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

CBS Excluded Data Rebutting Liberal Critics

While ABC and NBC downplayed alternative data that countered the liberal argument that the tax cuts were unfair, the CBS Evening News refused to report this information even a single time. Instead, on three occasions CBS reporters chose to make precisely the same point as Democratic partisans, emphasizing that the net tax reduction of the wealthiest citizens would have the highest raw dollar value.

rather041001_internalOn January 25, using an on-screen graphic to help reinforce the point, CBS’s John Roberts organized the numbers in a way that would please liberals: "Under the Bush plan, a family of four making $30,000 would save about $700; $50,000, $1,900; and at $140,000, the tax break is more than $5,000....The tax cut was roundly criticized during the election campaign for catering to the rich. One analysis calculated the average giveback for the top one percent of earners at $46,000, while another found a single mother of two with an income of $22,000 would get nothing back." (With Real Video)

The on-screen graphic explained that the "one analysis" cited authoritatively by Roberts was in fact a study by a group called Citizens for Tax Justice, which Roberts failed to tell viewers was a liberal interest group. Roberts made a similar presentation on February 8 ("a married couple with no children making $950,000 a year would get back almost $9,000 in the first year, more than $43,000 in the fifth"), while Capitol Hill correspondent Bob Schieffer pushed the same point on March 8, the day the House of Representatives passed the across-the-board income tax cut.

"For a single parent with one child earning $22,000 a year, that translates into a savings of $932 once the full cut is phased in," Schieffer lectured as the numbers flashed on screen. "A two-earner couple with two children earning $55,000 will realize a $1,900 a year tax cut. The same size family earning $90,000 would see a cut of more than $2,700. And if that family’s earnings rose to $400,000, their tax cut would total more than $13,000 yearly."

As the information relayed by ABC’s Moran and NBC’s Gregory makes clear, those dollar figures stressed by CBS are practically meaningless if you don’t know how much an individual is already paying the federal government in income taxes. A basic outline of the tax burden that current law places on various income groups is undoubtedly relevant to any discussion of the "fairness" of any changes in income tax rates, yet it was nowhere to be found on the CBS Evening News.

Nor was any mention made of the income tax increase which the Clinton administration pushed through a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1993 as part of a plan to reduce and eventually eliminate large annual budget deficits. The Clinton tax increase, sold as part of a program of "shared sacrifice," only increased income tax rates on upper-income households, raising the top rate from 31 percent to 36 percent, and then creating a "millionaires surcharge" of ten percent — a de facto top bracket of 39.6 percent for those with the largest annual earnings that has been in place ever since. Despite the fact that those deficits have disappeared, even the Bush tax cut would only return the top rate to 33 percent, two points higher than it was when Bill Clinton took office.

This context, however, was never included in a single network story, even as many of the liberal Democrats who voted for the 1993 tax increase condemned as "unfair" and "a giveaway" even a partial rollback of those higher rates. The fact that the CBS Evening News dutifully reported the liberals’ complaints about the tax cut’s "unfairness," yet completely excluded facts and data which might offer a convincing rebuttal, ensured that viewers would hear only one side of the debate.