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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Thursday, October 26, 2000

Volume 8, Number 21

News Media Promoted Pro-Gore Tax Activist as "Nonpartisan" Expert

Can a Hollywood producer offer an objective review of his own movie? Most people would probably say no — once they stopped laughing, that is. But something comparable happened when one network turned to a liberal activist and made him an honorary member of their "Truth Squad" after a TV debate between the two presidential candidates.

During their first joint appearance, Vice President Al Gore tried to portray Governor George W. Bush’s tax cut proposal as a boon for wealthy citizens. "The key question that has to be answered in this election," Gore asked on October 3, "is will we use that prosperity wisely in a way that benefits all of our people and doesn’t go just to the few?"

"Almost half of all the tax cut benefits, as I said, under Governor Bush’s plan, go to the wealthiest 1%," claimed Gore, before pronouncing: "I think we have to make the right and responsible choices."

The Bush campaign has disputed Gore’s statistics, but NBC’s Lisa Myers — leader of her network’s self-described "Truth Squad" — assured voters that the Vice President was correct. "Most experts say Gore’s math isn’t fuzzy," Myers reported on the October 4 NBC Nightly News. "Though estimates vary, Bush does give the wealthiest one percent, those making more than $300,000, a huge tax cut."

She then showed a soundbite from Robert McIntyre, a lawyer, registered lobbyist, and director of Citizens for Tax Justice. McIntyre echoed Myers’ assessment: "Gore got the numbers right. Bush didn’t really challenge him. He just said, I think those people deserve a tax cut, too."

But of course McIntyre would agree with Gore’s statistics — they’re his numbers! Neither he nor Myers, however, alerted viewers to the fact that the Democratic nominee’s soundbite was being defended by the man who supplied it.

Five months ago, Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) produced an analysis of Bush’s tax cut program that has been quoted repeatedly by both the news media and the Democrats this year. That study included the assertion that 42.6% of the benefits of the proposed tax cut would go to taxpayers with annual incomes above $319,000, which CTJ says is just the very top 1% of taxpayers, a claim that the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) — a middle-of-the-road group led by economist Carol Cox Wait — branded "an exaggeration."

"Joint Tax Committee (JTC) analysis suggests that people with incomes over $200,000 get 27% of the benefit. Most of the difference depends on how you treat estate tax relief....The JTC analysis is based on 2005 and does not include estate taxes. The Vice President bases his numbers on Citizens for Tax Justice, a self-identified liberal organization, projections over 11 years to capture the full phase-in of estate tax relief. That analysis attributes the entire cost of estate tax relief to the top 1% of taxpayers," explained the CRFB.

McIntyre and his group design studies that serve to promote their belief that wealthy individuals and big corporations receive favored treatment under the nation’s tax laws. Fair enough — they have an agenda. Some news reporters — including those from CNN and the New York Times — have carefully and accurately labeled Citizens for Tax Justice either as a "labor-backed," "left-leaning" or a "liberal" group. Reporters use such labels in order to give news consumers a quick impression of the background and agenda of groups which may be unfamiliar. The practice allows viewers and readers to better judge the statements and claims of such groups for themselves.

But the three broadcast networks seem to have gone out of their way to present Citizens for Tax Justice as a band of disinterested, non-partisan experts with no agenda or axe to grind.

Myers, for example, never labeled McIntyre for her "Truth Squad" report earlier this month. Nor did her Nightly News colleague David Bloom properly identify McIntyre when he panned Bush’s tax cut on the day it was announced, December 1, 1999. "He’d either have to raid the Social Security trust fund, or he’d have to have gigantic cuts in everything else the government does," McIntrye told Bloom. During the primaries, in fact, McIntyre was the sole expert on the three broadcast evening newscasts shown commenting on the various Republican tax proposals. (See "When Bigger Isn’t Better," a Free Market Project Special Report, March 6, 2000.)

CBS’s Diana Olick also failed to label McIntyre, but gave him a chance to smear congressional Republicans as liars in a June 9 Evening News story on their efforts to repeal the estate tax. "They don’t want to tell the truth," McIntyre told Olick. No congressional Republican was given a chance to respond. (For more on that one-sided anti-tax cut story, see "Liberal Experts Featured, Conservative Experts Excluded From TV’s Death Tax Coverage," MediaNomics, June 16, 2000.)

ABC also refused to tell viewers about McIntyre’s liberal pedigree when he attacked corporate tax shelters in a February 29 World News Tonight story. "If you find that you’re paying an extra $500 or $1000 a year in taxes just so some big company can shelter its income, I think you ought to be outraged," he told viewers.

Yet none of the three networks were as disingenous as a lengthy Los Angeles Times feature story from June. In "The Battle Over Single Mothers," reporter Maria LaGanga not only let McIntyre cast doubt on Bush’s tax plan, but she camaflouged his group’s agenda by merely identifying Citizens for Tax Justice as "nonpartisan" and a "Washington-based group."

After profiling a working mother, Debbie Vickers, who earns $22,000 a year, LaGanga wrote of Bush’s tax proposal, "One hundred and ten dollars would not change Vickers’ life, nor would $1,000, not that she’d turn up her nose at either. She’d probably use the money to buy groceries; $110 wouldn’t pay for a week of child care."

Later in her story, LaGanga presented the Citizens for Tax Justice study as authoritative. "In fact, in analyzing Bush’s plan, the nonpartisan Citizens for Tax Justice figures that those in the top 10% of earners would, on average, get a tax break of $6,369. The bottom 20% of income earners in America would save $43."

Her story continued: "‘Most of his tax cut goes to upper-income people, but Bush says some of it goes to other people,’ says Robert McIntyre, director of the Washington-based group. ‘That’s true, but not very much. The question for those other people is, "Is there something you’d rather have more?"’

"Debbie Vickers would rather have child care, an affordable high-quality place for [her son] Richie to stay when she’s working her full and erratic schedule," LaGanga tendentiously concluded, never informing her readers that her source was a liberal advocate.

McIntyre’s point of view is a legitimate one, and can fairly be included in the networks’ political coverage — if only to let citizens know what sort of advice the Vice President has been getting. But the networks not only have a duty to balance such views with those of conservative and free market-oriented experts; they also need to tell viewers when their expert is a liberal with his own activist agenda.

Rich Noyes


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