29 Nightly News, Claire Shipman counted it a victory for the White House that President Clinton was able to get "a $500 per child tax break that extends to the working poor." None of these stories included the argument that tax relief for non-taxpayers is welfare.

Other reporters were more balanced. NBCís David Bloom, on the June 16 Nightly News, told viewers "that the President believes [the credit] should also go to four million low-income working families, even those that donít pay taxes. Republicans say that is not tax relief, thatís welfare, and vow that unlike the fight over disaster relief money, this time they are not backing down." And Bloomís NBC colleague John Palmer, on the June 29 Nightly News, included a soundbite in his story from Republican Senator Don Nickles making the point.

An increase in the complexity of an already mammoth tax code is not newsworthy.
Out of 58 stories focusing on last yearís budget deal, only two of them mentioned that the deal made the tax code more complicated, in direct conflict with promises made during the 1996 campaign and with the Republican Partyís agenda of tax simplification.

"With this new budget deal comes a whole new set of tax breaks and tax rules," NBCís Tom Brokaw told viewers of the August 5 Nightly News. "And then remember last yearís presidential campaign when everyone agreed the current tax code should be scrapped or at least simplified.

Well, guess what? They have actually made it more complicated." Correspondent Gwen Ifill then called the changes "tangled new rules that will prove a bonanza for tax preparers and lawyers." She pointed out that "last year Americans spent $230 billion on tax preparation," and that while "taxes may be going downľthe cost of doing your taxes is headed up." But Ifillís report was a lonely exception to the rule.

The complexity of the tax code has nothing to do with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) abuses.
There were 38 stories about IRS abuses, but only two mentioned the conservative argument that the only real way to rein in the power of the IRS is to make the tax system more neutral. ABCís John Cochran, for instance, concluded his October 21 story about IRS abuses by saying that "Republicans, flush with victory, are already planning their next move, to radically simplify tax returns and further undercut the power of the IRS." Most of the other stories about IRS abuses and reform ideas were in-depth and informative, but they were missing the conservative argument that the tax codeís complexity is at the root of the IRSís ability to harass taxpayers.

When Congress cuts taxes or investigates the IRS, it is inspired to do so by crass political calculations.
In 14 instances reporters claimed that either the focus on IRS abuses or plans to cut taxes were motivated by election-year political considerations. This was especially a favorite theme for CBS. As congressional hearings into IRS abuses began, Dan Rather told viewers of the September 23 CBS Evening News that it "was opening day on Capitol Hill for a guaranteed crowd pleaser sure to score points with the voting public."

In a January 2 report, CBS correspondent Scott Pelley announced that the tax cuts Clinton would propose "will not be nearly enough for Republicans, especially in this election year. But the President is expected to remind them that fiscal discipline helped make the economy strong, and this is no time for a broad-based tax cut."

Other networks had a similar take on reforms of the IRS and the tax code. On the October 20 World News Tonight, Peter Jennings reported that "in Washington, where every politician knows a good target when he sees one, the Republican Party has taken aim, in a most emphatic way, at the Internal Revenue Service." He opened the next eveningís broadcast with this comment: "We begin tonight with the effort to overhaul the Internal Revenue Service. Benjamin Franklin once said that nothing is certain but death and taxes. We might add to this the certainty that politicians will always use the issue of taxes for political gain when they can. In Washington today both the Republicans and the Democrats think they have something to gain by a major overhaul of the IRS."

Tom Brokaw began a September 24 Nightly News story by saying, "Senate Republicans have put the IRS under hot lights for its abuses, and not incidentally because itís also a very popular target with voters."

While it is not unreasonable to assume that politicians are motivated by political considerations, only one of these stories, by CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson on the January 4 Evening News, suggested that new spending proposals might also be the product of base electoral impulses. "Both parties may find it hard to resist the temptation to push for tax cuts or new social spending to curry favor with voters," Attkisson said. Of course, there are also principled, philosophical reasons for cutting taxes, which all network newscasts avoided.

For more balance in tax stories, reporters should interview economists who could make principled arguments for cutting taxes, such as:

÷ Bruce Bartlett, National Center for Policy Analysis, (202) 628-6671.

÷ J.D. Foster, Tax Foundation, (202) 783-2760.

÷ Dan Mitchell, Heritage Foundation, (202) 546-4400.

÷ Stephen Moore, Cato Institute, (202) 842-0200.

÷ Alan Reynolds, Hudson Institute, (317) 545-1000.


ó Rich Noyes


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