Sep
22
2008

CBS Cheats on Tax Coverage

Manipulation of data leaves viewers disinformed

CBS Evening News called the suggestion that both major candidates will raise taxes "one of the most explosive political charges of the election" (9/15/08)--but so far, CBS's coverage of this issue has been a big dud.

CBS has promised more long-form coverage of policy issues this election season “to help you make an informed decision” (9/9/08)--a welcome development, since as FAIR has shown (Extra!, 5-6/08), it's possible to watch hours of campaign coverage and learn virtually nothing about what the candidates promise to do if elected. But one of the first special issue segments, CBS Evening News' September 9 report on John McCain and Barack Obama's tax plans, mainly proved that longer does not necessarily mean better.

To address the question of what the McCain and Obama plans would do for Americans' tax bills, CBS looked at three Ohio families with incomes of $32,000, $64,000 and $213,000 a year. Now, choosing those families is already a little skewed--the poorest family makes more than 37 percent of U.S. households, the middle family is better off than 65 percent, while the wealthiest family makes more than 97 percent of Americans; if you wanted families that were spread evenly throughout the income distribution, you'd pick ones that made about $22,000, $44,000 and $77,000 (U.S. Census, 3/20/07; Wikipedia, “Household Income in the U.S.”).

But it's what CBS did with those families that really distorted political and economic reality. The network asked an accountant identified as Matt Yuskewich of Columbus --who, CBS didn't inform its viewers, is also the treasurer of the Ohio House Republican Campaign Committee--to “[run] the numbers” for these families' tax bills, and he came up with remarkably misleading and unrepresentative results. Viewers were told that the $32,000 family, the Beachams, "would see no change in their taxes under McCain, but the Obama plan would help them.... The Beachams, who paid no taxes in 2007, would now receive a check from the government for more than $2,200.”

Actually, the Beachams did pay taxes in 2007--they paid Social Security and Medicare taxes, they paid sales taxes and they most likely paid Ohio state income tax. Social Security and Medicare taxes on an income of $32,000 would by themselves amount to more than $2,400. Given that the Beachams were the only black (or, for that matter, non-white) family among CBS's three households, it's particularly unfortunate that CBS reinforced the inaccurate, racialized stereotype that poor people "paid no taxes" yet would "receive a check from the government."

Putting a particular face on policy statistics can be an important journalistic technique--but only if journalists bear in mind that an overall average is more representative of reality than an anecdotal example. In this case, the family CBS picked does a lot better under the Obama tax plan than most families in their income bracket--according to the Tax Policy Center (8/15/08), who are the standard authority that the media go to on such questions, the average tax break for households making between $19,000 and $38,000 would be $892 under Obama's tax plan, versus $118 with McCain's.

The "middle" family that CBS picked, the Fooses, aren't any more representative of their bracket. CBS's Anthony Mason reported: "McCain's dependent exemption would cut the Fooses taxes by $225. Obama's 'making work pay' credit would cut their tax bill by $500." But households in the $38,000-$66,000 income range would get on average an $1,118 tax benefit from Obama's plan, according to the Tax Policy Center, versus $325 from McCain's.

Note that these comprehensive calculations undercut the anecdotal point that CBS made based on two families, that the poor will benefit under Obama's tax plan at the expense of the middle class. Mason features with evident approval a complaint by one of the Fooses that "There seems to be breaks for those with very low incomes and lots of breaks for those with a very high income, and we are the ones that are constantly struggling," but the fact that that isn't actually true of the Obama plan overall is simply ignored by CBS.

But picking families that turn out to be unrepresentative and failing to note that fact is a minor distortion compared to what CBS did with the third family, Gilbert and Lisa Wilson. Amazingly, CBS never told its viewers what would happen to this wealthy family's taxes under either McCain's or Obama's tax plans, even though that was the whole point of the segment. Instead, Mason gave us this: "If Gilbert's business improves, his income could easily push them into the 33 percent bracket, which, under Obama's plan, would jump to 36 percent." Even though the Wilsons are richer than 97 percent of families, CBS still had to give them extra imaginary money before it could point to a negative impact from Obama's tax plan.

And CBS misleadingly exaggerated the scale of that impact, quoting one of the Wilsons: "That would be painful. Another 8 percent of the income?" To which Mason agreed: "And thousands of dollars more in taxes." But the Wilsons wouldn't pay 8 percent more on all their income--only on the amount of their income that reached into the 36 percent tax bracket. In order for the higher tax rate to cost them "thousands" more in taxes--$2,000, that is--they would have to make at least $25,000 more a year. And that's mostly from the jump in the tax rate that's already on the books--to pay $2,000 more in taxes from Obama's proposed changes to the tax code, the Wilsons would have to earn more than $66,000 a year on top of their current $200,000+ income. One would think most families would welcome such a "painful" situation.

For the record, a typical household in the Wilsons' income situation, making between $161,000 and $227,000, would reduce their tax bill by $2,796 under Obama's plan, according to the Tax Policy Center. Under McCain, such families do even better, getting back an average of $4,437.

When the CBS Evening News revisited the issue of the candidates’ tax plans on September 15, the network once again did more to obscure the candidates’ plans than to clarify them. Anchor Katie Couric introduced the “Reality Check” segment: “Many voters want to know what the plans are when it comes to their taxes. Each candidate says his opponent will raise them.” Correspondent Wyatt Andrews went on to call this "one of the most explosive political charges of the election"--but he did little to defuse it.

Andrews first addressed the claim from Barack Obama that John McCain's healthcare plan would "eventually leave tens of millions of you paying higher taxes." Obama’s claim refers to the healthcare tax credits that McCain's plan offers to individuals in exchange for taxing employer-provided health benefits. Those credits would not increase as fast as healthcare costs, so in the medium term this would end up costing taxpayers serious money (Center for American Progress, 7/2/08). CBS dodged this issue, citing the Tax Policy Center as finding that "McCain's idea starts out helping the middle class." What it ends up doing--the “eventually” in Obama’s claim--Andrews didn't say.

And what about McCain saying Obama would raise taxes, a claim Couric repeated in her intro? Amazingly, CBS ignored the question entirely--even though the same Tax Policy Center says that it's false; Obama's plan would cut taxes for the vast majority of Americans. Instead, the segment fact-checked a claim that Sarah Palin made about how much energy Alaska produces--which she got wrong, but it's a trivial point compared to the McCain/Palin campaign's false claims about taxes. As Palin didn't say about the Bridge to Nowhere--thanks but no thanks, CBS.

ACTION: Ask CBS to re-examine the tax plans proposed by Obama and McCain in a way that accurately represents their impact on the majority of Americans.

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