National press deceives readers of "fiscal cliff" coverage

As its readers on the east coast awoke on New Year’s Day, The New York Times greeted them with news of overnight action by the U.S. Senate to avert the so-called fiscal cliff: “Senate Passes Legislation to Allow Taxes on Affluent to Rise.”

Under Jonathan Weisman’s byline, the Times explained in its lead paragraph that the legislation “would allow tax rates to rise only on affluent Americans.” This was a blatant lie.

Those who stuck around for Weisman’s twelfth paragraph learned the truth. Contradicting both its headline and lead paragraph, the Times admitted “the two-percentage point cut to the payroll tax that the president secured in late 2010 lapsed at midnight and will not be renewed.” Weisman neglected to explain that the increase in the payroll tax would apply to substantially all working Americans, not just the affluent.

The Times had company in spinning the Senate action as a tax increase only on the wealthy. The Associated Press account of the legislation claimed in its lead paragraph that the Senate action “negated a fiscal cliff of across-the-board tax increases.” Later, the Associated Press story lied that “taxes would remain steady for the middle class but rise at incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples.” Nowhere did Associated Press disclose the immediate increase in payroll taxes that would hit not just the middle class but even the poorest, working Americans.

Not to be outdone in hiding the truth from its readers, The Washington Post featured what it called “a special edition of Wonkbook for the New Year’s Eve ‘fiscal cliff’ deal,” titled “Everything you need to know about the fiscal cliff deal.” The lede proclaimed, “Tax rates will permanently rise to Clinton-era levels for families with income above $450,000 and individuals above $400,000. All income below the threshold will permanently be taxed at Bush-era rates.”

Apparently the Post‘s resident wonks Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas have a strange definition of “income.” Most Americans consider what they receive in their regular paychecks to be income, checks which will most assuredly be smaller if the Senate’s legislation becomes law. But Klein and Soltas were careful to cover themselves, however vaguely, in their eighth paragraph, noting that “the payroll tax holiday will be allowed to expire.” Never mind that it had already expired at midnight. The Senate deliberately failed to extend it, though did find time in its last-minute rush to extend dozens of tax breaks for special interests.

The downplaying or outright omission of coverage of the Senate’s determination to increase payroll taxes was typical of press reporting I saw today. In truth, should the bill become law, that increase will hit millions of Americans before the first month of the new year is done, leaving them less money for groceries, gas, their savings, and everything else.

Why was the coverage slanted to create the impression that the Senate action would hurt only the wealthiest Americans? I suppose one explanation is simple, journalistic malpractice. But I suspect that the real reason is more malicious.

Had headlines blared this morning, truthfully and most pertinently to the greatest number of readers, “Payroll taxes to rise under Senate’s fiscal-cliff vote,” or words to that effect, phone lines of House members would have been burning with complaints by midday, while their email boxes filled with demands for relief. By slanting the coverage as they did, leading newspapers suppressed opposition to the Senate bill, giving House leaders time to call a vote on the measure before the people realized what it would really mean for their paychecks.

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