Even with Monday's deal between President Obama and top Republicans, no American's income tax rates will actually decline on January 1 (although, if the deal passes, workers will notice a modest reduction in their payroll taxes in 2011). Yet throughout this debate, the broadcast networks have insisted on framing the debate as about "tax cuts" and "tax breaks," not about forestalling a tax increase that could jeopardize the weak recovery.
MRC analysts reviewed all 23 ABC, CBS and NBC evening news stories about the tax debate from the start of the lame-duck session of Congress on November 15 through December 5, just before the GOP and Obama struck their deal.
Network reporters used the phrase "tax cut" a total of 71 times to characterize the issue at hand. CBS's Nancy Cordes, for example, talked about "the battle over the Bush tax cuts" on the November 15 Evening News. Two nights later, NBC's Chuck Todd related a new poll showing how "49 percent say don't give the wealthy these tax cuts" - as if the "the wealthy" would be getting some new gift from the government.
In contrast, the more accurate term "tax increase" or a synonymous phrase (e.g. tax hike, tax rise) was used only 11 times, or less than one-sixth as often as the phrase "tax cut" was employed. On the December 2 World News, for instance, ABC anchor Diane Sawyer reported how Democrats had voted to "let taxes rise for the wealthiest Americans." In addition, the network evening news broadcasts used the more neutral description of extending the current "tax rate" a total of 8 times in the same period.
The CBS Evening News was the most slanted, describing an extension of Bush "tax cuts" 30 times, with only 3 references to taxes increasing. ABC World News was not much better, using the phrase "tax cut" 27 times, as opposed to only 4 references to taxes going up under the Democratic proposal. NBC's Nightly News was the most balanced, with 14 mentions of "tax cuts" in their reporting, 5 mentions of tax increases, and all 8 references to extending current "tax rates."
On the December 2 CBS Evening News, anchor Katie Couric fretted over how the deficit would "soar" by maintaining the status quo: "If all the Bush tax cuts end for the top 2 percent of earners, $700 billion will be added to the government coffers, helping to ease the debt. If all the cuts stay in place, the deficit will soar by $3.7 trillion over 10 years."
ABC's World News similarly lamented the government being deprived of revenue. At the top of the December 2 broadcast, Diane Sawyer set up a piece: "We asked [correspondent] Jon Karl to tell us how much the tax break for the wealthy increases the deficit." On Sunday, reporter David Kerley warned about the anticipated continuation of current tax rates: "It is a costly deal in a time of worry about the deficit. None of the cuts is paid for."
A October 20 special report by the Business & Media Institute entitled, Obama the Tax Cutter: A Network Fairy Tale , pointed out that the network evening newscast once touted President Obama as tax-cutters' champion.
The lopsided network coverage perpetuates the Democratic premise that George W. Bush's 2001 tax cuts were an aberration from the presumably "normal" rates established by Bill Clinton's 1993 tax increase. It's a sign (if one was needed) that newly-empowered conservatives will have to fight a two-front war in 2011: against both a wounded liberal Democratic administration, and a hostile news media that puts government first.
- Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.  Rich Noyes is the Research Director of News Analysis at the MRC. You can follow him on Twitter here .