During my nearly three decades in network news, all at CBS, I came to realize that when it came to economic issues most reporters were hopelessly out of their depth. Or to put it another way, they were dumb as dirt. Most wouldn’t know a capital gain from a mutual fund. But that never stopped them from pretending they knew what they were talking about.
I bring this up now because all three broadcast networks reported the big news that billionaire Warren Buffett had an op-ed in the New York Times in which he lamented the fact that he isn’t being asked to pay enough in taxes. Buffett has said this many times before in all sorts of forums, but once something appears in the New York Times, it becomes official as far as so-called mainstream journalists are concerned, so they dutifully pay attention. And they paid special attention to this catchy part of Buffett’s column: “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress,” he wrote. “It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”
I agree. It is time that the government started to get serious about shared sacrifice. In fact, it’s way past time. And guess who isn’t sharing in the sacrifice. Try, the bottom half of workers in America, who pay no federal income tax at all.
But that didn’t stop Diane Sawyer from actually telling her viewers that, “working men and women” – a reference to anybody who isn’t rolling in dough – “pay the most taxes,” even though that isn’t even close to the truth.
And neither Ms. Sawyer nor anyone else bothered telling us that while Buffett makes an interesting point about how he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretaries – a story I readily acknowledge is worth covering – the rich not only pay their fair share, they pay more than their fair share. None of the networks reported the other side of the story, which was outlined in a piece by David Logan of the Tax Foundation entitled “Warren Buffett’s Call for Higher Taxes on the Rich Doesn’t Fit the Facts.”
Here’s part of what Logan wrote:
“The United States currently boasts the most progressive income tax in the industrialized world. Meaning, our wealthy pay a greater share of the tax burden than do the wealthy in any other capitalist nation….
“In his op-ed, Mr. Buffett suggests that increasing taxes on the rich ensures that they pay their fair share. Perhaps, but while the top 1 percent of taxpayers earn 20 percent of the nation’s income, they currently pay nearly 40 percent of the income taxes. That’s a greater share of the burden than the bottom 90 percent combined (that’s everyone earning under $100,000 by the way).
“Let’s not forget that when the top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent in 1980, the rich paid 20 percent of all income taxes. Yet now, when the top marginal rate is 35 percent they pay twice that.
“Finally, while the tax burden on the rich has been growing, the burden on low and middle-income Americans has been shrinking. By most accounts, roughly 50 percent of American households pay no income tax at all. Indeed, the IRS will give out roughly $110 billion in ‘refundable’ tax credits this year to households that pay no income taxes.
“Contrary to Mr. Buffett’s and President Obama’s perceptions, America’s wealthiest taxpayers are paying a disproportionate share of the income tax burden. Before we ask the rich to pay more, perhaps we should ask those who are paying nothing to contribute at least something to the basic cost of government.”
Now there’s a story real journalists ought to sink their teeth into. Nearly half of Americans – not all of them poor, by any calculation – have no skin in the game. They get to use interstate highways and are protected by the military and can go to the Smithsonian if they want – just like the super rich. But they don’t pay for any of it. That’s not news?
Oh, but that would make those network anchors who make millions of dollars a year look mean and insensitive. And who wants that? Not them, that’s for sure. Portraying the poor and middle class as downright noble is good PR. And as any good public relations person knows … leave out anything that doesn’t fit the storyline. And the storyline here is pretty clear: the rich are getting away with murder at the expense of the middle class and the poor.
So journalists gleefully took down what Warren Buffett had to say even though he left out all that inconvenient stuff about the real American freeloaders. That’s not journalism. It’s a lot closer to public relations – closer still to stenography.