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March 8, 2009

MEDIA HYPES TAXES FOR WEALTHY, IGNORES TAX CUTS FOR MOST AMERICANS

Media Matters - Obama's plan cuts taxes for the vast majority of Americans, while raising them for the small number of people who make more than $200,000. But the media have portrayed it as a tax increase.

Here's how The Washington Post led its front-page article last Friday, the day after the plan was announced:

"President Obama delivered to Congress yesterday a $3.6 trillion spending plan that would finance vast new investments in health care, energy independence and education by raising taxes on the oil and gas industry, hedge fund managers, multinational corporations and nearly 3 million of the nation's top earners."

The article was chock-full of details about the tax hikes, referring to "nearly $1 trillion in new taxes over the next decade on the nation's highest earners . . . $318 billion in new taxes on families in the highest income brackets, who would see new limits on the value of the tax breaks from itemized deductions. . . That proposal is a fraction of the new taxes Obama proposes to heap on the nation's highest earners. . . Hedge fund managers would take an even bigger hit. . . Oil and gas companies would be asked to pay an extra $31 billion over the next 10 years . . . Corporations that operate overseas could expect to pay $210 billion more over the next 10 years."

At least 484 of the article's 1,284 words were about the tax increases in Obama's proposal. Among those 484 words was this quote from House GOP leader John Boehner: "The era of big government is back, and Democrats are asking you to pay for it." That simply isn't true, unless you make more than $200,000 a year -- though the Post simply presented Boehner's claim without rebuttal.

And how did the Post address the tax cuts in Obama's plan? The article devoted just 39 words to them. Among other omissions, the Post completely ignored the fact that the plan makes permanent the Bush tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans.

And by the following Monday, tax cuts had disappeared entirely from the Post's reporting. Under the headline "Aides Defend President's Budget; White House and Fiscal Conservatives Set for Showdown," the Post reported Obama's budget would be "raising taxes on top income earners and oil and gas companies" and again quoted a Republican criticizing the tax increases. But there wasn't so much as a hint that most Americans would see their tax bills go down.

The New York Times' coverage of Obama's proposal was little better -- and cable news was often even worse.

Here's one indication of how hysterical the media went over potential tax increases for very few Americans: both The New York Times and ABC News rushed to produce reports about wealthy taxpayers purportedly seeking to reduce their incomes to avoid paying the higher tax rates. The ABC article in particular was deeply flawed, prompting widespread condemnation that led to an editor's note and re-write that improved things -- if only a little.

What makes all of this even more absurd is that the increase in the top tax rates probably shouldn't be considered a tax hike in the first place. Obama's tax rate proposal merely allows the Bush tax cuts to expire as they were designed.

If the expiration, on schedule, of tax cuts that were always scheduled to expire is described as a policy of raising taxes, that makes a mockery of the entire tax policy debate of the past decade. It rigs tax debates in favor of Republicans, who find it easier to argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if they can argue that the cuts won't cost very much -- by making them "temporary" -- but who then get to argue that the scheduled expiration that they included in order to make the cuts look affordable would constitute a tax increase.

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