Facts Exempt: Network News and Taxes

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked Americans which they would prefer: a tax-cutting candidate, or a candidate who favors more spending on education and child care. Only 39 percent preferred the former, while 55 percent chose the latter.

One possible reason for this preference is that tax cuts get bad press. Network news reports generally portray tax reform as an election-year sop to the rich at the expense of the poor. And viewers probably think there is no philosophical or economic rationale behind tax cuts, since they are rarely told of one.

This is the conclusion of a study of tax coverage by the Media Research Center's Free Market Project. Researchers analyzed tax stories from March 15, 1997 through March 14, 1998 on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News. The study found:

There were 13 stories mentioning the liberal argument that last year's cut in the capital gains tax would mainly benefit the wealthy. Only four stories mentioned conservative arguments that the capital gains cut would help the non-wealthy because more middle-class investors are entering the stock market every year, and that such a cut would help grow the economy. A typical report was a June 30 CBS Evening News story by anchor Paula Zahn and correspondent Rita Braver. According to Zahn, President Clinton "said he disagrees with key parts of the tax-cut bill 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." Neither bothered to present any Republican arguments for the capital gains tax cuts.

Out of 58 stories on last year's budget deal between Congress and the White House, only two pointed out that it increased the complexity of the tax code, which ran counter to 1996 campaign promises and to the GOP's supposed agenda of tax simplification. NBC's Gwen Ifill was nearly alone in calling the changes "tangled new rules that will prove a bonanza for tax preparers and lawyers" and in pointing out that "last year Americans spent $230 billion on tax preparation," a figure which "is heading up" because of the budget deal.

In 14 instances, reporters claimed that either the congressional focus on abuses by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or congressional plans to cut taxes were motivated by base political calculations. Only one of these stories said the same thing about new federal spending. On the October 20 World News Tonight, ABC's 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 evening's broadcast with this comment: "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."

While it is not unreasonable to assume that politicians are motivated by political considerations, reporters were not nearly as quick to tar advocates of new federal spending as having ulterior motives - Timothy Lamer

This report is adapted from a larger study, available on the MRC's web site at www.mediaresearch.org.