There was something depressing about a recent discussion on the PBS NewsHour Monday night (9/13/10) about the debate over what to do with the Bush-era tax cuts.
The politics of the tax debate is well-known; most Democrats want to extend them for all but the top brackets, while the Republicans want to renew the cuts that affect only the wealthiest taxpayers (which could cost the government an additional $700 billion in lost revenue over the next decade). The Republican argument is that allowing the tax cuts to expire on families earning more than $250,000 would hurt "small businesses."
So here's how host Gwen Ifill and Wall Street Journal reporter Naftali Bendavid summed things up:
GWEN IFILL: But when it comes right down to it–and we've debated this endlessly on this program, exactly about who is right about this. But when the president says it's a $700 billion bill to do it the way the Republicans want, and the Republicans say you're raising the taxes on people who are the engines of the economy, is there any real way to sort that out, or is it in both parties' interest to keep that uncertain?
NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, my sense is that it's in both parties' interest to keep that uncertain. There are compromises that are being floated. You know, there's a proposal out there to only raise taxes on people making a million or more, so it would really be the high-end earners. But my sense is that this is much more about both parties having a position than about reaching some sort of compromise.
Of course political parties disagree; that's a given. But that disagreement doesn't make things "uncertain." Reporters can–and obviously should–evaluate the strength of the arguments coming from politicians, and not merely relay contradictory claims; that's the real way to sort things out that Ifill is looking for.
So when Republicans say that a tax increase on the wealthy is a small-business-harming job-killer, reporters should tell people whether there's any reason to believe that. (Hint: There isn't.) When journalists refuse to do their jobs, and are content to sit neutrally by while politicians posture endlessly, the debate goes from bad to worse.