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
"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,
÷ Bruce Bartlett, National Center for Policy Analysis,
÷ 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.