Balance Too Taxing for Mainstream Media

     This presidential campaign season, the candidates threw around proposed tax plans with huge numbers attached.  Here’s another big number: four. A reporter at a broadcast network or a major American newspaper is four times more likely to turn to a liberal source for tax analysis than a conservative source – though you might not know it from reading or watching their stories.

     Journalists on the broadcast networks on at the top newspapers relied heavily on liberal sources for tax information, but often failed to publicize the sources’ leanings.

     A Lexis-Nexis search for the month between Oct. 2 and Nov. 2 for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today, as well as ABC, CBS and NBC, showed that 37 stories cited the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, two well-known left-of-center think tanks. Twenty-eight of those stories offered no conservative perspective at all.

     Of the four newspapers, The New York Times was the most egregious offender. It cited the Tax Policy Center 17 times in one month, and the conservative Tax Foundation only twice – a more than 8-to-1 ratio. In USA Today, the ratio was 3-to-1; it was 4-to-1 in The Los Angeles Times. The Tax Policy Center appeared in five Post articles, but its views went unanswered by any comparable conservative outfit.

    “Independent analyses of the presidential candidates' tax proposals show that those who make less than $250,000 a year would not see their taxes raised under Senator Barack Obama's plans,” reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote in an Oct. 31 report in The New York Times. “Further, Mr. Obama would generally cut taxes more than Senator John McCain would for households with incomes less than $100,000 a year.”  

     But Greenhouse’s sources for the story were the accounting firm Deloitte and “the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.”

     Also in The New York Times, Larry Rohter wrote Oct. 16, “according to a calculation by the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, fewer than 700,000 taxpayers would have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan.”

     A couple of weeks later another Times article said “Mr. McCain's proposed tax cuts would mean about $1.5 trillion in lower revenue over his term, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.”

     Without a variety of viewpoints, however, the audience had no way of knowing what was correct and what wasn’t.

     Bias was also apparent in how organizations were identified in articles. The papers and broadcasts also failed to identify the Tax Policy Center as a left-leaning source.

      In a November 2 Los Angeles Times article, staff writer Ralph Vartabedian quoted Alex Brill “at the conservative American Enterprise Institute,” and “Jared Bernstein, director of a research program at the liberal Economic Policy Institute,” before citing analysis from “the independent Tax Policy Center.”

     Still, 13 of the 37 references to the Tax Policy Center labeled it “nonpartisan,” while only 11 noted the link to Brookings and the Urban Institute. Just one story described it as “liberal.” But a look at its parents’ Web sites clearly showed their liberal perspectives.

     An Oct. 30 Brookings article made it clear the institution favors higher taxes and criticized McCain’s tax plan as “substantially less progressive,” saying, “Obama’s claim that McCain’s plan gives big tax cuts to the wealthy is spot on.”

     The Urban Institute has proposed a “New Safety Net,” that includes refundable housing tax credits for those who already pay no income taxes, universal healthcare coverage and government aid for everything from childcare to state workforce development.