What The Media Tell
Americans About Free Enterprise
Washington Soaks Poor, Media Yawn
Networks Fail to Report that Tobacco
Tax Hike Hit Low-Income Americans Hardest
Big tobacco was big news at the
networks last month. In April on ABC World News Tonight,
CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News, there were 23
stories about various aspects of federal tobacco legislation. But,
amazingly, none of these stories mentioned the argument that the
proposed new taxes on cigarettes would hit poorer Americans most
heavily. This is a startling omission for reporters whose first
question about tax legislation is almost always, "Is it fair?"
Just how regressive would proposed
tobacco tax increases be? In the bill offered by Senator John
McCain, notes Patrick Fleanor of the Tax Foundation (as reported by
Paul Gigot in the April 10 Wall Street Journal), about 34
percent of the $1.21- per-pack increase would be paid by those who
make less than $15,000 per year. Those earning less than $35,000
would pick up 59 percent of the tab, while only two percent of the
new taxes would be paid by those making more than $150,000.
According to Gigot, the average two-smoker household "would pay some
$1,327 a year more by 2003."
This is not to say that there hasn't
been some skepticism at the networks about Washington's obsession
with tobacco. In an April 8 CBS Evening News story, for
example, correspondent Bill Plante explained the political
motivations behind Washington's tobacco fixation. The tobacco deal,
he reported, Ais not just about curbing teen smoking. It's about
bringing in new revenue for new programs and still keeping the
budget balanced." On that same evening's Nightly News, NBC
correspondent Bob Kur noted that "even tobacco's toughest critics
say Washington's money grab is out of control."
Ten days later, Plante's CBS
colleague Jim Stewart reported on the possible consequences of White
House plans to "regulate the entire distribution chain for tobacco
products" in order to combat a possible black market in cigarettes
after the tax increase. "The administration seems to be positioning
itself to counter any and every argument by big tobacco that a big
new tax and a comprehensive settlement won't work," Stewart
reported. "This is one tactic, however, with a lot of risk.
Requiring every mom-and-pop grocer in the country to register with
the ATF comes awfully close to establishing what no one wants to see
come out of a tobacco deal -- a national tobacco police."
These are important issues, but no
reporter considered it newsworthy that the government was planning a
steep tax increase on ordinary Americans.
This isn't the first time that
tobacco reporting has been wide but not deep. An October, 1996 Free
Market Project study of tobacco reporting found that between August
1, 1995 and July 31, 1996, there were 413 network news stories about
tobacco and smoking.
This was more coverage than that
given to any other risky product, including illegal drugs. There
were 136 stories relating to obesity and/or fatty foods, 94 stories
about auto safety, and 58 stories about alcohol. Tobacco even
received more coverage than cocaine, heroin, LSD, and marijuana
combined, which were the subjects of 340 stories.
And in these tobacco stories,
soundbites from pro-regulation sources outnumbered soundbites from
anti-regulation sources by more than two to one (270 to 116), with
most of the anti-regulation soundbites coming from the tobacco
industry. Moreover, pro-regulation sources were given the last word
in 132 stories, compared to only 40 stories in which anti-regulation
sources were allowed to speak last.
Until reporters realize that there
are anti-regulation and anti-taxation arguments regarding tobacco
that are not pro-smoking, tobacco coverage will continue to lack
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