Obama the Tax Cutter: A Network Fairy Tale: Executive Summary

Executive Summary

Like the fabled town of Hamelin that hired the Pied Piper to conquer its rat problem, America needed a hero to overcome a faltering economy. According to the news media, that hero was Sen. Barack Obama who made extravagant promises about tax cuts for 95 percent of “working families” and getting the economy back on track.

Promises, promises. Obama also signed a $65-billion tax hike into law. Up to $4.2 trillion more in tax increases will hit taxpayers starting January 1. Yet, when the networks talked about tax cuts, ABC, CBS and NBC have portrayed Obama as a tax cutter more than four times as often as they talked about him raising taxes. Those potential tax increases are almost 20 times the size of the $214 billion temporary tax cuts Obama included in the stimulus bill. Tax cutter? Hardly.

The tax increases will hurt the middle-class, not just the wealthy. They also violated Obama’s “firm pledge” not to increase taxes on any family making less than $250,000 per year and the networks failed to hold him accountable.

In a typical network example, NBC’s John Yang credited the president with significant tax cuts when he lauded Obama’s successful passage of the enormous stimulus bill that was more than 70 percent spending and less than 30 percent tax relief, saying: “Obama hasn’t been in office even four weeks yet and he’s already won passage of the biggest spending increase and tax cut bill in history.” NBC “Nightly News” went on to depict Obama as a tax cutter 14 times as often as they discussed his tax increases.

The Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute examined all 171 network evening news reports containing the terms “tax cut” or “tax cuts” between Sept. 1, 2008, (as the election loomed) and Aug. 31, 2010.

Here are some of BMI’s findings:

Networks Ignore Obama’s Much Higher Tax Increases: The president’s potential tax hikes are nearly 20 times the size of his tax cuts, yet not a single story out of the 171 network tax cut reports pointed out that fact.  

Obama the Tax Cutter: Barack Obama was portrayed as cutting taxes more than four times as often as increasing them (66 to 16). Middle-class tax cuts were part of Obama’s “ambitious” agenda, according to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, but rarely did reporters discuss the president’s tax increases.

Few Economists in Tax Cut Stories: It doesn’t take a degree in economics to realize stories about tax cuts should include economists. Yet, ABC, CBS and NBC evening shows failed to include economists nearly three-fourths of the time (125 out of 171 stories).

Economists Consulted Were Liberal: When journalists did consult economists, they went to liberals like administration officials Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Budget Director Peter Orszag and left-wing groups like Brookings Institute and Tax Policy Center more than 4 times as often (38 to 9).

Where Were Stories about Largest Tax Increase? Taxes are slated to rise dramatically on Jan. 1, 2011, if nothing is done to extend the Bush tax cuts. The worrisome deadline has been in place for 10 years and Obama campaigned on repealing the Bush tax cuts, yet the network news media chose to mention those tax cuts in a mere 23 percent of stories.

NBC the Worst: NBC “Nightly News” was the network most distorted in Obama’s favor by portraying him as a tax cutter 14 times more than a tax hiker. NBC also didn’t hide its preference for tax increases on June 25, 2010, when correspondent John Harwood audaciously claimed, “In the long run, everybody agrees taxes need to go up as part of a comprehensive solution to very high budget deficits …”

CBS the Best: Although still slanted, CBS “Evening News” did a better job than ABC and NBC by providing the other side of the debate in a handful of reports. One such story by Ben Tracy revealed the plight of one taxpayer “the president calls wealthy.” Tracy found a small business owner who “will pay thousands more in taxes if the president’s budget passes” and a charity concerned that Obama’s plan to limit deductions would cause people to limit their charitable giving.

To improve coverage, BMI recommends: 

Don’t Begin with Liberal Assumptions about Taxes: All too often reporters’ stories are biased against tax cuts because of built-in liberal assumptions like tax cuts have a “cost,” Bush’s tax cuts only benefited the “wealthy,” and his tax cuts created the deficit crisis. Those are not economic statements; they are political spin. Instead of repeating them, journalists should remain objective and consider both sides.

Consult Experts from Both Sides: Since most journalists are not economists they should consult them for stories about issues like tax policy. Network reporters should be careful to include tax experts from both sides rather than quoting only liberal economists working in the administration, or from the left-wing Tax Policy Center – which is often labeled “non-partisan” by journalists. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states that journalists should “tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”

Networks Should Monitor Themselves: It shouldn’t take outsiders to notice and complain about biased coverage of taxes. Editors and ombudsmen should be aware of the stories their networks are broadcasting, recognize problems and address them.

Stop Waging Class Warfare: President Obama waging class warfare isn’t a surprise; it is a common left-wing tactic. But the networks should see his anti-success rhetoric for what it is and report objectively instead of supporting claims that only the wealthy benefit from tax cuts, or that the rich deserve to pay higher taxes.

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