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Recycling Rhetoric: Media Coverage of the Bush Tax Cut

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
May 29, 2001
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You'll be forgiven if you think that the only major political news from the past week was the departure of Vermont Senator James Jeffords from the Republican Party. That news, after all, was both unexpected and dramatic, as it gave the Democrats control of the Senate. At the same time, though, Congress enacted one of the biggest policy changes in years - one that, in decades to come, will affect the growth of the economy and America's ability to pay for major social programs: President Bush's tax cut.

That's right, the Bush tax cut passed the House and Senate on Saturday. And, as always, the American political media wasn't afraid to take a bold stand on what it all means: Bush won. As for the larger issue of just what is in the tax cut and what it means for America, well, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer probably wouldn't have written the articles much differently himself. After all, why bother probing deep into an issue when there's no political drama to cover?

These headlines brought to you by the Republican Party

The L.A. Times was perhaps the most egregious, with its Saturday headline "Lawmakers Reach Deal on Tax Relief". "Tax relief," rather than "tax cuts," is of course the preferred term of Republicans, who would like to imply that Americans are overburdened and need to be relieved. Not exactly neutral terms.

The Washington Post also swallows Republican propaganda hook, line, and sinker with its headline "Congress Passes $1.35 Trillion Tax Cut". As the Post itself admits deep in its article, however, the 11-year cost of $1.35 trillion touted by the Bush administration is so far off from the truth as to be laughable. In one of the only comprehensive analyses of the cut, the respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the Bush tax cut will cost approximately $1.9 trillion over the next 11 years. This is because the bill allows the tax cuts to expire in 2010 to keep the total cost down even though the legislation extends until 2011. In addition, certain inevitable changes in tax law will cost even more - most notably, a change in the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be needed to prevent it from hitting tens of million of middle-class taxpayers. All of you out there who believe that Congress will allow the tax cuts to expire in ten years and do nothing while tens of millions of middle class taxpayers are hit by the AMT, well, you have promising careers in Washington public relations.

Facts in a News Article?!

The New York Times had perhaps the most reasonable headline of the major papers: "Congress Passes Tax Cut, With Rebates This Summer". Rest assured, however, that you don't have to read far to find the Times ignoring fact for rhetoric. It essentially summarizes Democratic opposition to the Bush tax quote in two places. Early on, it says:

But even as final passage neared, Democrats said the bill was unfairly tilted to the wealthy, left too little money for other purposes and risked putting the nation back in a fiscal hole just as it confronted the costs of paying retirement and health benefits to an aging population.
"We think this is good short-term politics," said Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who will become majority leader when the Democrats formally take control of the Senate. "It is disastrous long-term policy."

And then near the end, it provides one more quote:

Democrats said the United States would come to rue the day the legislation was enacted because it risked a return to the kinds of budget deficits that built up after the last big tax cut, in 1981.
"This is a sad day, as was 1981," said Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland. "It will result in profound dislocation in days ahead."

What's missing from this pathetic "other side" presented by the Times is the question of whether the final bill is indeed tilted towards the wealthy or too expensive. As I noted above, the tax cut will almost certainly end up costing approximately $550 billion more than Republicans are admitting, lending some validity to the point that it may crowd out other priorities and possibly lead toward budget deficits. On the question of being "unfairly tilted towards the wealthy," an issue the Times only discusses in those five words, there is yet more data from CBPP. The top one percent of American taxpayers, for instance, will receive over one-third of the benefits of the cuts when fully phased in, although they pay only 25 percent of all taxes. The bottom eighty percent, essentially all of America's poor and middle class and much of its upper-middle class, receive a pathetic 29 percent of the tax cuts.

There are, of course economic arguments for providing tax cuts primarily to the rich. We'll leave those aside, however, to merely make the point that the Times never bothers to provide that data for readers to make up their own minds. The Times instead makes it into a war of words, only providing numbers as it lists the various details of the tax cut. You can just picture Ari Fleischer smiling, since readers are a lot more likely to be satisfied as they read tax cut after tax cut and never find out how few of the benefits will go to the average American.

And so we see the major media calling the Bush tax cut what Republicans want to call it, adding it up according to misleading Republican calculations, and failing to present a single shred of the readily available evidence to support arguments against it. There has been some good reporting on the misleading rhetorical and fuzzy math behind the Bush tax cut, but most of that came on op-ed pages, most notably from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. When it comes to the news, maybe political reporters were just too busy with the intrigue of the Jeffords switch. Or, perhaps, when it comes to a complex policy issue that requires more than repeating rhetoric, the Washington media is in over its head.

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-Richard W. Stevenson, "Congress Passes Tax Cut, With Rebates This Summer," The New York Times, May 27, 2001.
-Glenn Kessler and Juliet Eilperin, "Congress Passes $1.35 Trillion Tax Cut," The Washington Post, May 27, 2001.
-Janet Hook, "Lawmakers Reach Deal on Tax Relief," The L.A. Times, May 26, 2001.
-Isaac Shapiro, Robert Greenstein, and James Sly, "Under Conference Agreement, Dollar Gains for Top One Percent Essentially the Same as Under House and Bush Packages." Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 26, 2001. http://www.centeronbudget.org/5-26-01tax2.htm
-Joel Friedman, Richard Kogan, and Robert Greenstein, "Final Tax Bill Ultimately Costs As Much As Bush Plan." Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 26, 2001. http://www.centeronbudget.org/5-26-01tax.htm

Other articles of note:
-Paul Krugman, "The Big Lie", The New York Times, May 27, 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/27/opinion/27KRUG.html
-Paul Krugman, "More Missing Pages," The New York Times, May 6, 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/06/opinion/06KRUG.html

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