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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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July 1998


Tax Hike on Poor? Who Cares?

The May issue of MediaNomics noted that during April reporting on tobacco legislation before Congress, none of the 23 network stories on the bill had mentioned that its tax increases would hit poorer Americans the hardest.

As Patrick Fleanor of the Tax Foundation told the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot, about 34 percent of the increase would be paid by those making less than $15,000 per year. Those making less than $35,000 per year would pay 59 percent of the new taxes, and those making more than $150,000 per year would pay only two percent of the tobacco tax tab.

As we said then, any other tax bill with such heavily regressive features would have immediately incurred media wrath, but reporters covering the tobacco bill had failed to ask their customary tax question: "Is it fair?" With the tobacco tax increase, the effects on poor taxpayers werenít newsworthy.

When the Senate killed the proposed tobacco bill on June 17, network reporters continued to omit the billís regressive tax features from their stories. ABCís World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News each ran two stories on the bill that evening, while NBC Nightly News devoted one story to the proposed legislation.

The theme was the same across the networks: Republicans had caved in to big money from big tobacco. Dan Rather, at CBS, charged that Senate Republicans had voted to kill the tobacco bill "under heavy pressure and heavy money from the tobacco lobby." Correspondent Scott Pelley reported that the White House was angry: "One presidential aide said tonight, ĎWeíre going to make them squirm.í"

In an NBC story titled, "Slow Burn," correspondent Gwen Ifill said: "One month of debate, millions of dollars of tobacco industry lobbying against the bill, a bill that promised to snuff out teen smoking. And in the end, nothing." She said it was a "dramatic end for a bill that once seemed a guaranteed win for health care advocates and for the White House" and that the billís supporters "all promised to come back and fight another day." As with each of the other stories on the billís demise, Ifill included more soundbites from the billís supporters than from opponents. (In Ifill's case, three to two.)

At ABC, correspondent Linda Douglass told viewers that "Republicans killed the bill, knowing that Democrats will hammer them on tobacco in the fall campaign." ABC anchor Charles Gibson came the closest to mentioning the tax issue, saying that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott maintained that the bill "had turned into what he called a tax-and-spend bill."

But none of the five stories specifically mentioned the regressive taxes in the bill. As tobacco becomes a campaign issue in the fall, will reporters continue to ignore the most potent argument against the tobacco bill?

ó Rich Noyes



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