Liberal Spin Prevails: How CBS Led the Networks' Charge Against the Bush Tax Cut

Who Benefits? Liberal Arguments Presented With Little Context

The other key complaint voiced by liberal critics about the Bush tax cut is its alleged unfairness — i.e., the tax cuts are merely a giveaway to the rich that offer little or nothing to lower- and middle-income households. This perspective was repeated on the networks 31 times, mainly by Democrats lobbying against the tax cut proposal or reporters summarizing the liberal complaint. For example, CBS’s Rather introduced a story on February 8 by informing viewers that "Democrats said again the Bush cuts are mostly a boon to the rich, and they say the cuts risk squandering the nation’s budget surplus."

Exhibit4That same evening, ABC quoted the President making the opposite point, telling Hispanic business leaders, "My plan dramatically reduces the marginal rate on many low-income workers." But this counter-argument — that Bush’s plan offered tax relief to all income taxpayers, or that his program actually provided a larger percentage cut in the tax bills of lower- and middle-income taxpayers — was relayed to viewers less than half as frequently (15 times) as the liberal assertion that the tax cuts were "a boon to the rich." (See Exhibit 4: "Debating the Fairness Issue")

Liberals pushed their argument by stressing the raw dollar savings for families at different income levels. Nine times, the evening news presented Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle making this liberal point. At one photo-op (shown on all three broadcasts), he asserted that "if you make over $300,000 a year, this tax cut means you get to buy a new Lexus. If you make $50,000 a year, you get to buy a muffler on your used car." Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett was displayed on NBC on March 8, asserting that under the Bush plan, "you can use your big tax savings to buy a can of beans daily."

Fairness would mean reporters would have balanced liberals’ favored citation of raw dollar totals with information on the percentage tax reduction for various households, as conservatives favored. Yet the networks rarely did this. The only exceptions: NBC on three occasions, and ABC once, summarized data showing the percentage reduction in the tax burden facing families with different incomes. These data made it clear that the rich would not receive the largest percentage tax cuts.

One of those exceptions: ABC’s Terry Moran offered both sets of numbers on February 8, explaining that "under the Bush proposal, a single person making $20,000 a year would get a $300 tax cut. That’s 16 percent less than the person pays in taxes now. A married, working couple with two children who make $60,000 a year would get a $1,600 cut, which represents a 40 percent reduction from current law. And, a married couple with two children making $1,000,000 a year would get a $46,000 tax break, a 15 percent cut." Not only does this show that the rich weren’t getting the greatest percentage tax cut; working backwards, those figures also indicate that the higher-income couple is currently paying more than $300,000 each year in federal income taxes. As a tax expert told Moran, "Poor people do not get the same big tax cuts that high-income people get under this plan. That’s because they don’t pay large amounts of tax."

Exhibit5Exhibit 5, "Most Taxes Paid By Top Earners," makes this point even more clearly. According to data provided by the Internal Revenue Service and the Tax Foundation, and published in Investor’s Business Daily on February 8, under current law, the top five percent of income earners shoulder more than 50 percent of the federal income tax burden, while the bottom 50 percent of income earners pay only about four percent of federal income taxes. The top one percent of earners — those singled out in so much liberal rhetoric — account for more than one-third (34.8%) of the government’s income tax revenue.

In other words, many millions of Americans are already essentially excluded from the burdens of an income tax, so any changes in tax rates cannot be expected to have a great effect on their tax bills. Conversely, the wealthiest citizens account for such a large portion of the federal tax pie, it is difficult to reduce income tax rates without substantially reducing the tax bills of wealthy citizens.

The even-handed approach that Moran displayed on February 8 was discarded a month later by his colleague, ABC congressional reporter Linda Douglass, who on March 8 read a description of the benefits of the across-the-board income tax cut that could have been written by Daschle’s press secretary. "People making $56,400 would get back $511 a year," she told viewers. "Those making $1,000,000 would get back more than $28,000." She never hinted at the fact that the lower-income household in her example was obtaining a larger percentage cut than the high-income family, or that the high-income family was responsible for far larger payments to the government.

To their credit, three stories on NBC offered viewers this counter-argument. "What about the charge that the plan mostly benefits the rich? Not so, say some experts," reporter David Gregory explained on February 5. "As a percentage of their tax liability, the rich actually get a smaller cut than many others." This point was not made frequently enough on either ABC or NBC to come close to balancing the 31 claims of liberal partisans who were repeatedly shown stressing the supposed unfairness of the tax cut, but both networks deserve at least some credit for offering viewers a rare glimpse of the other side of the story.