Facts Exempt: Network News and Taxes

5. When Congress cuts taxes or investigates the IRS, it is inspired to do so by crass political calculations.

In 14 instances reporters claimed that either the focus on IRS abuses or plans to cut taxes were motivated by election-year political considerations. This was especially a favorite theme for CBS. As congressional hearings into IRS abuses began, Dan Rather told viewers of the September 23 CBS Evening News that it "was opening day on Capitol Hill for a guaranteed crowd pleaser sure to score points with the voting public." In a January 2 Evening News report, CBS correspondent Scott Pelley announced that the tax cuts Clinton would propose "will not be nearly enough for Republicans, especially in this election year. But the President is expected to remind them that fiscal discipline helped make the economy strong, and this is no time for a broad-based tax cut."

Other networks had a similar take on reforms of the IRS and the tax code. On the October 20 World News Tonight, 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: "We begin tonight with the effort to overhaul the Internal Revenue Service. 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."

Tom Brokaw began a September 24 Nightly News story by saying, "Senate Republicans have put the IRS under hot lights for its abuses, and not incidentally because it’s also a very popular target with voters."


While it is not unreasonable to assume that politicians are motivated by political considerations, only one of these stories, by CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson on the January 4 Evening News, suggested that new spending proposals might also be the product of base electoral impulses. "Both parties may find it hard to resist the temptation to push for tax cuts or new social spending to curry favor with voters," Attkisson said. Of course, there are also principled, philosophical reasons for cutting taxes, which all network newscasts avoided.