Facts Exempt: Network News and Taxes

Executive Summary

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, reported in the April 9 Wall Street Journal, asked Americans which they would prefer: a candidate who advocates cutting taxes, or a candidate who favors more spending on education and child care. Only 39 percent preferred a tax-cutting candidate, while 55 percent wanted a candidate who would spend more money.

One possible explanation for the relatively low popularity of tax cuts is that they get bad press. Network news reports generally portray tax cut proposals as election-year sops to the wealthy at the expense of the poor. And viewers of the network news probably think there is no philosophical or economic rationale behind tax cuts, since they are rarely told of one.

This is the conclusion of a year-long study of tax coverage by the Media Research Center’s Free Market Project. Researchers analyzed tax stories from March 15, 1997 through March 14, 1998 on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News. The study found that:


  1. There were 13 stories mentioning the liberal argument that last year’s cut in the capital gains tax would mainly benefit the wealthy. Only four stories mentioned conservative arguments that more middle class investors are entering the stock market every year, and that relieving double taxation would help the economy.

  2. There were 18 stories which mentioned the debate over whether to extend the child tax credit in last year’s budget deal to the non-taxpaying working poor. Only six of those stories mentioned conservative arguments that such an extension would constitute new welfare spending.

  3. In the 58 stories about last year's budget deal, only two pointed out that the deal increased the complexity of the tax code, which ran counter to 1996 campaign promises and to the GOP’s supposed agenda of tax simplification. 

  4. In the 38 stories about Internal Revenue Service (IRS) abuses, only two mentioned the conservative argument that the only real way to rein in IRS power is to make the tax code less complicated and more neutral.

  5. Fourteen stories claimed that either the GOP's focus on IRS abuses or the plans in last year’s budget deal to cut taxes were motivated by election-year political calculations. Only one of these stories said the same thing about proposals for new spending.