Barack Obama's July 9 announcement that he would extend the Bush tax cuts for income below $250,000 prompted the expected response from Republican politicians and presidential candidate Mitt Romney: This is a tax increase on "small businesses."
That is false. But most news reports won't say so.
The New York Times (7/10/12) told readers that Obama
In the Washington Post (7/10/12), readers learned that Republicans "charged that the president's plan would raise taxes on small-business owners." That point was illustrated by quotes from House Speaker John Boehner and and a representative for the Romney campaign, which were balanced with the statement that "Obama said his plan would cover 98 percent of the working public and 97 percent of small-business owners."
The headline of a USA Today story (7/10/12) captured the same spirit: "Obama Seeks to Extend Tax Cuts for Middle Class; GOP Critics Say Plan Will Hurt Small Business."
On ABC's Good Morning America, Jonathan Karl (7/10/12) reported, "Romney says raising taxes on those with higher incomes means raising taxes on small businesses."
Newspaper stories the following day followed a similar pattern: Republicans say this is a tax on small businesses, while Obama says it is not. In the Washington Post (7/11/12), Romney "said the president's plan would keep taxes at the same level for many Americans while raising taxes on what he called 'job creators and small businesses.'"
The Los Angeles Times (7/11/12) added another layer of inaccuracy by reporting that Obama's plan "would extend George W. Bush-era tax cuts for those making up to $250,000 a year but not for upper-income Americans." That is incorrect; wealthy Americans will also receive a tax cut on the income they earn up to the $250,000 level (Citizens for Tax Justice, 6/20/12; NYMag.com, 7/9/12).
This Republican small business argument is a familiar one; in 2010 Republicans sought to portray any increase in taxes on income above $250,000 as a tax on small-business owners (FAIR Action Alert, 9/13/10).
Then, as now, the argument is almost entirely bogus. The share of filers who could qualify as small business owners is tiny--about 2 percent of small business owners, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The increase would affect, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, about 3 percent of filers who claim any business income (Think Progress, 7/9/12).
So why don't reporters just say that? Some who try to put the numbers in context seem afraid to call out one side for being deceptive. On CBS Evening News (7/9/12), Norah O'Donnell reported the story this way:
Turning the tiny percentage into a number that sounds impressive seems a pretty clear attempt to make viewers think the Romney campaign had a point.
One part of the newspaper did explain the dispute clearly: The New York Times editorial page (7/10/12), which called the Republican argument about small business "nonsense."
But the corporate media's bias toward giving credence to official claims from both political parties means you have to treat that question of fact as a matter of opinion--which, of course, is a problem, if you think that separating fact from misinformation is a key part of a journalist's job.
And the failure to challenge Republican distortions gives them no reason to stop making them. As the Los Angeles Times reported (7/10/12), "Polls also show that Republicans do better when they frame upper-income tax increases as a threat to small businesses, a group that voters tend to like."
That is especially true when media don't tell the public that the claim is almost entirely bogus.