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CAN ANYONE PLAY THIS GAME! Jim Lehrer pretended to host a discussion. This showed you the street where you live: // link // print // previous // next //

Nicholas Kristof, in from the cold, sets the bar quite low: Every so often, Nicholas Kristof returns to this country from the third world. Typically, he then offers half-baked pensées about what’s wrong “over here.”

Many liberals will be inclined to cheer his column in today’s New York Times. We think they’ll be wrong in that reaction. But first, let’s savor a clue about press corps culture—a clue which appears in the fifth paragraph of Kristof’s piece.

As he starts, Kristof says that he’s going to show us the worst tax loophole of them all. But wait! First, he feels he has to tell us not to go away bored:

KRISTOF (7/7/11): The House speaker, John Boehner, suggests that the Republican threat of letting the United States default on its debts is driven by concern for jobs for ordinary Americans.

We cannot miss this opportunity,” he told Fox News. “If we want jobs to come to America, we’ve got to give American businesspeople the confidence to invest in our economy.”

So take a look at one of the tax loopholes that Congressional Republicans are refusing to close—even if the cost is that America’s credit rating blows up. This loophole has nothing to do with creating jobs and everything to do with protecting some of America’s wealthiest financiers.

If there were an award for Most Unconscionable Tax Loophole, this one would win grand prize.

Wait, wake up! I know that “tax policy” makes one’s eyes glaze over, but that’s how financiers have gotten away with paying a lower tax rate than their chauffeurs or personal trainers. Tycoons have bet for years that the public is too stupid or distracted to note that in many cases they’re paying just a 15 percent tax rate.

Fascinating! In paragraph 5, before proceeding, Kristof feels he has to shake us awake. Something tells him that our eyes are already glazing.

Who knows? Kristof may be right! But here you see a striking clue about the way the mainstream press corps makes its news judgments. Kristof goes on to say that “financiers and tycoons” build their strategies goes around the idea that the public is just too “stupid” to focus on serious topics. But in paragraph 5 of this morning’s column, he seems to build his own strategy around that same idea.

Plainly, Kristof thinks his New York Times readers will find his topic boring. He may be right, or he may be wrong, in that Collinsesque judgment (see below). But we’ll guess a large clue is lodged in that passage—a clue about the way a news org like the Times selects its topics and points of focus.

Are New York Times readers really so “stupid” that they would be bored by those first four grafs? We don’t know, but let’s move on to Kristof’s actual column:

Many liberals will think that Kristof is smacking the GOP good in this piece. That may well be his intention—but in our view, the overall thrust of his half-baked column is really quite different. Wow! As he continues, Kristof names the worst tax loophole of them all—and he sets a very low bar for the GOP to step over:

KRISTOF (continuing directly): What’s at stake is the “carried interest” loophole, and President Obama is pushing to close it. The White House estimates that this would raise $20 billion over a decade. But Congressional Republicans walked out of budget talks rather than discuss raising revenues from measures such as this one.

The worst tax loophole of them all? It’s only worth “$20 billion over a decade!” In the end, the GOP could agree to close a dozen such loopholes. Their action would have a tiny effect on the overall budget problem. Beyond that, their action would have little real effect on the overall incomes of the truly wealthy—and the loopholes they agreed to close could easily be replaced or reinstated in the near future.

(Loopholes are easy; tax rates are hard. A loophole can be taken away quite dramatically, then reinstated quite quietly.)

Closing loopholes of this size doesn’t really address the overall budget situation. But Kristof’s column sets up an easy endgame for the GOP—establishes a very low bar by which they’ll be judged in the end. By this column’s dramatic but trivial standard, the GOP can emerge as heroes without doing any real damage to the real interests of its very wealthy base.

Our budget situation doesn’t turn on a few loopholes, however egregious they may be. But so what? Kristof glosses the larger budget picture, restricting his focus to a few minor outrages. By his standard, the GOP could make a minor concession on revenues and emerge as budget heroes—as masters of mature deal-making. By then, Kristof will be back in the cold again, reporting on outrages in the third world, building the reputation of the Times op-ed page for its lofty values.

Over on today’s letter page, a reader with a wonderful name is pretty much buying the con. Commenting on Tuesday’s column by David Brooks, he says this about the debt limit debate: “I hope that the president holds his ground.” But by all accounts, the president isn’t even asking for major concessions on revenues. If the GOP even meets him halfway, little will have been lost by their wealthy base—and little will have been gained in the effort to reduce future deficits.

Dramatically, Kristof focuses on the most egregious loophole—a loophole that doesn’t amount to squat. He fails to show us the larger picture—to show us what really may be required.

We think Kristof sets a low bar. But then, he’s been out of the country.

About Lady Collins—and Seamus: For decades, the Lady Collins has voiced the view that reporting and opinion must be entertaining or the rubes will wander off bored. (These judgments precede her stay at the Times.)

Who knows? The high lady may even be right! But we pay a very large price for her view. It’s measured in her endless citations of Mitt Romney’s poor abused dog.

Special report: Sargent’s portrait!

PART 3—CAN ANYONE PLAY THIS GAME (permalink): Candidates discuss their children too much! And the Twilight Zone is still highly relevant!

A press corps which finds itself drawn to such topics is unlikely to show much technical competence on the occasions when it feels forced to discuss serious issues.

How incompetent is our current press corps? Let’s consider two fleeting examples. Then, let’s review a discussion from the NewsHour, a program which is supposed to be our smartest TV news show.

Let’s start with Daniel Stone, described here by the Daily Beast as “Newsweek’s White House correspondent.”

Who is Daniel Stone? For one thing, he’s a recent college graduate. In 2005 and 2006, he was editor of the Cal Davis student newspaper—for a while. He seems to have come to Newsweek after working for the TV program, America’s Most Wanted. Not that there’s anything wrong with it!

In this July 4 piece for the Beast, Stone lists what his headline calls the “Biggest 2012 Campaign Whoppers.” Needless to say, there are ten.

Yes, we know, it’s only the Beast—and Newsweek ain’t what it used to be. But Stone’s report is utterly hapless, a virtual parody of reporting. Here are two of his alleged biggest whoopers. Each is attributed to President Obama, although Stone makes some hazy claims about GOP whoppers too:

Pick a Health Care Number, Any Number. While trumpeting his budget ideas, President Obama claimed that under the Republican plan—Paul Ryan’s "Path to Prosperity"—"up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit.” But that number came from vague speculation, much of it partisan.

Lowest Taxes Ever: To combat Republican attacks that taxes are too high, President Obama, on at least two different occasions including his press conference this week, has pointed out that the tax burden on the wealthy is at the lowest point it’s been in 50 years, “since before I was born.” Except that it was lower in 1986, when Obama was 25.

Was the tax burden on the wealthy lower in 1986? Stone simply makes the assertion, then leaves the matter right there. The reader is given no idea of the basis on which he has made his claim about this top-ten whopper. But then, how about the “vague speculation, much of it partisan,” which allegedly lies behind Obama’s claim concerning health insurance? Obama’s statement may have been wrong. But Stone doesn’t try to explain his claim about that “whopper” either.

As an attempt at journalism, Stone’s piece is an utter embarrassment. But then, how about this news report, which appeared on the Washington Post’s web site yesterday afternoon? Maybe Newsweek has ceased to be Newsweek—but is the Post still the Washington Post?

In this case, we were struck by the famous newspaper’s characteristic semantic fumbling. This is the way the report was teased on the Post web site’s front page:

GOP open to closing tax loopholes in debt talks
In a marked shift, Republicans are willing to close some tax loopholes as part of a final deal to lower the nation’s legal borrowing limit, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says, but tax increases are still off limits.

In this hazy presentation, we seem to be told that “closing a tax loophole” does not represent a “tax increase,” although “tax loopholes” (tax deductions) have traditionally been included in reports about tax cuts. (For example, President Bush’s 2001 tax cut plan included some changes in tax rates and a whole bunch of tax deductions. No one ever said that the latter weren’t part of the overall tax cuts.) We are also told that Cantor has said that “tax increases” are still off limits. Does that mean that Cantor has rejected increases in tax rates? Or does it mean that he rejected an increase in overall revenues? Such questions were muddled in the tease—and they weren’t much clearer in the news report itself:

SONMEZ (7/6/11): In a marked shift, Republicans are willing to close some tax loopholes as part of a final deal to lower the nation’s legal borrowing limit, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on Wednesday.

But Cantor said that raising taxes as part of the final debt-reduction package was still off limits.

“If the president wants to talk loopholes, we’ll be glad to talk loopholes,” Cantor said at his weekly roundtable with reporters. “We’ve said all along that preferences in the code aren’t something that helps economic growth overall. But listen, we’re not for any proposal that increases taxes, and any type of discussion should be coupled with offsetting tax cuts somewhere else.”

Republicans had previously rebuffed Democrats’ calls for any comprehensive deficit-reduction package to close tax loopholes such as those for corporate jet owners and oil and gas companies. Such measures, GOP leaders have said, should be considered only as part of a comprehensive tax-reform effort.

If you read that passage with care, it seems that Cantor said that there can be no increase in overall revenues. But the Post reporters did a very poor job clarifying this basic point.

Do such distinctions actually matter? Yes, they matter a very great deal, for various reasons. In a rational world, citizens would want to be very clear about such basic proposals. In a rational world, it would be very surprising to see reporters at our leading newspapers struggling with such elementary distinctions. But things have worked this way at the top of our press corps for a very long time.

By the way, did you know that Rod Serling is still highly relevant? On a related point, why does Bristol Palin’s jaw now look somewhat different?

Our third example comes from the NewsHour, our smartest TV news show. The discussion in question was broadcast last Friday, with Jim Lehrer himself in charge. We’ll offer you a chunk of the chat, though it’s Michael Gerson’s muddled comments on which we will mainly focus. (To watch the full segment, click here.)

As they start, the storied Lehrer and his guest, Mark Shields, are talking about the Republican position on taxes—“or on revenue,” Lehrer said, a distinction he didn’t explain. Things rolled on from there, with Shields and Gerson disagreeing—or something—about where we should go from here. We will focus on Gerson’s statement near the end of this chunk:

SHIELDS (7/1/11): I think the Republicans are irrational. I really do. And I think it’s a politically indefensible and civically indefensible position they have taken.

LEHRER: On taxes.

SHIELDS: On taxes.

LEHRER: Or on revenue. OK.

SHIELDS: On revenue.

The reality is this, that every single group, whether it’s Simpson-Bowles, whether it’s Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici, whoever it is—semi-serious, we probably should have said: Yes, there have to be budget cuts to deal with the deficit problem and the debt. But there have to be revenue increases.

It’s become a dogma with Republicans now that anybody who votes for a tax increase is no longer a member of the club or the party, and is driven out of the tent. Ronald Reagan raised taxes six times. The amount of money we’re talking about raising taxes, which would be $400 billion over 10 years, is less than 1 percent of the money to be collected in the next 10 years, less than 1 percent!

And if you look at it—and Senator Inouye presented this yesterday, and I thought it was a brilliant document. If you look at it in terms, Jim, from 2001, the last time that the budget was balanced, the fiscal year, $128 billion surplus, and we look at what we’re spending on discretionary spending—that’s one that isn’t mandated—it is exactly the same, in inflationary dollars and in population growth, as it was then.

Defense spending and wars have gone up 80 percent. Tax revenues are down 18 percent. We are actually collecting $500 billion less in 2011 than we collected in 2001.

GERSON: I think, I think Democrats are being equally unreasonable on the issue of entitlements.

This is our long-term spending challenge. It’s not that we tax too little. It’s that we have expensive entitlement commitments, an aging population, and health care inflation that have made that portion of the budget completely unsustainable.

Democrats will not deal with that in this context. And I think that that’s a failure as well in this system. People are going to have to give in this process. And, you know, right now, everyone knows that this debt limit has to increase, OK. Everyone knows it. But no one knows what the path is, given these deeply seeded disagreements.

And Republicans make the point that we have a historically high level of the economy in spending right now, OK? Which has gone up considerably. The normal level of taxes is more like 20 percent of the economy, I mean, which is well below what— You know, the Republicans just want to bring spending down to historical level of taxes as a percentage of our economy. That’s their argument here, not to bring rates up to cover a larger portion of our economy.

LEHRER: But— OK. We’ve got the differences here.

“We’ve got the differences here,” Lehrer said. But did we have any facts? Shields had made a factual claim. “Tax revenues are down 18 percent,” he said. “We are actually collecting $500 billion less in 2011 than we collected in 2001.” This implied that our budget shortfalls might be connected to lower tax rates. But Gerson answered with a statement most notable for its fuzziness. Let’s look at that statement again:

GERSON: Republicans make the point that we have a historically high level of the economy in spending right now, OK? Which has gone up considerably. The normal level of taxes is more like 20 percent of the economy, I mean, which is well below what— You know, the Republicans just want to bring spending down to historical level of taxes as a percentage of our economy. That’s their argument here, not to bring rates up to cover a larger portion of our economy.

“The Republicans just want to bring spending down to historical level of taxes as a percentage of our economy?” Gerson’s statement was clear as mud. Lehrer’s reaction? Move on!

We’re not trying to tell you who was right on the facts. It’s notable that Shields was relying on a statistical claim that had only emerged last Thursday, after many months of pseudo-discussion concerning these seminal topics.

Here’s what we are trying to tell you:

In a rational world, a nation’s smartest TV news show would have hashed out these factual points long ago. Its famous host might even have some familiar charts and graphs around which to frame such discussions. The program’s viewers might be accustomed to seeing such charts—charts which laid out some basic facts about changes in spending and revenue.

Nothing like that ever occurs in the world where we actually live. Who can forget Ted Koppel’s brilliance near the end of Campaign 2000? Koppel appeared on Larry King Live one night after the first, extremely important Bush-Gore debate.

King played tape of a crucial exchange about Bush’s tax cut proposal. Koppel, in an iconic moment, showed you the street where you live:

KING (10/4/00): OK. Were you impressed with this “fuzzy math,” “top 1 percent,” “1.3 trillion, 1.9 trillion” bit?

KOPPEL: You know, honestly, it turns my brains to mush. I can't pretend for a minute that I'm really able to follow the argument of the debates. Parts of it, yes. Parts of it, I haven't a clue what they're talking about.

At the time, Koppel hosted our smartest news show. But when a press corps’ culture is heavily focused on every manner of trivial nonsense, its leading figures will respond in such ways when asked about topics that matter.

More than ten years have passed since that night. Question: Would Lehrer’s brain have turned to mush had he been forced to explain the subsequent changes in spending and revenue—changes which directly relate to that “1.9 trillion bit?”

Koppel showed you the street where you live. You’ve lived on that street for a very long time. Question:

Why have the liberal world’s top career players routinely refused to complain? Why does the career liberal world accept this silly incompetence?

Tomorrow: Sargent’s portrait