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3/4/2006 9:33:58 AM

Updated 02/24/06

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Media Won’t Rest until Taxes Are Raised
Networks flood airwaves with stories suggesting tax hikes to pay for Katrina and other ‘price tags.’

By Amy Menefee
Free Market Project
October 12, 2005

     Spending federal money without raising taxes? Broadcasters have been incredulous at the thought, especially since Hurricane Katrina hit – so much so that 59 percent of their tax-related stories have suggested tax hikes. Reporters turned to everyone from Bill Clinton to the man on the street to fellow journalists to make the case for taxation.

A typical question from a network reporter showed annoyance at the president’s tax policy and implied that anything but raising taxes is irresponsible, sounding something like this: “The last thing in the world that George W. Bush wants to do is raise taxes, but the amount of money that we’re talking about here, we’re talking about many, many, many tens of billions of dollars. Can that be done without raising taxes?” That was ABC’s Ted Koppel following Bush’s address to the nation on September 15.

Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos
ABC's "Presidential Speech"
Sept. 15, 2005
Audio | Video

Matt Lauer and Bill Clinton
NBC's "Today"
Sept. 16, 2005
Audio | Video

     Journalists made sure the audience didn’t forget several things – namely, that Americans are paying for military operations in Iraq and that the United States has a deficit. As the Free Market Project has shown, reporters frequently refer to deficits as if they are inherently bad, though they are actually a small percentage of a multitrillion-dollar economy and should not inspire panic.

     Still, ABC’s Bob Woodruff used an unnamed “influential conservative” group’s estimate of the deficit to cast doubt on Bush’s tax policy. He said on the September 16 “World News Tonight” that “Today one influential conservative think tank estimated that the effort is going to help drive the budget deficit to three quarters of a trillion dollars within the next 10 years. Mr. Bush said today he will not raise taxes to pay for it.”

     Going a step further, NBC’s Tim Russert tried to imagine a world with higher taxes on the September 25 “Meet the Press”: “The president’s been very resistant to talk about tax cuts or certainly the repeal of them. Is there any possibility he would say, ‘We have these massive deficits. I believe in the war in Iraq. It’s going to bring democracy to the Middle East. I believe in rebuilding New Orleans and helping the people of Texas. But to the people in my income bracket, I have to freeze the tax cut I had planned.’?”

     The Free Market Project analyzed reports on ABC, CBS and NBC from Katrina’s landfall on August 29 through October 10. Of 76 stories that dealt with tax issues and the storm, 59 percent (45 stories) raised the subject of tax increases. The other 31 stories touched on a variety of subjects. Some mentioned lost tax revenue in the devastated areas, and some addressed ways to tweak the tax system to ease the storm’s blow, including a few mentions of suspending gas taxes and giving tax breaks to affected businesses and individuals. Other stories mentioned use of taxpayers’ money for recovery efforts, such as trailers for homeless storm victims. But by far, the most popular subject in tax-related stories since Katrina was partisan debate about tax increases, including the suggestion of repealing tax cuts – a tax increase by another name.

     Partisan debate is not known for its explanatory power, but White House Counselor Dan Bartlett got the chance to rebut ABC’s Charles Gibson on the September 15 “Good Morning America.” Gibson pressed him: “But are you going to maintain that we can pay for this, we can pay for the war in Iraq, and we can pay for the rising health care costs in this country without raising taxes?” Bartlett responded that “We shouldn’t be adding to that burden on families all across American by raising their taxes which would only hurt the economy, hurt the economy in the Gulf Coast region, and only set back our efforts to help people get back on their feet.”

A Former President’s Campaign

     There is no shortage of lawmakers currently in office who would like to raise taxes. CBS’s Bob Schieffer interviewed one example on the September 18 “Face the Nation.” He asked Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), “Let me just ask you what I think is a key question here. The president says he can do all of this, and he’s promised to do everything that it takes without raising taxes. Do you think that’s realistic?” Obama answered that he found Republicans’ tax-cutting ways “mind-boggling” and that Congress needed some “adult supervision of the budget process.”

     Yet, despite the availability of senators like Obama, in 13 percent of the stories mentioning tax increases reporters brought Democratic former President Bill Clinton onto the stage to make the case.

     On the September 16 “Today,” NBC’s Matt Lauer sat down with Clinton to pick his brain about what he would do if he were still president. Lauer repeated the familiar refrain: “…with the price tags we’re seeing, Iraq: $200 billion; the rebuilding of the Gulf states, estimated $200 billion; gas prices so high; a huge deficit. What sacrifice – if you were president today – what sacrifices would you ask the American people to make to pay those bills?” Clinton replied, “Well, I would repeal the tax cuts for upper-income people. I – I myself have gotten four tax cuts while young Americans have gone out to risk their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan while we’ve had these massive natural disasters.”

     On the “Nightly News” that night, NBC’s David Gregory repeated Clinton’s call from the earlier show. “President Clinton on ‘Today’ this morning urged the White House to roll back the Bush tax cuts.”

     Clinton appeared again on the September 18 “Meet the Press.” NBC’s Tim Russert served up the following to Clinton: “The president said we’re going to rebuild New Orleans. It’s estimated to cost probably close to $300 billion. How can we afford that? What is it going to do to the deficit? And what should we do about tax cuts and spending cuts?” Clinton replied, “I think it was always a mistake for people in my income group to get tax cuts. I think before it was terrible.” He said he didn’t “approve” of “borrowing the money to pay for Katrina, pay for Iraq, and pay for Bill Clinton’s tax cuts.” “I think it’s ethically not good,” he said, “and I think it’s terrible economics.”

     Clinton also showed up on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” September 18 on ABC. And ABC repurposed that interview for the same day’s “Good Morning America,” when Stephanopoulos said, “President Bush says he doesn’t want to revisit the tax cuts. President Clinton says that is a big mistake.”

     Of course, Bill was not the only Clinton interviewed on the subject. On the September 7 “Good Morning America,” ABC’s Charles Gibson showed an interview with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in which she lamented the Bush tax cuts. Gibson then told his colleagues, “I asked her, given the fact that it’s going to cost so much for recovery, and with what we’re spending in Iraq, whether or not we’re going to have to raise taxes, but you can’t get a politician to say definitively we’re going to have to raise taxes and so she didn’t.” Diane Sawyer was quick to remind him that she, too, was hot on the trail of the same question: “Well, the president, of course, said to me when I talked to him last week, no tax rises.”

Finding Other Proponents of Tax Hikes

     When they were done with politicians, reporters sometimes found pro-tax men on the street. On the September 1 “CBS Morning News,” Mississippi resident Robert Donnell said, “We’ll have to have something like a Katrina tax or something to put the infrastructure back. I mean, we’ll just have to have it.”

     Likewise, on the September 19 “NBC Nightly News,” Mike Taibbi found an unidentified man who expressed willingness to pay. “If it takes more taxes, I would be willing to throw in some more,” he said.

     And if that failed, they turned to one of their own. On NBC’s “Saturday Today” September 17, Lester Holt and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough drove home the tax increases. Holt began: “And, Joe, the president says he’s not going to repeal the tax cut. Democrats are saying, ‘You’re going to have to if you’re going to fund this and you’re going to fund the war.’ How strongly can – can the president, given, perhaps, his weakened capital – how strongly can he resist that call?” Scarborough replied: “He cannot resist that call. It is economically impossible to cut taxes. … Listen, Lester, we’ve got the biggest federal deficit ever.” Mentioning the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, Scarborough continued, “And then you add on top of that again another $200 billion price tag, and we’re going to be facing possibly an economic meltdown.”

     CBS turned to contributor Nancy Giles for her opinion on all things Katrina on the September 4 “Sunday Morning.” Lamenting poverty in New Orleans and Mississippi, she blamed the tax cuts: “We’ve repeatedly given tax cuts to the wealthiest and left our most vulnerable American citizens to basically fend for themselves.” She then mocked President Bush, saying, “Once again, a day late and a dollar short. Words of wisdom from our president.”





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